How To Learn a Language in 6 Easy Lessons

Tomorrow should be an interesting day.  I’m thinking about the students that I have been working with for the past two months.  From the middle of August until the middle of October, I taught seven students a course called “Introduction to Linguistics”. These students are some of the new recruits we have in our mission, Pioneer Bible Translators.  They are preparing themselves to serve in support roles in different field branches or projects that PBT has around the world.

The introductory linguistic course covered quite a wide array of topics such as: grammar, phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. All of these topics are so important to the ministry of Bible translation that each one of them is a full course by itself when a person pursues advanced linguistics. But in this introduction class, we would just scratch the surface of each topic, just enough to expose these students to the main concepts. (I did feel bad at times for the students as they would just start to understand the topic, and then I would teach the next topic, and throw their minds back into the fog.

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What is significant here is that for most of these students, they would be involved in some support role on the mission field, not a primary linguistic role like in Bible Translation, Literacy Work or in Scripture Impact. This is not to say that what they will do is unimportant or second-class.  On the contrary, some of them will do Church Planting, Branch Administration, Missionary Care, etc. Some women may focus their energies on raising the family, doing home schooling and supporting their husbands who are the linguists.

The truth of the matter is that every missionary is just as important as any other missionary, because every person is a member of the team and vital to doing their part to see that the Scriptures are being translated, churches are planted and lives are being transformed.  Therefore, as a veteran missionary and a staff member of our international office in Dallas, it is my desire and my goal to help equip all of our new missionaries the best that I can so that they will succeed well when they eventually go to live in their field of assignment overseas.

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The first course is finished now and I am proud of all the students who worked hard and did well learning the principles of linguistics.  What they need to do now is to apply these principles to real language learning experiences, which will be the focus of the next course.  What is real fascinating, and encouraging to the students, is that by learning these basic principles, they should be ready to learn any language spoken in the world.  In fact, I did a demonstration for them on the last day to show them how true this is.

The demonstration I did is called a “Monolingual Approach” to language learning. Imagine for a moment that I found myself in a linguistic/cultural setting where I could not speak any of the peoples’ language, and they could not speak any of my language. Also, let us assume that the language of this other person is not written down, and so there are no grammar books or any other instructional books available to help me learn this language. How would I even begin to communicate with this person?

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This was the scenario I painted for the students at the beginning of my demonstration. I told them that I would only speak the village language that I learned while we lived in Papua New Guinea, and the person helping me with the demonstration would only speak Russian. Through the use of gestures, repetition, and physical objects, I would prompt my helper to speak and then I would write down whatever I heard her say on my flip chart.  In a matter of 45 minutes, I had many sheets of paper filled with all of the expressions that I had elicited from her.

The next task was to analyze what I had written down, and by comparing the various phrases and sentences that I had gathered, I was able to “understand” some basic concepts about Russian.  I had discovered that Russian is like English in their general word order. Namely, the subject of a sentence goes first, the verb comes in the middle, and objects of the verb go last.  I had found a number of different pronouns, a handful of concrete nouns, and a few verbs.  I also had elicited a large number of different sounds from all the words and could then begin making the initial orthography, or alphabet of the language.

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The students were fascinated and impressed by this demonstration.  But more importantly, they all saw how it really was possible to take the principles of linguistics which I had taught them to be able to learn a foreign language.  Thankfully, there are very few places in the world today where this kind of scenario will happen.  There will almost always be some speakers of the target language who will be bilingual in the official world language that the country uses, like English, French, Arabic, etc. Or at least they will know the regional trade language of the area.

Before closing off this article, I must answer the question that I’m sure someone must be thinking.  Why would we go to all this trouble of learning these minority languages of the world?  Actually, the purpose is clear: we want to be able to translate God’s Word into their language.  So the answer is also simple: all people understand and communicate best in their mother tongue, the language they first leaned while growing up. And so Bible translators, and good support staff, must be linguists first if they want to be successful missionaries.

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