I recently saw a blog post where someone asked the question, "Can I be a missionary if I don't want to learn another language? The writer answered technically that they probably could. But I wanted to say, "I know you can, but should you?" Language is the thing that connects and binds us to others, and when we're living abroad and want to be a part of the rhythm of life here, language is at the heart of that rhythm. Sure, some get by with what they call "restaurant language"; they can order in a restaurant and check items out at a grocery store with ease. It is even definitely possible to make friends and not learn the language. Dave and I are examples of that here! I still carry a lot of shame about that!
Leaning another language is NOT an easy thing; it's vulnerable, it can be shameful, it's frustrating, it's terrifying, it's fickle, it's complicated. Sometimes it's a giant mountain, as we work hard to climb to another level. Sometimes we find ourselves jumping off the cliff of despair or in the name of giving up. Sometimes we try to make a concerted and determined jump to another peak. Many stay on a plateau for quite a long time, and others have just decided to descend gracefully never having any intentions of climbing again. As is with most physical activity, the older one is, the harder the climb is.
Sometimes there are nets to catch us, and other times we feel utterly alone.
The other day my friend heard my husband say that he bought a broken umbrella, but never took it back to the store. She said, "Well, that's silly. Why not?!?!" I watched my husband try to explain and then saw him give up on the long answer and say, "Because I don't know how." "What do you mean?", She said.
See, often even the simplest tasks can be daunting ones. When we try to do these things, sometimes we succeed and those are really good moments! Sometimes they even call for a loud "YES" and accompanying fist pump in the air, BUT other times words fail us, and we sound like 2 year olds or even worse, we have to use English, the utter shame! Our lives are filled with moments like these!
I just finished writing a post about our son who goes to the National School here, and how it really has been a beautiful and positive thing for him. Despite buffoons for parents, he's been able to have a great experience! See, what I didn't write about in that post is the reality of fumbling through a parent/teacher meeting with a teacher who only speaks Croatian with you. We are the only "foreign" parents in his class and constantly feel out of the loop. We can't really understand the larger school "Parents" meeting but we go anyway. And then there's wanting to approach the parents who gather outside the school but we're worried that we won't be able to keep up in conversation, or worried they will feel pressure to speak a language (English) they may not feel comfortable in. And these kinds of things may not be so frustrating for my introverted husband, but for me the hopeless extrovert who loves people, the last one can be quite lonesome.
Which brings me to my next point - how different personalities make language learning such a unique experience! What works for one person, doesn't work as well for another. Dave and I are perfect examples of that. I love the University setting, and Dave literally tried to hide in class behind me or his language book every day. Personality, the way we naturally communicate in the world, our own level of confidence, the way we approach a project (attack it head on, procrastinate and finish strong, etc...), and many other factors affect the way we learn another language.
Nevertheless, I'm of the belief that we HAVE to learn, that we HAVE to grow, that in some way we should never stop growing and putting ourselves out there. I believe if we don't press forward, we will feel stunted in some way, maybe always feeling a bit on the outside, never really being a part of life here. But the reality is that with every language jump, there is some level of uncomfortableness, some level of pain, of hard work, of dedication, of focus, of commitment. My friend who has been living here for over 2 years (and by the way is a writer here - you should totally check out her site - Balkan Voices) just finished another intensive course this summer! I think she described the end of that experience as having a fried brain.
For me, after having a baby who is now 20 months old, Emma can no longer be my excuse, and I'm excited to step into some kind of "formal" language learning again soon!
In the meantime, I've been LOVING being able to use what language I have in our charity shop on a daily basis! I struggle and make mistakes. I know when I've made a mistake because the person talking to me will smirk a bit. But I find they don't judge me. They accept me, they speak with me, and I allow myself to be caught by the net of friendship and grace. I struggle through feeling embarrassed and the frustration of feeling like a baby and make an effort. And that is the key. That is what really seems to matter.