Deeper Language Lessons

Posted on: April 18, 2012 Written by
Deeper Language Lessons
      Photography by: Vitaly Sokolovskiy from iStock    

A new study was recently released touting the benefits of learning a second language. According to the study, learning a second language helps slow down the effects of Alzheimer’s. Being bi-lingual does not stop the disease, but it allows the person who develops Alzheimer’s to better deal with it. Sounds like a great reason for learning another language!

Learning to speak another language has been one of the hardest and most humbling experiences of my life. I moved overseas, a well-educated and fairly competent woman responding to God’s call to be a missionary. Suddenly, I was reduced to the status of a helpless infant.

One day, soon after moving to Russia, I went to the grocery store with the sole intent of buying a chicken—a large, plump chicken. The last one I bought resembled a skinned parakeet, and it cooked up so tough that it could chip teeth. Stepping into the store, I spied a gorgeous chicken ensconced in the meat cooler, an American export. Something from home! Practically a relative! I had to have that chicken. Suddenly, I experienced a massive brain-freeze. What was the Russian word for chicken? My mind went into overdrive, yet it could not dredge up the correct word. I briefly considered clucking and flapping my arms like a chicken, but I could not do it. It was too humiliating. I simply turned and trudged out the door, tears welling up in my eyes. Riding home on the bus, I could not believe I was crying over a chicken—or more precisely, the lack of a chicken.

Years later, my language-gifted husband and I went to visit some friends in a nearby village. We had been in Russia over ten years, and we both felt fairly confident in the language. One of the dear sweet ladies complimented my husband’s language ability. He explained that we had spent a year in Moscow studying language. Miss Encouragement then turned to me and asked, “Why didn’t you study?” That statement muted me for the rest of the evening.

Language-learning has taught me many lessons. It has reminded me of the importance of listening. People have shared with me about serious issues in their lives, and sometimes I have hardly understood a word they said. However, I have realized that people rarely need me to fix their problem; they most often need a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on. This can require mostly an occasional nod and sympathetic “hmmm,” which I can do in any language, without a trace of accent.

Language-learning has also given me a new appreciation for Jesus’ time on earth. Jesus left the splendors of heaven to be born in a humble stable. He became an infant who had to learn to walk and talk. My struggles and humiliation while learning a new language are nothing compared to Jesus’ sacrifice. It has also reminded me that God can use me, even when I feel like a helpless infant. It is all about Him, not about me.

I have gained a new appreciation for the role of the Holy Spirit too, as I have tried to share a Christian witness in a second language. Often I have felt like a failure after a mangled attempt to share my testimony with a Russian friend. Yet when I see the light of understanding appear in my friend’s eyes, I realize once again that the Holy Spirit acts as my interpreter. As I respond in obedience to God’s prompting to speak His truth, His Holy Spirit fills in and smoothes out all my language gaps and errors.

So, now I am working on my Greek. I am hoping that by learning a third language, I will not only slow down Alzheimer’s but will also possibly prevent it. Today I will head to the market to buy some meat for my family. I think my “moo” is better than my “oink,” so maybe I will go with the beef today.


©2012 Thrive.

Questions to Get the Conversation Going: How many languages can you speak? What lessons has language-learning taught you?

About the author

Robin and her husband ministered in Far East Russia for 14 years, before relocating to the Balkans where they have served for the past 5 years. She has spent the last 19 years learning to appreciate the various peoples, cultures, and of course, food of Europe. She enjoys quilting, writing and thinking of new ways to spoil her two grandkids. You can read her random thoughts on cross-cultural living, family and following Jesus at

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  • I agree that learning another language expands us! I live in Chna, and assume that most of you have signs with “bad English” translations in your neck of the woods too. Recently I’ve been struck by the realization: that’s how I often sound when I speak “faith” — our native languages was to be the language of Eden, but we traded it for the language of envy, betrayal and hurt. I’m starting to write a series on this (using those signs :)). The first can be found at

    • Amy, I loved reading your post and seeing how you used “bad English” signs as a springboard! Thanks for sharing!

