learing a language becoming a baby

Going into a new culture and language can be a very humbling and sometimes quite frustrating experience. After all, When you step into a new language world, you end up becoming a baby, and babies are… well… in many ways quite useless and stupid. But babies aren’t aware of their own uselessness and stupidity, so it’s easy for them to be that way. When an adult becomes a baby, however, through the language learning, cross-cultural experience, it’s a different story. They have all this adult awareness and ‘intelligence’ that allows them to become frustrated and discontent with their baby-ness. “I should be able to do more!” they think. “UGH! I didn’t used to be this stupid!” they say.

But babies just enjoy discovering the world around them. They’re not too worried about the fact that they can’t do much other than play with a few little toys, or slobber on the floor. And no-one around them is too bothered by this lack of performance either. They’re just happy that they are a baby, and they’re growing into a bigger person. That’s enough.

Jesus himself became a baby. He spent a lot of time, years in fact, just crawling, drooling, pooping, peeing, and being a useless baby, so he could enter our world.

The truth is, whatever unreached nation/language you are trying to reach is a very different world than the one that you spent your baby years growing up in. And so, to enter it, you have to become a baby all over again. Yes, that means a return to uselessness, stupidity, and very limited ability. It also means a return to child-like freedom, amazement, and wonder as you explore new sounds, words, people, and sentences around you. The little toys and the everyday objects in your new world are fun to play with and explore. But it’s not very fun if you keep on thinking you should be cooking things in the kitchen like the adults, or working on budgeting in the office. But if you relax and embrace the baby toys, and throw yourself into the curious exploration of your new world, your brain will (re)develop and form into an intelligent, active, adult brain. Everyone enters the world like a baby, and it takes quite a long time to develop to develop into a functional adult.

It’s been five years for me since I entered my Turkish world. Although I spent a bunch of time studying the language before I came, my first year(s) were still a time of a lot of humble learning, and a lot of feeling like a baby. I spent countless hours sitting and hanging out with people in conversations I could barely understand. I spent days and days wandering around outside, trying to meet people and failing at it. I had countless experiences where I was totally misunderstood, made a fool of myself, or felt like I was getting no-where. But thankfully, there was always another dynamic at play that made this whole process a lot easier…

Language learners like are babies, but babies are cute and people like them.

I also had a lot of fun, and a lot of encouragement from the locals. For the purpose of this baby-language-learner metaphor, we can call the locals the adults of this cultural world you’re trying to enter. When babies make the tiniest, most inconsequential progress, or learn how to say something resembling a word, people smile, freak-out, take videos, and congratulate the baby or toddler. In the West, we don’t really treat cultural babies (language learners) this way, but we should. When’s the last time you saw a bunch of Canadian university students wide-eyed and giddy with excitement and amazement as someone struggled to say “I’m pp-ff-rom Afghanistan”?

In the East (and in almost all unreached language groups) they do treat bumbling language learners with this kind of adult-to-cute-baby wonder, amazement, and love. (side note: They also show babies and children in general far more interest and admiration. Just ask anyone who has young children in one of these places, and they’ll talk about how random people on the street stop to squeeze their cheeks and give them candy from secret candy-stashes in their coats… but that’s another topic.) When a western person humbles themselves and tries to figure out how to talk to them in their language it’s cute, captivating, and melts their hearts. They’ll look at your with awe and wonder and sometimes want to physically hug you as you string together a few sentences that you worked to piece together. This of course, makes the whole “baby” experience actually quite pleasant, and encourages development and confidence.

someone amazed at a baby

Just like a kid happily enduring Grandma’s cheek-pinches and squeezing in exchange for cookies, candy, and money, I shamelessly enjoyed every bit of this encouragement and praise from locals, and jumped on any opportunity to drink the tea they offered or hang out with them wherever I could. I spent tons of time listening to them blabber about crazy stories and trivial details of life, and ended up learning all kinds of random stuff about their daily lives, religion, politics, culture, thinking, sense of humor, and body language. Remember how simple, basic things seemed huge and fascinating when you were a kid? Every bit of their world that I could discover seemed like it was coated in child-like excitement for me. I would also dig through movies, books, textbooks, looking for new words, and trying to understand different sentences and features of the language I could use. Every word, every phrase (especially funny and slang ones) was like another gem I could use to unlock more conversation, or make another person smile.

It wasn’t all super-fun though. Sometimes I had to deal with suspicion, confusing cultural pressures and expectations, feelings of frustration and stupidity, and temptations to discouragement. At times I felt like a lonely, rejected baby that no-one understood or paid attention to, and wanted to throw a temper-tantrum. Other times I felt like an awkward, angsty teenager who was determined that everyone was stupid and wrong. Such is life.

