My family and I arrived in Argentina about nine months ago, and we have been studying in language school for about eight months so far. Since arriving in Argentina, we have had time to evaluate what it has been like to learn a new language. Here are some of our observations after nine months.
Learning a new language is hard work: Before we came, some people told us that learning Spanish will be “easy,” because we are immersed in the language here. There is no question that we are learning faster because of our immersion. However, we don’t just hear words a couple times and remember everything. If our only goal was to be able to communicate like a tourist, we have accomplished that. But we want to communicate at a high level for life and ministry – where we can speak more like locals than outsiders.
There are times when we are in language class, and we say something that is technically correct, but sounds very “gringo.” Our teacher will yell, ”GRINGO, GRINGO, GRINGO.” (Gringo is term used for people that are not from Latin America.) It is not just new vocabulary that we are mastering, but also new phrases, idioms, and slang. So then, it takes a lot of work to not sound “gringo.”
We spend 3 hours a day or so in class and much more time outside class practicing, drilling, and doing homework. Though we knew what we were getting ourselves into, we are experiencing the reality that language learning is a very time-consuming endeavor. I never imagined that I would be learning to speak again at age 35!
We feel like children at times: Recently I was talking to my brother-in-law, and he was explaining to me how his young daughter is at the point where she is able to read and recognize street signs. I responded to him in laughter saying,”That is the way that I feel learning Spanish.”
We feel somewhat like we are “babies,” trying to figure out exactly what to say. Frequently, people understand what we say, but it comes along with a lot of correction. Often others will say, “You actually say it this way,” or “You need to use this word, not this word.” It’s always a little humbling when I overhear my boys being taught the same thing by their Spanish tutor that I am being taught in language school.
It is incredibly rewarding and worth it. There is no question that learning a new language is hard, but it is so very rewarding. When we have Argentines over for dinner that know very little English and yet we can communicate with them for hours in Spanish, we feel accomplished. When we can start to understand more and more of sermons on Sunday mornings, that is rewarding. When I (Eric) sat down and wrote my first sermon in Spanish, that was hopeful. When we can read entire articles in Spanish and know almost every word, that is encouraging. When I see my kids come home from school learning a completely new language, I am excited. Learning Spanish has been hard and frustrating at times, but also a new and exciting journey for our family.
We feel like we are entering into a different world. Learning a new language has allowed us to enter into an entirely new dimension of life that we have never been a part of before. It’s fun to overhear people speaking in Spanish and know what they are saying. It is interesting to have people respond and understand what we are saying in another language.
Apart from talking to our friends from the States and in our home, we never hear English. It’s a whole new world, and we are thankful that we have been able to enter into that world. Recently, a friend of ours sent us these quotations that help describe what we feel as we learn the language. These are very true in our lives:
- Learning a new language is learning about another culture.
- Learning a foreign language provides a lifetime of cultural enrichment.
Our ministry opportunities have increased. Learning Spanish has allowed us to enter into a new world of ministry also. Being able to speak two languages is increasing our opportunity for more ministry around the world. The very reason why we came to South America is because the Spanish-speaking world is in need of more solid Biblical and theological resources, teachers, counselors, and preachers. I have seen first hand this great need. I am excited to be a part of an organization such Reaching & Teaching that seeks to train others to lead and serve in their churches more effectively and preach and teach from the Word.
And so this language learning experience continues. We look forward to learning and adapting to this new language and culture as the years continue to pass and pray for effectiveness in ministry through these efforts.