We often dread the question, “So your kids probably speak the language better than you, right?” There seems to be a myth that children pick up languages as quickly as they pick up new video games. As if kids can play soccer in the alley with local children for a few months and then, without realizing it, speak a new language fluently without an accent. But the reality is more complex.
Lots of factors make language learning challenging for children. The child’s age, natural ability, desire to learn a language, and opportunities to engage with peers all make a difference. One can add the relative difficulty of the local language (Spanish vs. Chinese), the number of local languages and dialects, as well as situations in which most people speak English as a second language already.
When we moved to Vietnam, we pursued language study for our children. That has not been easy, and the results are less than awe-inspiring. But in spite of the challenges, we believe there are at least four reasons to make local language study a primary part of kids’ education while serving in cross-cultural missions.
Language learning helps children approach a new culture with love and humility.
Language learning promotes humility by displaying our ignorance. We all know that trying to speak a new language often provokes laughter. When we stumble over simple sentences such as, “How much for a bottle of water?” it pushes us toward the humble attitude of a non-expert. It reminds us that we are guests in this culture.
Children benefit from this form of learning just as much as adults. They grow as they try to read signs, understand and be understood, and ask for help when needed. Language learning invites criticism from people who are already experts in that language.
Alongside humility, language learning allows one to communicate love for a culture, simply by being polite. When a child speaks a typical greeting to someone in the local language, the response is almost always smiles and appreciation. Older people understand the love required to learn those words. Each step in a new language requires compassion for and interest in a new culture. Both kids and adults grow in empathy and humility as they learn to speak the language of a host culture.
Language learning is a road to independence and discovery in another culture.
We hope our children will be competent enough in the local language to ask for help and find their way home on their own. If they find themselves in a crowd of people, we want them to know what is happening and what to do. We want them to know if people are talking about them behind their back (“She’s so tall!” is the most typical here). Familiarity with the language increases their independence and overall safety.
Language learning opens doors to this independence, but it also teaches us that we find real freedom and flourishing when we submit to and discover the ordered world God has created. God does not allow us to create reality as we go. Rather, in language learning we realize that we will not be understood unless we adapt to the structure of a foreign language. This submission to another language is a doorway into cultural understanding.
One way this happens is that learning a language helps our children to have conversations and relationships with people they would not know otherwise. There are many people in our community who do not speak English and are not going to try. Our children can get to know security guards, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and elderly neighbors in a way that is simply not possible if they do not learn the local language. The connection with real people is important. It is harder to criticize a generic culture when you know specific people within that culture.
Studying a language is good even if you never master it.
We encourage kids to explore the forest behind our house because it is there, it is part of God’s good world, and exploration will stimulate their imagination. In the same way, we encourage our kids to learn the local language because it is the language around them. This is where they live, and language learning is a part of exploring their surroundings. They may not live here for long, but as long as they live here it is good to work at this language and dig deeper into this culture.
Our daughter writes simple, syllable-based poems for school as part of creative writing. Her vocabulary allows for a very limited range of expression. She usually describes every character as “gentle.” But the genre demands a new way of writing that is different than any form we have in English. It gives her confidence and freedom to express herself, even with her limited vocabulary. Do we expect her to write Vietnamese poetry when she grows up? It’s not very likely, but she will always remember the types of nursery rhymes Vietnamese children learn and will at least be aware that human language can sound beautiful under the pattern, “Ve vẻ vè ve.”
Fluency, then, is not the measure of success. The process itself is good. There are days we scratch our heads and wonder how much of the language our kids will retain. There are no guaranteed results and no way to know exactly how this endeavor will influence them. The results are in God’s hands, so we believe the work is not wasted.
Language learning reminds us that the church is global.
Not everyone is able to do so, but we attend a church in the local language. Although our children do not understand much, they know what church sounds like in Vietnamese. They hear important words spoken and sung repeatedly: God, Jesus, Bible, sin, and salvation. This experience gives them at least one weekly opportunity to interact with Vietnamese Christians, to hear them sing, pray, and read scripture together. They learn from experience that the same gospel expressed in our language also inhabits this language and culture. These are brothers and sisters who read the same Bible, say the same prayers, recite the same creed, and even sing songs that we sing, but not in English. The global church includes every tribe, nation, and tongue. Going to church is a further and deeper language lesson for children.
“These are brothers and sisters who read the same Bible, say the same prayers, recite the same creed, and even sing songs that we sing, but not in English.”
Language learning is a complex issue for families in cross-cultural ministry. Not every family or child will have the right sort of opportunity to make progress. But we believe there are significant reasons for whole families to prioritize local language learning. More than anything, language learning develops the virtues of love for others, humility about oneself, and perseverance in a difficult task. Although children likely won’t develop a flawless accent in a few months, they will be able to see progress in important areas. They will feel more comfortable in their host culture. They will interact with real people in that culture. And they will understand more about God’s worldwide people.