I took four years of Spanish in high school. My teachers all had degrees in teaching, and had lived in Spanish speaking countries. Their classes were the best. I passed all with a 4.0 average. I loved the Spanish language. I went out of my way to study more. I decided back in 2003 that I wanted to go to Argentina to live for a year. I figured I was ready.
Day one in Argentina left me wide-eyed and drop-jawed at the fact that I could not communicate the simplist of things to my 7 roommates from different latin american countries. The only thing I could do with confidence was ask where the restroom was. While that was helpful it was not enough. How could it be that after 4 years of dedicated spanish study at the high school level could I be so incapacitated by a lack of ability to actually speak the language?
Here at the Missionary Training Center, the trainers have seen it all too many times. They have experienced it themselves. It seems that somehow book-learning causes learners to come up short in ability to speak the language, which leads to frustration, and sometimes even quitting. After seeing it over and over, it led us as a mission to explore an alternative to studying language the traditional method. And it seems that scientists (or doctors) have figured out why. It all has to do with how God made our brains to work.
It seems that there is a language "partition" in our brains. What we know how to communicate to other people is stored in there. Whenever we go to speak, our minds automatically go to this section of the brain to retrieve whatever is in there. The interesting thing is that facts that we learn in school, such as history and science, are stored in another section of the brain. You could call it the "information" section of the brain. What happens is that when we study language as a bunch of grammar rules and vocabulary, our brains process the data as information, and rightly so. The only way to get the language data from the information section of our brains into the communication section of our brains is to actually try to use the language we are trying to learn.
It’s a novel concept. What do babies do? The listen for months to the mom and dad talk (although some moms and dads dont talk to their kids at all, the just make the most ridiculous baby noises imaginable. I wonder what babies think when we are making ridiculous baby noises at them?) without saying anything. They just hear the language all day every day. Eventually they start sputtering sounds, followed by words, followed by sentences, and before you know it they are fluent in the language. No matter how hard a language, the kids always learn how to speak it within the same general time frame.
That’s our strategy to learning language. When we first go into a new language setting, we wait for weeks or even months as we just simply listen to the language. They say the longer you just listen without speaking, the less of a foreign accent you will have in the language. Once we have "warmed up" to the language we begin the process of language learning but not in a classroom setting…we plan sessions of actually using the language. One of our greatest tools in these learning sessions is a strategy called Total Physical Response.
Total Physical Response was not invented by New Tribes. In fact, leading language software is already implimenting this idea of TPR. Imagine a stack of 3 items on a table. We, as language learners, would simply point to one of these objects and listen to our language helper tell us what the name of the object is. We would continue pointing radomly at the 3 objects until we have heard enough. Then we ask our language helper to say the names of the items in random order, and with each thing that our helper says, we have to try to point to the item. First we point and listen, then we listen and point. Once we have a handle on the 3 items, we add another one, then another and another, and next thing you know we have started learning a dozen new words.
This whole time the vocabulary is being stored into the language section of our brains, because our body is involved and engaged in the learning process. The data isn’t going into the information section of the brain. The result is better language retention, faster learning, and a good ear for what the language sounds like. We keep up this process for a long time learning nouns, verbs, adjectives and even small phrases.
This is what we are doing this week at the MTC. We are learning how to plan and structure these sessions when we go overseas. We are practicing with a Norwegian speaking language helper (yes, we are still going to Paraguay; no they do not speak Norwegian in Paraguay; this is just practicing on Norwegian) so that we can get a feel for the process. In the picture above I am listening to our helper tell me phrases descibing the pictures on the board, and I am having to decide which picture she is talking about. Really fun, and best of all…IT REALLY WORKS. Learning another language is possible.
Just another glimpse into the practical side of the Missionary Training Center and how they are preparing us for tribal ministry in Paraguay.