For most adults, the thought of acquiring a second language will remain just that, a thought. It will likely pass quickly, perhaps with the determination: impossible. As development workers though, we have no choice. That doesn't make it any less humiliating or overwhelming, however. But conversing in the language of the people is essential to the efficacy of our projects and fundamental to our value system.
In my childhood, the most I ever heard of another language was some Spanish on Sesame Street, a “Yo quiero Taco Bell” commercial, and the few German words my family still used (even though they probably ceased sounding anything like actual German). I remember my high school Spanish teacher saying that learning another language is seeking to understand the culture and perspective of another people group. I didn’t understand what she meant then; I simply wanted to accurately complete my worksheet on pluperfect verb conjugation. Today, I do.
On my first trip to India, I met several English speakers, causing me to ask: was the effort to learn a foreign language really worth it? But when I read Acts 2, I couldn't help but notice that the people heard the message of God in their own tongue. The sign of “speaking in tongues” in this passage teaches us that we have to speak in the language of the people we serve. They don’t have to learn English. We have to learn their language. If we are to follow Jesus’ example, then we must be humble (Phil 2:3-4), and language learning is one of the ways to do that. In the interest of others, we must humble ourselves and learn to listen and speak in the languages of the people we serve.
Being convinced of this, I began learning Hindi several years ago to serve those in need in north India. I studied Hindi by using books and websites, flashcards and audio files. I would play the same 90 second audio track 40-60 times per day, until I could repeat and understand it. At the Institute for G.O.D. I took four semesters of Hindi, where I gained an understanding of the fundamentals of Hindi and learned to read and write in Devanagari.
By the time I took my first trip to India in 2012, I could communicate little more than greetings and basic needs. It happened to be December, a time when many Indian expatriates return to India on holiday. I recall repeating the Hindi word for “holidays” over and over again, until one of my kind friends, who was clearly embarrassed, said to me, “Heather, please just say ‘holiday’ in English. Okay? I don’t think you’ll be able to pronounce it in Hindi without cursing!” Cue flashback to all the times I had unknowingly cursed in front of elders or children by saying “holidays” in Hindi, how mortifying.
Since then, I’ve had to find ways outside of a classroom to increase my language proficiency. Recording myself to hone in my accent, practicing with language groups, following #hindi on social media, listening to and reading media in Hindi, and watching Bollywood films are some of the ways I’ve tried to do this. My favorite medium has been tutoring with a Hindi speaker. He is in India, so we Skype despite the challenges of Delhi power outages and time zone differences! Language learners must creatively strategize by putting the time and energy into training our brains, lips, tongues, and ears to adjust to new sounds. Language is as fluid as the people who speak it - and so our approach to language acquisition should be as well.
Although language learning requires a lot of effort and is often slow in terms of reward, I press on. For me, learning another language is about hearing someone’s perspective and concerns in their own language, and making sure that I’m doing everything in my power to love and serve those in need. I may never say the word for “holidays” again, but I’m confident that every moment I spend increasing my competency in Hindi is time well spent. Learning to speak someone’s language is a worthy pursuit.