Hope for Learning Language as a Tool for Crossing Cultures

More Christian professionals are considering taking their jobs overseas, and an increasing number of retirees are thinking about spending their retirement years making disciples in a foreign city. This is an incredible asset for mission, but it requires a lot of work to integrate into a new culture.

A factor that can often loom large in the process is the fear of having to learn another language. Perhaps, you’ve tried to learn a language before and it didn’t work. Maybe you find studying boring or way too hard. Or the approach you remember from high school or college seemed to take way too long.

Don’t worry, there’s hope. You can learn a new language. You’ve got the Holy Spirit on your side, and there are a number of new tools and other factors that can help make your mountain-sized fear manageable.

Don’t let previous troubles with a language keep you from trying again. It’s a whole new language-learning world now!

English Will Be Fine in Many Places You Go

Almost all mobilized Christians—global disciple makers who relocate with jobs, retirement, or study opportunities to participate with teams in cities and hard places around the world—will most often function in English. English is spoken as a trade language in many cities. So, relax. You won’t immediately have to learn another language to do your job or even to take care of your day-to-day activities like grocery shopping, eating out, or finding a fitness center.

Sure, there are topics only your new national friends will be able to explain well in the local language. But there will likely be people in your new city who can get along quite well in English. Some of them will be delighted to help you learn their language.

You will discover that knowing a little of your local friends’ language will help you understand them and their culture much better. The more language you learn, the more doors will open to you. However, mobilized Christians aren’t necessarily looking to become bilingual. They simply want to learn basic conversational language.

Use Efficient Methods to Learn Words Quickly

Using basic vocabulary and simple grammar in conversation is very doable, and it can often happen faster than you think. Many people think children can learn languages faster. In some ways that may be true, but adults can quickly deconstruct grammar by simply hearing people talk, and they can sort out grammar patterns more rapidly than kids can.

One way to follow the lead of children is to make language learning a social activity, not simply an academic one. Learn language by being around people who speak it a lot.

When you start to learn a language, look for an approach to learning that focuses on the most frequently used words. Don’t worry too much about reading and writing properly until you learn basic survival language and phrases. Work on the words that get you talking the fastest. Focus on the 20 percent of vocabulary that is used 80 percent of the time. You will be surprised just how far one hundred key verbs and the thousand most-used words can take you in a new language. And you may also be surprised how quickly you can pick it up.

The most important thing is to just keep using it. You learn to converse in a language by, well, conversing in that language, not reading books, though books can be helpful. If you’re not yet in your new country, you can get a jump-start by finding people around you with whom to converse. Look to online language-learning sites like Omniglot, or find an in-person group nearby through networking sites like Meetup.com.

One way to follow the lead of children is to make language learning a social activity, not just a book-learning one.

There’s an App for That

Learning language nowadays can be fun. You can learn what you want, when you want, and with whom you want. Apps abound these days to help you pick up language. When you choose one, just remember to look for an app that gets you using the language quickly and doesn’t just teach you about the language.

Try an app like Babbel, which helps you learn simple phrases in seconds, or others like Forvo, which serves as a pronunciation dictionary. The Memrise app boasts joyful language learning and offers games, funny chatbots, and more than thirty thousand videos from native speakers. The app Busuu offers daily language training.

Set Aside Time Regularly

Be intentional with your learning, and you will be surprised how quickly you can pick it up. Look for language learning approaches that allow for flexible schedules. When you have extra time, you can learn more, or you can spread learning throughout the day or week.

Don’t be intimidated by other languages’ scripts or written alphabets. You can learn the Russian alphabet in one week by spending just thirty minutes or so a day. Alphabets or scripts like Arabic, Persian, or Urdu can be learned in a month if a learner dedicates an hour a day for twenty-five days.

Language learning might have been intimidating to you at some point in the past, but it doesn’t have to be now. Don’t let previous mishaps or troubles with a language class keep you from trying again. It’s a whole new language learning world now, and there has never been a better time to jump in.


R. E. Cline helps train mobilized Christians headed to cities overseas. He likes to learn how to apply Scripture in different contexts and equipping others for cross-cultural disciple making.