Speaking in Tongues

I’m in the process of trying to go back to school. One of the new (well, new since I went to college) requirements is to have intermediate proficiency in a foreign language. I enrolled in a Spanish class and went last week for the first time. It was, in a word, bewildering. I was lost–completely clueless as to where one word ended and another began, struggling to hear anything even remotely familiar. But it was also exciting to think that maybe someday that jumble of sounds might make sense to me.

Thirty-eight is not exactly the ideal age for language acquisition. One teacher I’ve had recently referred to the phenomenon of brain fossilization, where the language synapses in the brain are so deeply engrained that it’s extremely difficult to break out of them. That’s where I’m at. And yet I love the feeling of pushing beyond those grooves, trying to hear (and produce!) words and even sounds (will I ever be able to roll my r’s? it doesn’t seem likely) in a new way.

One of the first things they taught us was phrases we can use in prayer (this is BYU). And as I was practicing a few days ago, somehow the practice actually turned into prayer and tears flowed. I don’t think I’ve prayed vocally for years, and somehow the physical act of talking to God in a way I never had before made me crumble.

I’m interested in your experiences with languages–if you know one other than your native, how and when you learned it, and what it means to you to be able to speak another way.

About Melissa Y.

(Emerita) is a native of Utah and currently resides in Mapleton with her husband and four children. She graduated from BYU with a degree in communication studies and a music minor. She loves to dabble and knows a little about a lot of things but not a lot about anything.

18 thoughts on “Speaking in Tongues

  1. I am 37, and for some time I have felt the need to learn Spanish. My husband is fluent from his mission, and often as I have pondered what it is the Lord would have me do with my life, I have felt the nudging to learn Spanish. And so, this year, like you I have decided to DO IT!! I’ve got a program on a set of CD’s that a friend loaned me. I’ve been doing a little bit each day, and I am so thrilled when I have a sentence I can say to my husband. The other day I texted him “Puede llamarme mas tarde?” (can you call me later). A little later my phone rang. I answered. It was my husband. He asked what I needed, and I told him I didn’t need anything. I was just excited that I had learned how to say it! It’s exciting and challenging to learn the language, and it’s exciting to have the challenge. Best of luck to you!! I know we can both do it!!

  2. The ability to speak another language is incredible!

    I took several years of Spanish – in high school and college – before serving being called to a Spanish-speaking mission. By the end of my mission I felt fluent. I most certainly was not eloquent; I probably sounded like a child, but it was so wonderful to be able to express myself in another language. I think what I valued most was being able to connect with people who were, at the same time, very different from and very similar to me. It was amazing to have a really good conversation with someone and then realize that I’d done it in a completely different language.

  3. I liked the two years of high school spanish classes, but couldn’t into one in college. They were full. I gave up on it then. I’ve tried CD’s but haven’t quite caught on. My father, sister, brother, 2 brother in laws have all been on spanish speaking missions and it would be nice if I could understand them when they joke to each other. I understand some words, and I can read it phonetically but I don’t understand half of what I say. Someday I may try to learn it to get proficient but not this year. I’ve heard that Spanish is a much easier 2nd language to learn than English is, so I think there is hope even for us “older than most college student” type people!

  4. My husband’s job took us to South America the year I turned thirty. He had beautiful Spanish from his mission. I was pretty much clueless. At first I believed what people told me: “Oh, you’ll pick it up”. After one year of communicating at the level of a one-year-old and getting really tired of it, I started Spanish classes. FIVE years later at stake conference, after one of speakers finished, I remember feeling thrilled that I understood everything he had said. For me, learning a new language didn’t come easily; I studied very hard. My motivation came from being nosy enough that it really bothered me that people were having conversations all around me and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. We ended up living in Spanish-speaking countries for fifteen years. My Spanish is now passable. I can communicate, and pretty much say what I need to say. Since returning to the USA, I have had many opportunities to use it. Por ejemplo, right now I visit teach a sweet lady from Peru, and I can order just what I need at McDonalds :o)

  5. I’m 57, and learning a new foreign language so that we can serve a mission in my husband’s land of service. It’s tough, but I can read the children’s cartoon scriptures:) So I have hope that by the time we are ready to retire, my language will be enough.

  6. Like Charity, I have felt the need to learn Spanish for some as yet unknown reason. I was worried that my brain really was fossilized, since I’m already 55. But over the last couple of years, as I’ve read El Libro de Mormon, studied verbs on my own, conversed haltingly with the fluent speakers in my family, listened to lessons in the car, read “Harry Potter” and watched familiar movies in Spanish, traveled to South America and made myself talk to people — it’s working! Best is the fact that I remember what I’ve learned! Ahora peudo leer bien, entender aproximadamente la mitad del espanol dicho, y contruir frases que a veces tienen sentido. So keep at it! Puedes hacerlo!