But somehow, through this whole process of fumbling, frustration, joy, and exploration, I ended up growing up to be an (almost) fully-functioning adult in my new Turkish-speaking world.

feeling fluent and enculturated

Now I can be tired, heading home on a bus late at night, casually chat with the guy sitting next to me, and end up clearly explaining Jesus’ sacrifice to someone who’s never had a chance to hear anything like that. I can sit and talk and pour out the riches of Jesus with students, and have them say “man… it feels like you’re one of us, it feels like I’m talking to a Turk.” “I’ve never heard this before.” Wherever I go, it’s like there’s this unhindered fountain of love and truth that blasts into the lives of these people all around me. The language barrier is gone, praise God! I used to look at them as strange, far-off, and difficult to understand. Now it just feels so normal and natural to talk to them, hear them pour out their hearts, look them in the face, understand their sin and their predicament, and point them to Jesus. It feels natural to laugh and joke with a table full of them, and then point the conversation to Christ.

I can sit with a local believer friend, hang out and have tea, and with Christ’s wisdom, I can help him process and walk through really tricky, tough stuff in his life. Ok, I’m not a very good counselor, but at least I can understand everything he’s saying. We can call this discipleship. Because I’ve spent so much time getting used to and understanding his world, language, and culture, it feels incredibly normal and natural to understand everything he talks about as we have a heart-to-heart. It almost feels just like I was chatting with a Canadian friend in a Tim Hortons. (That’s a very normal Canadian coffee shop hang out for those who don’t know…)

All this because I took the time to be a useless, blabbering, slobbering baby during some of the most “important” and “productive” years of my life. (23 - 25 ish) With loads of grace and help from the Father, I somehow got to this level of excellence by spending TONS of time being a novice and a fool.

Growing up (in a language) takes a loooot of time (with the language)…

Of course, you could avoid the whole baby stage, and only focus on stuff you can do in your native language and culture, and you wouldn’t have to go through this humbling childhood-in-adulthood experience. You could even go to a foreign country, stay busy in your own language, and avoid the endless days and months of awkward adolescent growing pains. But if you want to actually enter the language and culture of these people, you need to become a baby and spend a lot of time… being a baby. There’s no way around it.

Who will take the time to grow up in these places?

How many people are actually existing amongst the last few unreached people groups with the language, in their mouths, the culture in their brains, and the time in their schedules to actually relate to these people who need the Gospel? Not enough.

There are precious few that decide to crawl into a people group or language than needs to hear the gospel. That means their lives are incredibly valuable. Whether or not they appear super active or effective, the very existence of their life is something to rejoice over. Just like a baby in a family, the very fact that they are starting to exist is something to celebrate. God treasures and is jealous for these precious, priceless lives. I’m not saying at all that these few are superior to the other masses of believers or anything terrible like that. (Romans 12:3-5) It’s just that they have a special, rare, and invaluable role. There are all kinds of different parts of the body, but there are only two pinky fingers. And only the pinky fingers can squeeze into small nooks and crannies and do random, little things. (okay, maybe not the best analogy… but you know what I mean)

Remember, it’s ok to be a kid…

“Do we really have to be totally useless and innefective for this whole process of language infancy/toddlerhood?” “Do I just have to sit around and do nothing until I ‘learn the language’?” some might ask. Not at all! You don’t have to wait until your language is perfect or ‘finished’ to start seeing awesome things. Someone with faltering, terrible language can very sincerely tell someone “Jesus died for you.” Just like a child shouting “Daddy!” one or two simple words can deeply move hearts. He can use you while you’re still a toddler, or a child.

Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you called forth your praise?” (Matt 21:16)

From the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have established strength (Psalm 8:2)

Even if you think you can’t ever get fully fluent and comfortable in the language, wouldn’t it it worth it to just to live in that people group as a toddler, or a baby even?

When Jesus saw his fumbling, inadequate disciples going out and speaking about the Kingdom (which they didn’t even really understand) he was full of joy in the Holy Spirit and said “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” (Matt 11:25) What’s to say he won’t rejoice over you? Reject any condemnation.

A few words from a simple-minded, ineloquent, child can be used to silence professors and wise men. Some of the most powerful presentations of the Gospel come from people who are struggling with the language, and can barely, just very simply spit it out.

Also, the timelines that we may impose upon ourselves for development and in a new language and culture are often way off. Don’t discourage yourself because you’re not becoming an adult “right away” or as fast as someone else. John Hyde (known as Praying Hyde) had a very difficult time, slowly learning learning the language in India because of his serious hearing problems. He was getting ready to totally quit and go home, but the locals begged to have him stay. He ended up staying, and becoming one of the best linguists in the area. God believes in his children, and he’ll walk with them every step of the way.