Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lessons from language learning

A primary lesson of 10 years of interim ministry was learning to maintain balance during times of change and flux. Not that everything around me was going to feel right or that I looked good, rather, that panic was avoided and that community life moved forward toward a goal. Interim ministry and transition is not the place for the perfectionist, whether a pastor or a congregation member. The ability to recover from a setback, mistake or anxiety trigger is paramount to progress. I know this to be true in ministry, athletic endeavors, parenting and now language. I'm leaning toward learning that the importance of recovery is a universal truth.

Here's how my learning has developed recently. I the past month I've taken on learning Korean as an avocation. Some people don't understand why I would invest my time this way. I see a multitude of Korean signs in my congregation's neighborhood, and I see learning language as a path to hospitality and connection. I suppose it would be beneficial for any immigrant to learn English, but I will attempt to meet them a little closer to where they are toward their destination. A favorite writer Keith Law recommended the Pimsleur method as an anchor for language learning.

I've been working with Pimsleur for 2 weeks, and I get more out of Pimsleur than I have in any other language learning process in my life. I've learned some Danish, French, Spanish, Russian, and reading ability in ancient forms of Greek and Hebrew, but my mental adjustments to Korean are different than any of the languages I have learned before. I'm not learning Korean easily, but appreciate the methodology. I began to understand while taking my 8-year-old daughter to speech therapy. Pimsleur was an applied linguistics and French scholar at UCLA and that his approach was similar to the approach of her speech therapist, whose specialty happens to be applied linguistics.

My daughter has auditory processing problems. She hears sounds well, but the movement from sound, to processing the sound, to speech doesn't work well. With regular speech therapy, she is improving. If the conversation doesn't move as planned, my daughter gets frustrated and the conversation breaks down further. What her speech therapist teaches her through a variety of drills and practical approaches is a growing ability to recover when communication inevitably breaks down (this IS universal). This ability is easily taken for granted, though we know in our own lives that communication breaks down frequently. The ability to recover makes a difference. My daughter learns to recover through speech therapy.

I do something similar using the Pimsleur method. Through its series of drills breaking down the sounds of language in many different combinations, I don't necessarily merely focus on memorizing particular words, but through work with sounds that make up language, I find myself less lost. Our speech therapist says these approaches in therapy and language education are similar, and that we are not being equipped to be perfect with language, but rather that we can recover when communication breaks down.

During my years of interim ministry, I have found no greater lesson. The ability to adjust and recover in during communication break down is far more important than learning to do something perfectly. The goal is to connect. The goal is to share a message. The goal is to build relationships. The goal is to learn. I still like to strive toward perfection to some degree, but frustration over not reaching perfection ends many attempts in life to do something good. I encounter this break down daily--in parenting, in building a household, in marriage, in ministry, in health, in vocation. It remains to be seen whether I will be able to live this out in the many facets of my life, but I have the lesson played out regularly during my trips to speech therapy and Korean language sessions.


  1. Hey Joe! I'm going to be in Hartland in a coupla weeks for a mission sponsorship gig. Found your blog while researching introverted church people.I'm endeavoring to learn Cantonese with limited success & will have to check out the Pimsleur stuff. Do they teach the characters, too? Thanks for your thoughts on language learning and the faith, from personal experience in teaching and (attempting) to learn in both arenas, I know there are LOADS of connections between the two.

  2. Hi Christa--

    Thanks for sharing your language learning story. I'm just starting out with Pimsleur. I'm not learning Korean characters yet. I'm still working in the conversational realm of Pimsleur. I think you may have to investigate the Cantonese to get the full picture. My educated guess is that characters is part of the comprehensive Pimsleur course. After I've completed conversational, I may take the plunge for comprehensive. I don't know if you checked out the Keith Law link in this post, but collecting a variety of language learning resources seems to be the way to go.