  7. My husband has been blessed to speak many languages, and it has truly been a blessing for him as he has been able to serve people with his skills in languages. He loves people, all people, and he absolutely loves speaking with people in their native language. Most people light up when they find out he speaks their native language (Chinese people especially – Spanish speakers, especially those from Mexico, would often prefer him to speak English, ironically).

    We met when we were both studying German, which I don’t speak much any more since I haven’t had the opporunity, but he learned Portuguese on his mission and has spoken Portuguese to our children, and I “picked it up” just from listening to him speak to our children, and from reading the scriptures together in Portuguese. We attended a Portuguese speaking ward here in Utah for a while, which was a really neat experience for me (even though I didn’t understand what was going on half the time!).

    Praying in another language is really something else! My husband and I occasionally pray in German together, and most of the time we pray as a family in Portuguese.

    Good luck with the Spanish! Practice reading the Book of Mormon out loud in Spanish (you can also download audio recordings I think – check iTunes). That was how I learned German – reading the Book of Mormon with my German-speaking roommates, one of whom was a native speaker. My German blossomed reading it (out loud).

  8. I’m loving all of these comments and ideas, especially knowing that many of you have learned languages as adults. I’ll check out the options for downloading Church materials in Spanish.

  9. I learned Italian on my mission (at age 21.) You might want to try reading a Spanish Book of Mormon and one in English at the same time, side by side. Eventually you’ll read a verse in Spanish and understand it before you read it in English.

  10. I truly think there are relatively few people who are amazingly good at languages. Most of us just have to work hard to learn one, and the circumstances surroundinging your learning make the biggest difference.

    The people who tell you you’ll pick up a language quickly? Maybe, if you’re living in the country and have plenty of time and willingness to be part of the language for many hours a day (like a missionary). I think age does have a lot to do with it, but as you get older, you might not have the time to drop nearly everything else to focus just on learning a language.

    So it’ll take some time. Maybe you only get to a basic level, or you can’t say everything you want to, but you can understand a lot of what is going on around you. Maybe you learn more about cultural context which is also important in communicating with people. Maybe you’ll just keep some extra brain cells alive. That’s worthwhile.

    I wish I could speak the languages I’ve studied fluently. But I’ve also come to realize there has to be balance. I really can’t spend the time right now to speak Arabic and Russian and Uzbek fluently, or even one of those. But I can do enough in those languages to make connections with people, to bear my testimony, to pray, to sing, to learn a new recipe, or read the news. That will have to be enough for now.

  11. I learned Spanish very easily and was often mistaken for a native speaker on my mission. I believe that learning this language well is one of my spiritual gifts and I have often sought opportunities to use. I studied it as an undergraduate and graduate student. I have even taught those beginning language classes that you are taking :)

    Not everyone learns other languages quickly or easily, but I think there are so many benefits to trying. You learn empathy for others and new ways to see the world, and you can connect with so many other people. Just tonight I was at a Relief Society meeting and spent time speaking to a woman in my ward who is more comfortable in Spanish than in English.

    As far as learning the language, my biggest advice is to just try. Just do it. Make mistakes, be unintelligible, but just keep trying. My toddler says things like “bah” for ball and we just laugh and encourage her; I think we should always do the same for those who are learning a new language. Good input in the language will always help; listening and reading skills develop much faster than speaking and writing. Try listening to books on CD in Spanish or radio programs (you can download conference talks and other church things for free from the church website). There is a public television channel called V-Me that offers Spanish-language content that should be available on your TV. Good luck!

  12. My father loved languages. Every time he met someone who spoke a language besides English, he’d ask them to teach him how to say something. And I learned a lot of those phrases as he learned them.

    In school, I studied German (took enough of it in college to earn a BA instead of a BS), and then decided to take some French so I could learn how to pronounce it, at least. I ended up speaking it with a German accent.

    I have three daughters, and each of them studied a different language in school, and they practiced it on me as they were learning. I did okay with the German student, and I could figure out a lot of what the Spanish student said, but it really boggled my French student’s mind when I understoond her as well (she didn’t know about the classes I’d taken). Each of them served a mission, Austria, Brazil, and Belgium, respectively (so the Spanish speaker has Portuguese as well).

    I realized one day in the temple, while listening to one of the men speak his part, that he was a native German speaker. The thing was, he didn’t have an accent, and I was puzzled by how I could know he was German. What I figured out was that even though his English pronunciation was fine, he still spoke with what I call German “music.” This “music” is one reason I think recently returned missionaries seem to have a bit of an accent, even though they are reporting in English.

