When we were in China, I had a vivid mental picture of a table morphing from a round to a rectangular table. The round shape represented the kind of activities that happen around round tables: eating, playing games, having tea…. relational activities. The rectangular shape represented a study table, where one works, grows in knowledge, and puts their nose to the grind stone, so to speak.
This is the tension of the language learner.
You must study. You must stretch every cell in your mind; strain to hear every different sound with your ears; twist your tongue into shapes that feel and sound wrong to you.
At the same time you must talk and build relationship. That, after all, is the purpose of all this hard work. Communication is at the core – showing love and seeing lives transformed.
Language learning is a slow process. As a person who values deep relationships, how do you limit the growth of new relationships to this snail’s pace? How do you resist the urge to switch to English? How do you resist feeling like a fool when the person to whom you have just tried to say “I wish it would rain” looks back at you with uncomprehending eyes. How do you laugh it off when you have tried to tell someone “I want to learn your language well,” and they start looking around a for a tea stand because they think you were asking for tea?
You remember being in other countries, wanting like crazy to talk to everyone around you about the message burning in your heart, and knowing that you are able to do nothing except pray that someone else will come to put words to your actions.
You remember the light in a refugee’s eyes when he suddenly hears someone speaking in his heart language.
You remember years of struggle in another country because you failed to pay the price of facing this tension at the beginning of your time there.
I will remember.