Language Learning Advice from Jazz Musicians

There’s a lot that us missionaries can learn from jazz musicians about learning language. After all, they devote their lives to learning, repeating, interacting, improvising and expressing themselves with music and people. We sort of do the same, with language and people. And actually, our brains treat musical improvisation just like language.

Learning to naturally share our heart in a new language is a formidable task. And so is learning to improvise over a fast and complicated jazz tune. What can we learn from jazz giants who have learned to express themselves beautifully and fluently?

Charlie Parker, the legendary sax player said:

“Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget about all that (stuff) and just play.”

Here’s how that applies to learning to talk to people in another language:

‘Master your instrument’

When we speak a language, our instrument is our mouth. (Along with our facial expressions and body language!) Just like a musician needs to learn the technique to get the right tones and notes out of their instrument, we need to learn how to make the different sounds a language requires, and change our mouth to get the right accent. In order to do this we train our muscles to do all kinds of little tasks.

‘Master the music’

Musicians learn which notes to play with which chords, as well as all kinds of rules/theory that comes along with that. They learn all kinds of songs, set phrases, and licks that they can pull out in different situations. This boils down to a huge amount of listening, exploring, memorizing, and practicing over a loooong time.

When we learn a language we learn (or sub-consciously absorb) all kinds of rules and patterns about how words stick together, what order they go in, and what goes with what. (aka grammar) We learn tons of vocubulary. We also learn set phrases, sentences and little patterns that other people use in speech and conversation. This too, takes a ridiculous amount of listening, exploring, memorizing, and practicing.

‘Then forget all that and just play!’

Eventually, you learn all this so well that it becomes second nature, and when you go to perform you’re not even thinking about the technique and rules anymore. That’s when you’re able to play, or speak, from the heart in a natural, unobstructed, and exciting way. This is the goal for musicians, and should be for us missionaries too. When we’re talking to somebody, we want to be fully present in the conversation, and not trying to remember some weird grammar rule.

In a foreign language it’s always a long journey to get to this point of speaking fluently without thinking. Thankfully, we can still relate to people, share good news, and be used profoundly by God even when we’re struggling with language and tripping over our words, trying to remember how to form a certain sentence. But let’s learn from these musicians and apply the same sort of serious time and effort to learn how to express ourselves (and God’s heart and word!) to the people we’re trying to reach.

Finally, here are some more thoughts on this quote from Chris Potter, another incredible sax player

So learn, learn, learn. Learn way more than you think you’re going to need in any given situation. Learn all kinds of vocabulary, grammer, sentences, and phrases. Practice them. Work on your accent. And then forget about all that and just go talk to people!

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