    (Perhaps the best example of a language’s “music” is the gobbledy-gook spoken by the “Swedish chef” on the Muppets. He is not speaking Swedish, but he is using Swedish “music,” and everyone knows by that “music” that he is supposed to be speakign Swedish.)

    Anyway, the point of this stuff about “music” is that I had the opportunity a while ago, as a Salt Lake Temple ordinance worker, to help a French-speaking sister feel more comfortable as I spoke to her in the ordinance. I tried to use, as well as I could, French “music” as I said the words, and I could see her relaxing as we went along. It was, for me, a form of “tongues,” and I was very grateful to be able to help her have a good experience in the temple through my doing that.

  13. Another note: I have heard that Rick Steves, who writes books and does shows on travel in Europe, recommends that when you try to talk to someone who speaks a language you don’t know, you should try to speak English in their accent (the way they would speak English).

    He recommends this not to mock the way they speak English, but to bring the way you are talking more in line with the way they speak English. He has had success in communicating, even in English, when he does it this way. And I think it’s a great idea.

  14. I was reminded that God has a sense of humor when I got called to serve a mission in Hungary. I’d wanted to learn a foreign language–secretly, I wanted to learn a language that would impress people when I told them I could speak it. I got what I wanted–but it was definitely not what I expected! It felt like learning to think backwards (Hungarian is agglutinative–it’s grammatically related to Finnish, arguably the hardest language for English speakers to learn). I loved it–although it took a good six months of immersion before I felt like I understood what people around me were saying. But it’s not a language I get to use a lot, unfortunately. Maybe some day.

  15. I love languages!I can’t get enough! It gives you access to all kind of people! It opens up the world. Truly I was lucky to get to learn to speak a usable language post mission–and one that has given me easy access other languages.

    Things that have helped me:
    reading anything in the language, scriptures, newpapers, novels, find stuff online;

    Youtube! You can find all kinds of stuff to listen to and pick it up;

    movies, and if you want to pick up easy-to- understand dialogue:soap operas. Yes, they are lame, but really easy to understand and teach you regular speech patterns and intonation (intonation is just as-if not more-so–important than accent);

    Find some people in the community to meet up with regularly and practice. Right now I meet with 3 different teacher/friends in my town to study a language;

    Eavesdrop-see what you can understand (until you understand too much!);

    Say what you can whevenever you can, otherwise you won’t learn it. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Of course you will, people understand.;

    Post-it notes on everything! Label everything! and put little useful phrases, etc up.;

    key-chain sized note cards. Write every (I mean every) new word down you hear or are trying to learn. Flip through them while working-out, waiting in lines, etc;

    Podcasts (or confernce talks) in an MP3 player. Listen to it while you work-out or are cleaning house.

    Don’t expect to be perfect. Even a little helps make human connections.

  16. I went to 9th, 10th and 11th grade in Taiwan. I learned to speak Mandarin fluently. I never learned to read or write it very well though. When we moved back to the States I was a translator for a little while.

    I thought I would always have the language, but sadly, 25 years later, I can’t speak very well. I have not used my skills. I can hear and understand but have a very hard time speaking. Maybe I need to do some studying and brush up on it a bit.

  17. Most people don’t learn a second language easily. And even those who do learn it “easily” put in more effort than they realize–they just naturally understand what they need to do to get better. At least that was the case for me.

    You could say that I sort of magically learned Spanish–and since I have never served a mission or been in an immersion type setting this is impressive to a lot of people. But I had an easy time understanding how English grammar worked, so all I had to do was remember things about Spanish grammar that were different and then figure out the right words.

    Does that mean I never make mistakes and always am able to say precisely what I want? Nope. Does it mean that I can communicate with people in Spanish? Yes. And that is the whole point of trying.

    So I would say even if you never learn more than how to introduce yourself then you still have the skill you need to try to communicate with people you couldn’t have.

  18. I was never successful with language studies in college or in high school. When I was 25, I moved to Sweden with my husband and 2 children. I got very serious about learning Swedish, so I could survive on my own without constantly needing my husband’s help during the day and at church. My husband had served his mission in Sweden, taught at the MTC for three years and minored in Swedish, so he was good, language-wise. I took courses in the evenings. It was hard. I was trying to care for my family while studying. I had to stop taking courses for a bit because I became terribly ill. A year or two later, I resumed my studies and eventually got through all the courses for the immigrant language courses. And yes, I really am proud of that accomplishment.
    I tried to practice as much as possible. I didn’t ask for translation at church and eventually was called to work in the primary where the kids laughed at my mistakes but understood me despite my bumbling attempts. I tried to read as much as I could.
    I haven’t kept up with my Swedish as I should have. Now we are in Saudi Arabia. I don’t know how well my attempts to learn Arabic will go. But I know that I can try and just do my best.

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