There is a special connection forged when you speak in someone’s native language—a deeper level of empathy on your part and a stronger sense of trust on theirs. The bridge from stranger to friend becomes shorter. Nelson Mandela captured it beautifully when he said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
With the right strategy, becoming conversationally fluent isn’t as hard as you might think. Here are four tips that I’ve found helpful in acquiring better language skills.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Build a Solid Foundation
Before going to the field, learning the basics of a language, like the alphabet and grammar rules, is a great way to set yourself up for success. One of the advantages of living in the digital age is that there are now many low-cost tools available online or through smartphone apps. So, you don’t have to break the bank paying for expensive private lessons or buying a big-name language resource.
- Download an app like Duolingo or Memrise to quickly memorize the basics.
- Take online language classes, preferably with a live teacher. Try the free membership option at TakeLessons Live for starters.
- Find a pen pal or a learning partner on a language exchange network, such as italki, and ask for help with perfecting your pronunciation.
- More language-learning resources can also be found in IMB’s article “Hope for Learning Language as a Tool for Crossing Cultures.”
Immerse Yourself in the Language
Experience proves that the fastest way to learn any language is by immersion. This trial-by-fire method involves surrounding yourself with the local language rather than restricting your learning experience to the classroom. If you’re already in a host country, seize every opportunity to hang out with the residents. Go to local events in the community and observe how the nationals communicate with one another, how they pronounce words, express humor, tells stories, and use body language.
For extreme introverts, it can feel like torture stepping outside of your comfort zone in this way. But through prayer and dependence on the Lord’s strength, introverts can have immersive experiences too. One-on-one conversations are often preferable for effective language learning. Immersion doesn’t require being a naturally gregarious person who feels at home interacting with large groups of people.
Practice at Home
Keep the learning going in your free time at home. Watch the news, movies, and YouTube videos featuring native speakers. Even better, turn on the English subtitles so you can follow along. This process is highly beneficial as your mind will start automatically associating words and phrases with their meanings.
If you want to take it a step further, change the language settings on all your devices to the language of your host country. Subscribe to a blog in the language. Try reading children’s books or listening to podcasts.
Start Speaking Today
As intimidating as it may seem, the best way to become conversationally fluent is to put your skills into practice. Don’t wait until you feel comfortable enough to start speaking with the locals.
Instead, be okay with misinterpretations and miscommunications—they’re a normal and expected part of language learning. It’s important not to take yourself too seriously. At some point, you will probably embarrass yourself through a misspoken word or pronunciation, but those moments often make the best stories.
And, thankfully, there is grace in these situations. The locals will appreciate your efforts to speak in their language. So don’t be afraid to fail. Be encouraged by Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (NIV). May God bless you on your journey.
Jessica Dais is passionate about missions and creative writing. She previously lived as a missionary in Mexico and hopes to someday lead short-term teams to Nepal.