The Beautiful and the Humbling: A Study in Language Learning

Back in my home country I was considered a somewhat intelligent adult, but now I can’t even go buy a loaf of bread by myself. It’s as if I started all over again as an infant. I no longer know how or where to buy food, little alone how to prepare it. Everything sounds, looks, feels, smells and tastes different. All these differences can be overwhelming at first… and very humbling.

A Lesson in Humility

What is humility? Some may consider humility as weakness because they believe it is to have a poor view of oneself. But, as C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” True humility is focused on God. We are humbled when we see the greatness of God- who he is and what he has done on our behalf. This biblical perspective allows us to see and live life differently.

The ultimate example of humility comes from Jesus. Jesus is God, yet because of his great love for us, he gave up his “rights” and came down from the perfection of heaven, to be born to an unwed mother in a shelter for animals. Almost from the beginning, there were people out to kill him. He lived a hard and uncomfortable life. He gave up his rights and died a miserable death on our behalf so we can have a restored relationship with God.

No one forced him to do these things. He wanted to do them because of love. I guess in that way, we can safely say that not only is humility focused on God, we can also say that humility comes from a heart of love. Since this article is focused on humility and how it relates to language learning, I won’t go too much into the issue of love here.

Being in a humbling situation can go one or two ways. Either I can use the experience as an opportunity for growth or I can use it as an opportunity for anger. To use it for growth requires that I take action, even if that action looks like inaction as I consciously choose not to think, do or say something. We’ll look at that in greater depth a little later.

As humans, our automatic response to a potentially humbling situation is to become defensive. It is the default button if we don’t consciously choose to turn it into an opportunity for growth. The choice to grow is a purposeful choice. It does not happen by accident.

If I choose not to learn from something, my humbling situation turns into a negative thing that can eat at my insides, chews up those around me, and spits them out as being distasteful.

Practical Humility

So, what does humility look like in a cross-cultural situation? Moving into a cross-cultural situation can be very exciting, though many times we are almost immediately thrown out of our comfort zone.

We can’t understand what is being said and don’t know what to do in almost every situation. Even if we knew what to do, we may not know how to do it in a way that shows love. Even our idea of showing love may be different than that of the local people (host people) we live among.

We are going to be confronted with the decision whether to stubbornly cling to our beliefs about how things should be, or to surrender.  It is very hard to surrender what we consider sacred and precious, but once surrendered (not a one-time occurrence, rather is a continual surrendering) it can lead to a beautiful harvest.

We will harvest the understanding that “different is not bad”. In fact, the more we learn about how and why people do things, the more we are able to appreciate those things. That appreciation will make it easier to be content and even enjoy life around us. We can learn new skills and build deeper relationships if we are open to learning from others.

Let’s say now we’ve been in our new cross-cultural context for a year, have studied hard and can get around in the beautiful new language. Okay, let me qualify that. When my host friends speak the language, it sounds beautiful, if still somewhat confusing. But when I speak it there are no heavenly hosts dancing around, astounded by the artful way I string my words and thoughts together. In fact, I think “beautiful” is the last word my friends would use to describe the way I use their language.

However, I need to keep in mind that although my use of the language may never be described as “beautiful”, no matter how much effort I put into my studies, I can still have an impact. It’s not because the messenger is beautiful, rather, it’s the beauty of the message that is so powerful.

The Definition of Success

One day I went to visit a friend of mine. We sat down under the shade of a mango tree on a mat in her dirt yard. I can’t remember what we were talking about, but I do remember that as we were talking she blurted out, “Mama Miguel,” (Women there are referred to by their husband’s or children’s names) She continued, “You used to speak so well, but now you don’t talk good. What happened?”

I was puzzled and, which a large dose of humility, I accepted what she had said and told her I didn’t know the reason for not speaking as well. It wasn’t until after I returned home that I realized why I wasn’t “talking as well”. I had been learning a new grammatical feature and was pushing myself to use it. What appeared as going in reverse was actually progress.

I could have initially responded by getting defensive and developing hurt feelings. But by having a humble attitude I was able to see that what was perceived as failure was in reality success. I was able to continue growing in my relationship with my friend and show her the love of Christ through my life.

It is Hard to be Humble

We all struggle with being humble, but the issue of humility is especially challenging in certain cultures. In some cultures, it is frowned upon whenever you “lose face” or there is a challenge to your dignity. Those who come from that type of culture are going to have an especially difficult time making themselves vulnerable as they study language and culture. If you are not willing to take risks and “lose face”, maybe being laughed at in the process, you will progress very slowly in the building of relationships and understanding of language and culture.

It is especially important for you to be aware of this area of humility and be willing to look like a fool, for the sake of Jesus. Remember, it is not about you. What are your goals in what you are doing? Are you wanting to love on others? If so, you need vulnerable, be willing to make mistakes and be open to criticism.

Humility, as we study another language and culture, ultimately comes from an understanding of who God is and what he has done on our behalf. It flows out of a love for him and for others. It enables us to build deeper relationships and understanding. Those deeper relationships and understanding of our new world can lead to a beautiful harvest of contentment and joy in our new context.

“ In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: ‘Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking on the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Philippians 2:5-7

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