Language learning can take on many different forms - formalized language school, private tutoring, informal lessons with locals, self-study, etc. Regardless of approach, these last two years of language learning taught us three key lessons:
1. Comparing Yourself Fairly
We all do it. Good or bad, we all tend to compare ourselves with others especially within the same occupational field. This was especially challenging for us. Our mission has been blessed with missionaries who have served in Japan 10, 20 or even 30+ years. For most, their Japanese is polished and highly functional. For us, starting at ground zero, it can be quite overwhelming when comparing ourselves to our colleagues. This challenge took on a new level within the language school environment. I (Justin) found myself surrounded by Chinese, Korean and other SE Asian students. Many of them know more than one language. The linguistic experts I've talked to confirm that they already have a mind geared for acquiring a new language. So, what did we discover?
Compare yourself to yourself. Am I better than where I was last week? Last month? 2 years ago? Comparing yourself to another language learner can be unhealthy and unrealistic. Everyone has a different starting place, set of experiences and skill set.
2. Redirecting Discouragement
During the language learning process, discouragement often sets in. There's moments where we're able to relate to the locals at a heart level. Then there's moments when speaking to the delivery man where we're completely lost. We've grown used to these daily language challenges, but it's important to know how to redirect those discouragements.
The key is to keep the gospel central. Our identity is not in how well we know the local language. It's not in how we fair in the language proficiency exams or if I am able to preach in Japanese. While we do think it's important to work hard to accomplish these various benchmarks, our identity as Christians does not reside there. Read Ephesians 1:3-14. The Apostle Paul begins this section of Scripture with the following thesis:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places..." (Ephesians 1:3).
In the next 10 verses Paul describes what our identity is as Christians. We're here to see God's Glory in Japan. And while having a good grasp of the national language is critical in forming relationships, making disciples and planting churches, our language proficiency should not determine our outlook on our identity.
3. It's Not Just an Academic Journey
The first 6 months of language learning were the most challenging. Maybe welcoming a newborn into our home during that season created some unique challenges. However, I've talked with others who have experienced the same thing. During that time, you're rewiring your mind to hear, listen, comprehend, understand and process in a completely different way. It can be a bit unsettling. You begin to wonder if you signed up for the right job. You may even begin to question your calling. And then you realize something very critical.
This is not just an academic journey. God is working on our hearts about very important things. Who are we trusting in? Where are we placing our identity? Do we believe what we know the Bible to say?
These first two years in Japan were a very formational time for our family. Yes, we've learned a good bit of Japanese, made lots of friends, formed connections and led Bible Studies. But just as important if not more, God has done a work in our hearts, too. It's painful. And yet, somehow in God's tender and loving care He's making us into who He wants us to be. That is the path of joy - the joy of knowing Jesus!