7 Surprising Observations about Learning a New Language

Learning a new language is an incredible experience full of surprises, challenges, and rewards. Since Danica and I are spending our first year in Argentina focusing full-time on language learning, we have encountered plenty of those challenges and surprises. So we thought we would share seven of the biggest surprises.

  1. We feel like we are entering into a different world. Learning a new language has allowed us to enter into an entirely new dimension of life that we have never been a part of before.  It’s fun to overhear people speaking in Spanish and know what they are saying. It’s rewarding to say words that have never been a part of our life before.  It is interesting to have people respond and understand what we are saying in another language. Living in the States for our entire life, the world of “Spanish” was not real to us.  We didn’t think often or realistically about the many countries that don’t speak any English at all. Here, to no surprise, we hear Spanish everywhere we go: Schools, taxis, streets, grocery stores, church, radio, and everywhere else. Apart from talking to our friends from the States and in our home, we never hear English. It’s a whole new world.
  2. We are forgetting words in English.  Frequently in class, my teacher will ask me “How do you say this in English?”  I will often pause and think for a few moments, and then shrug my shoulders and say, “I can’t remember.” For example, just the other day, my teacher showed me a flash drive and asked me how to say “flash drive” in English. I just couldn’t remember. Thankfully many other missionaries who have learned another language, have told me this is normal and it’s not just me. We are not forgetting English, but there are a some words here and there that we just can’t remember in the moment.  Our brains seem to be in limbo between two languages.
  3. It’s very hard work. Before we came, some people told us that learning Spanish will be “so easy” because we will be immersed in the language here. And there is no question that we are learning faster because of our immersion here. There is incredible motivation to work hard at learning because if we don’t learn, then we don’t communicate. But we don’t just hear words a couple times and remember everything. It is hard work to learn and remember and pronounce and write in Spanish.  Someone told us that an average adult has to hear/learn a word seven times before it “sticks.”  I don’t know if there is an exact science behind this, but we are coming to realize more and more that learning Spanish is a process. It is a process that takes a lot of work and patience.  We study and go to class, and do that again and again.  Language learning does not come by osmosis.
  4. We feel like children again. As a father, I have the chance to watch my young kids grow in their ability to learn language. I watch them try to pronounce new words, constructs sentences, use the correct verbs and pronouns. And this is the way Danica and I frequently feel, like toddlers. We feel like babies again trying to figure out exactly what to say. Frequently people understand what we say, but it comes along with a lot of correction. Often others will say, “You actually say it this way.” “You need to use this word, not this word.” It’s always a little humbling when I overhear my boys being taught the same thing by their Spanish tutor that I am being taught in language school. We are learning colors, numbers, shapes, and more, just like we did in elementary school in English.
  5. Google translate does not work all that well. Google translate has been helpful in some cases. But language does not work each time with a word-for-word  translation.  There are many phrases that culturales apply differently to language. For example, I could say in English that “I’m going to pick someone up from the airport.”  In Spanish you would literally say, “I’m going to go find someone from the airport.” We are learning that you can’t just think about one phrase in English and then try to translate it word-for-word in Spanish. You have to try and say it the way Argentines would say it.  As such, there is much more to learn than just words.  We also have to learn phrases and idioms.
  6. It feels like sanctification. In sanctification (where God makes us more like His Son Jesus over time), we know that God is changing us and that we have grown a lot, but we often realize how far we have to go in our process of change and personal growth. Learning Spanish feels the same. We know that in our five months of being here that we have learned a lot, but when we think about it, we realize just how much there is still to learn.  The mountain seems very high ahead of us, and we realize that learning all of the ins and outs of words, expressions and cultural idioms is a life-long journey of growth.  And we look back and see that we are better at Spanish than when we first arrived here.
  7. It is incredibly rewarding. In the end, there is no question that learning a new language is hard but is it so very rewarding. When we have Argentines over for dinner that know very little English and yet we can communicate with them for 3-4 hours in Spanish, we feel accomplished. When we can start to understand more and more of sermons on Sunday mornings, that is rewarding. When I (Eric) sat down and wrote my first sermon in Spanish, that was hopeful. When we can read entire articles in Spanish and know almost every word, that is encouraging. When I see my kids come home from school learning a completely new language, I am excited.  Learning spanish has been hard and frustrating at times, but also a new and exciting journey for our family.

We are so thankful for the opportunity to learn Spanish. We know that learning a new language for us is something we want and need to do in order to thrive in our lives and ministry here in Argentina. And so it is something that we are committed to. Thank you for your prayers as our entire family learns a completely new language.

P.S. The boys have done an incredible job learning Spanish. They are learning very fast and I’m extremely excited for them.

3 thoughts on “7 Surprising Observations about Learning a New Language

  1. Debbie and Tom Lynn says:

    This letter was very informative and a clear picture of the joys and struggles of learning a new language. Thanks for sharing. We will be praying for all of you as you learn Spanish and are immersed into the Argentine culture. How exciting this new adventure you are on!!
    Thanks for keeping us iinformed.

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  2. Ellen B. Hunter says:

    Continue to be excited about your new life, new challenges and new friends. Always look forward to your letters, et al. My heart is filled with wonderment of all that surrounds you. Glad the “younger ones” are learning fast. I had similar experience w/a family member who was in Germany years ago w/young children. Upon their return to States the children spoke German fluently. To this day they remember some words/phrases. Blessings to each. “Ms. Ellen”

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  3. Oscar and Martha says:

    Eric and Danica,
    Yes, we’re definitely praying for you, especially that you may not encounter too many difficulties in learning Spanish.
    Knowing several languages, I know quite well when you describe moments where you have a “mental block” and cannot think of the word in English. I’ve encountered that same experience multiple times over the years, especially when trying to translate from one language to another.
    We love you guys.
    Oscar and Martha

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