Language learning: from frustration to curiosity

Rob Law

I teach English as a Foreign Language as my vocation and now I’m here in Naples with Crosslinks studying Italian full-time.

What’s the biggest challenge to language learning, speaking professionally and personally?

Frustration. 

Frustration with the language – Why can’t it be more straightforward? 

Frustration with the time-span – Why can’t I actually use these words already?

Frustration with yourself – Why can’t I use my time better? 

And, for many of us perhaps, frustration with God’s timing – Why can’t God make my language learning fall into place so I can get on with the whole reason I’m here? 

We may feel this particularly keenly if there’s a national crisis in our country, or another similar issue which makes us wonder why finding time to learn the language has to be so hard. 

But I want to try and replace frustration with something equally powerful: curiosity. Let’s replace the ‘Why can’t …?’ questions with the curiosity of ‘I wonder…?’

Curiosity about the language: I wonder if this word is regular or irregular? Common or rarely used? Northern or southern (for Italy!)? … I could go on!

Curiosity about the time-span: I wonder why this word is so hard for me to learn – is it unfamiliar pronunciation or similar to another word? 

I wonder how I could make it more memorable? (I could never remember ‘scarpe’  - the Italian for shoes – until I thought about how you scarper in your ‘scarpe’!)

Curiosity about yourself: I wonder what I need to focus on right now and how I can measure any progress I make in it? (I needed to focus on listening so I started counting all the words I could understand in my church’s bible study. One. Two. Three… Four. It took me a long time to get to ten! But just two weeks later, I could feel my progress.)

Curiosity about God’s work in my life: I wonder what God is doing through all of this?! After all, ‘in all things he works for the good of those who love him’ (Romans 8.28). How is my frustration with language learning shaping me for ministry? For me, it’s teaching me humility.

Here are my thoughts in five key areas to spark your curiosity, more practically. 

1) Listening – At school a few weeks ago, I understood only three words in a three-minute listening text. When we got the transcript, I understood all the words except for three! So let’s ask: I wonder how words are linked together or pronounced slightly differently when in a longer phrase when spoken?

2) Speaking – I wonder how I can prepare better for when I need to speak ‘spontaneously’? How about memorising seven or eight questions we want to ask people after the service at church? Also, learning by heart a few anecdotes of your cross-cultural experiences is perfect for improving grammar, vocabulary and relationships. 

3) Writing – Keep a list of your most common mistakes, the correction and the reason why your language was wrong. You can then refer to this list in future to avoid repeating the same errors. 

4) The gospel – Learning by heart Christian songs is so helpful here. They have gospel phrases you can then use to understand sermons and share the gospel with others. And singing them in church helps you feel united with local believers when you feel frustrated and alone as a language learner. 

5) Pronunciation – Think through which phrases you’ll say most often this week – then practice – out loud! Repetition makes language automatic, which is, after all, our goal!

Feel free to contact me with any questions or advice!