Q: What do you do when you want to learn a language that is not taught in a classroom or in a textbook?
A: Find a native speaker and enter the community.
What do you think of when you hear people talking about “learning a foreign language?” Most people probably think of the language class they had in high school where they had a textbook with lots of outdated pictures and a slightly daffy teacher who would make all kinds of strange noises, expecting them to mimic her/him. And how successful were those 2-4 years of language class? Probably not very.
The typical classroom model of learning a language is artificial and only gets us so far in becoming fluent speakers. I studied French at the college-level for 3 1/2 years. But it wasn’t until I lived in France and was immersed in the language that my mental grasp of French shifted from “textbook” to intuition. After a few months of being forced to express myself in this other language, I was no longer thinking through the verb conjugations or vocabulary lists. I just felt it.
Well when you’re headed for a part of the world where there are thousands of minority languages spoken (no, not just dialects but distinct languages), you can’t wait for a textbook and a classroom to help you learn. But you also can’t expect to do anything without learning the language of the people among whom you’re living. If you can’t speak their language, all you do is leave a negative impression. After all, what kind of “good news” are we offering people if we expect them to learn our language before telling it to them? And maybe more importantly, what kind of relationships can we have with people that we can only speak with through an interpreter?
In a class called Second Language & Culture Acquisition, I’m learning how to learn a language — that is, a minority language when there’s no classroom. How do we do it? Before we can get to finding a native speaker and entering the community, we probably have to change our concept of language. Are you ready to move past your high school memories of French class? If so, read the following quote by language-learning expert Greg Thomson:
Language, in this sense, is not an academic subject. A language is something that happens between people in flesh and blood. That is where it is. That is what it is. No more. No less. Relationships are where language learning primarily happens, especially in the early stages. Language learning is a kind of social growth–growth into a new community. Individuals experience the world individually. That is called ‘perception.’ Communities experience the world together. That is called ‘language.’
For the past 7 weeks, three classmates and I have been learning to speak Laari, a language spoken in Congo. We learn Laari by meeting with Tata Anicet our language consultant. Laari is his first language; he is not a teacher but he speaks Laari fluently, which is what we need. During the hour-long sessions that we have together three times a week, our little group is a language learning community. One of the first things we asked Tata Anicet to do was assign each of us a Laari name. My name is Lusambu; it means “prayer.” Tata Anicet has never taught others to speak his language, so it is as new of an experience for him as it is for the rest of us. As the learners, we are responsible for crafting the lessons and explaining to him what we want to learn. Essentially, we are helping him help us.
Laari is not a textbook language to me. Laari is what happens between us and Tata Anicet. Learning Laari has most definitely been a kind of social growth — and it’s not always easy and comfortable. For one thing, Laari is a tonal language, which means the same sounds can have different meanings depending on the tone (high or low) at which they’re spoken. To us English-speakers who aren’t used to distinguishing sounds in this way, there are baffling nuances.
In this setting, though, learning Laari is just for practice. Chances are, none of us will work among Laari-speakers in the future, though one never knows. Because it’s really just practice, the stakes are low and our survival doesn’t depend on learning the language, which keeps the atmosphere light. For instance, Tata Anicet will sometimes laugh at our attempts to produce Laari phrases. When we asked him why, he explained that our accents made him think of the Catholic missionaries who lived in his village growing up and that spoke Laari. A bit demoralizing, but we all had a good laugh about it — nothing like learning a new language to keep you humble! It’s not too far off to compare learning a second language to a baby learning his or her first language. In our Laari sessions, we have essentially become children again.
But man, is it rewarding! Our Laari-learning and our friendship-building go hand-in-hand. Learning to speak Tata Anicet’s language has been synonymous with learning about him and his culture. Learning Laari is a small taste of experiencing the world as Tata Anicet does. And it seems to give him such joy to be able to share it with us. I think he has as much fun with it as we do.
One more quote from Thomson to show why it all matters (and to further inspire any of you aspiring minority-language-learners!):
Language learning is where time meets eternity. As we humble ourselves to learn and join with the new language community, we can become part of the flow of redemptive love from the throne of God to the nations.
Let’s shift our paradigm of language learning from ‘Learning words, rules, dialogues, etc. in order to be able to talk,’ to one of ‘Learning to commune by communing, starting near the ground, and gradually rising, communing all the way.’