How Do Missionaries Learn Languages So Quickly?

Even with the best intentions, language learning can sometimes lead to embarrassing situations. Nik has had his fair share of language bloopers during his time as a missionary, and he’s sharing them with us today.

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The Challenge of Learning a New Language as a Missionary

Learning a new language can be a daunting task, especially when you’re living in a foreign country with an entirely different culture. Missionaries face this challenge as they spread the Gospel to people of different languages and cultures around the world.

Nik spoke about his experience in Malawi, where his language learning experience felt rushed:

Sadly, the language requirement of Malawi back in those days was that you would have a tutor for a year. You would go through a Chichewa language book, and then no matter how far you got in that book at the end of the year, you were dismissed to your work site. So you didn’t have any competency test. After learning that language, we made sure that we weren’t released from language learning until we could do certain things. By the time we got to Swahili in Kenya, they had a very refined program.

He acknowledged that this was a challenging experience, but it taught him and his colleagues an important lesson.

Nik emphasized the need for a refined language program, such as the one he encountered in Kenya when learning Swahili. He believes that a well-designed language program can make a significant difference in language learning outcomes.

Patience and Perseverance in Language Learning

When missionaries enter a new culture, they need to immerse themselves in the local language and culture as much as possible. They should attend local events, participate in community activities, and make an effort to build relationships with native speakers. Nik stresses the importance of building meaningful relationships with the locals, as this helps to create a safe environment where language mistakes are tolerated and even appreciated.

Nik’s sons appreciate his language mistakes too:

Our boys have never forgotten that. Anytime they introduce me to new people or their friends, they say, “You need to know that the first time our father tried to order food at a restaurant, he asked the waiter to kiss him on the mouth, and the waiter tried to do it.” I wish that was the worst story. That just simply is the first story.

Nik also emphasizes the need for patience and perseverance when learning a new language. He suggests that missionaries should not expect to become fluent in a short amount of time. Instead, they should be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. It takes time and practice to become proficient in a new language, and the key is to keep trying and never give up.

How Listening Can Improve Language Learning

Another important strategy is to practice listening and speaking as much as possible. Nik suggests that missionaries should listen to the language being spoken around them as much as possible, even if they don’t understand everything. This helps to train the ear to pick up the nuances of the language. He also advises that missionaries should speak the language as often as possible, even if they make mistakes. The more they practice speaking, the more comfortable they will become with the language.

Nik explains how his learning style differs from his wife’s:

Ruth does so well in the class setting, but I do well in the market setting. She’s going to be word perfect before she uses it, just like she does in English. I just get up and wing it. But once we’re six months out of the language school, then I’m going to be ahead of her in language because I’m going to use everything that I’ve got. If I don’t have it, I’m going to make it up. People will help me and shout out the word….

Ripken emphasizes the importance of immersion in the local culture and language, building relationships with native speakers, and having patience, perseverance, and a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them. This is how missionaries learn new languages quickly while making meaningful connections with the people they serve.