    • Susan

      Thank you so much for sharing! I have just begun learning mandarin from two international students at my collage Some days i feel so amazed that i can point to most car in a parking lot and know what color it is in Chinese or feel pride in being able to identify all of the animals of the Chinese zodiac (except the monkey who keeps eluding me), then other days I feel exhausted and wonder if i will ever gain the fluency of an average four year old! the task just seems so enormous. but i feel God is calling me to China so i will follow that calling and trust him to get me through. I AM so glad His Love transcends the language barrier.

  • shelley

    I’m learning my third language. I truly love learning another language…and hate it too! It’s so humbling, so discouraging at times, so never-arriving-never-ending, and just plain hard work. The other day in language class, I felt like such a little baby trying to put simple phrases and sentences together. It hit me how GOOD this is for my soul! I told my language teacher, “Well, Jesus said we need to become like little children, and learning a language certainly makes me feel more like a child. So, I know this is good for me!”

    And there are those awesomely awesome days of “turning a corner”…understanding snatches of conversation that were just gobbeldeegook months before….seeing a word on a sign that now makes sense! What a great feeling of progress! Another plus: I think each language opens another window in this amazing world God has made. Every language explains something just a bit better or with a deeper shade of meaning or nuance than we were able to see or understand before. How cool is that?!

    Learning another language is a key part in this great adventure called life!

    • Shelley, I confess I spent more time hating language learning than loving it! But, I have come to realize what a difference learning the language has made to our ministry. It truly is a key part to our work! Isn’t God good! Life is always an adventure with him!

  • Suzi

    I am bilingual but keep thinking I would like to learn another language. (Shhh – chances are, I probably won’t…)

    Learning another language was a love-hate relationship for me. Days when even my teacher laughed at my mistakes, I really didn’t think I was going to make it.

    Then when I actually communicated with the store clerk and he understood I wanted that notebook in the window, I loved it and thought what a cake walk this language learning was!

    It was a learning process over the years. Yes, it was humbling to ask my 3 year old to translate that I wanted to order a bag of rice, instead of the bag of trash as I had just said.

    But I learned to lighten up, laugh at myself, trust that God, who called me to this country, would equip me to be able to communicate at the level that I needed to. That helped a lot. And He did equip me.

    I learned that whether I could speak the language well or not, I could bring glory to God by my life… and also that love was a language that didn’t always need words.

    • Suzi, I totally agree with your statement about learning to lighten up and laugh at ourselves. Otherwise we would spend all our time crying during language study. And you are so right – love is a language that doesn’t always needs words. Thank you for sharing!

  • Ann

    Just want to add that I am jealous of you who are able to learn the language. Where we are, most people are bilingual (English) and the local language is dying, so it is implied that we shouldn’t “waste” too much time on learning too much of the language. I am so busy homeschooling and trying to stretch every dime that I can’t spend the time learning that I would love to, but my heart longs to speak it.

  • I’m with Ann here! I’d love to learn more of the Khmer language that is the first language of most of my students. Unfortunately as a full-time teacher, teaching in an English-Khmer bilingual school, I simply don’t the time I would need to learn the Khmer language thoroughly. It takes me so much time to plan, prepare, teach, and grade papers, that I just don’t have the mental energy left to put into language study. I have a little, enough to greet and say farewell, and tell a motodop or tuk-tuk driver where I want to go, but aside from that it’s a struggle. I’d love to talk with my Khmer colleagues in their heart language, but fortunately for me they speak considerably more English than I will have of their language. Meanwhile, I’ll keep teaching my students, and try to pick up a word or two more of Khmer each week or month.

    I do love the thought that sometimes, when someone needs a listening ear, it’s not necessary to actually understand every word they are saying, but just to be there, and be kind, considerate and compassionate in our actions. Thanks for a great post.