Language Acquisition Guide

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Once we get out on the field. many of us realize how important knowing the language is. Too often. however, it seems virtually impossible to find the time for language study.Though we believe strongly that proper language study is a must for everyone. the reality is that many of us may never have that opportunity. So we offer this guide to help you as you work on language acquisition on your own.

The first thing to remember is that acquiring a language is NOT the same     as learning a language. Learning has to do with lists of words, conjugation of verbs. memorization, drills. repetition, etc. But babies and children acquire language naturally, using the “methods” outlined below. They do it unconsciously. of course. but you as an adult can use the same basic methods to help you.

Remember, your brain was programmed to language acquisition from conception. It’s like a computer with the language-acquisition “hardware” and “software” already in place. All you need to do is give it the correct ‘data.’ and it will ‘sort out” the language and figure out its ‘rules’, “pronunciation”. etc. on its own. The question is: How can you facilitate this process? Consider the following:

The Eleven Commandments  of Language Acquisition

1. Listen, Listen, Listen-Just as a baby listens for months before she starts trying to say anything, you need to be an active listener so your ears (and brain) can get used to the new sounds of this language

2. Watch, Watch, Watch-Because at least 70%  of language is non-verbal (facial expressions, intonation, body language) you need to observe how people speak the language and not just the words they say.

3. Immerse yourself-To do #1 and 2 above it is essential that you have a lot of exposure to the language. An hour a day won’t do it You need extended exposure. Part of that time must be spent in active listening and watching, but part of it can be invested in casual listening and watching. By doing this you are helping your brain pick up the ‘music’ of the language even if you are not actively listening.

4. Find ways to get lots of “comprehensible input”. People who study how the brain works tell us that if we are able to understand 70-80% of what we are hearing, the brain can guess the rest. (If the amount of the input we understand is less than 70-80% the brain tends to shut down.) So, your goal is to put yourself in situations where there is lots of input that is comprehensible. (Listening to a foreign language radio station for hour’s is NOT comprehensible input. You’re lucky if you understand 5%-the rest is gibberish. so your brain gives up.) TV is better than radio since at least you have the picture to aid your comprehension. Going to a market and having someone tell you the names of things you’re looking at is great. Your primary goal is not necessarily to memorize these words, but to give your brain input it can comprehend. The actual acquisition is done as your brain processes the input on it’s own-unconsciously!

5. To help you get this input, you need to find mentors/teachers/tutors who will treat you like a baby (well, a young child) at least part of the time. Without consciously planning, we automatically use a number of techniques with children to give them understandable input. We use simple words. We use simpler sentence structure than is normal for us. We use LOTS of non-verbal language and lots of repetition. We don’t shout. We don’t talk slower or in an exaggerated way. So, find someone who will use some of these same techniques with you-especially in the early stages.

6. Learn to read. Because you are an adult, you do have certain advantages over a baby. Because your goal in acquiring a language is to increase opportunities for “comprehensible input”, being able to read can help. Reading a language, of course doesn’t mean you understand it, but because you are learning the language as an adult, it creates many opportunities for you to get input you can understand. Ability to read signs, hymn books. Bible texts, books written for young children. etc. enables you to pick up a lot of the language via a kind of educated guesswork (from the context). It the writing system uses the same alphabet as English, this task is obviously much easier. You simply have to learn what sounds the vowels and consonants make in this language and then practice them. If, on the other hand, it uses a different set of symbols, your task is obviously more difficult, yet it can be very exciting and rewarding. After all, you’re learning to “crack a code” and acquire a skill very few people you’ve known have.

7. Watch your comprehension grow. If you focus on listening for several weeks or months, you will begin to understand some (and eventually a lot) of what is being said around you. That is exactly what happens to a baby. At age one a baby understands a lot, even though he doesn’t say anything yet Because you are an adult. you will probably want to begin talking sooner than a baby does. (And that’s okay! Just don’t focus on talking when you should be listening to give your brain the input it needs to sort out the language.) It doesn’t hurt to memorize a few phrases. However, rather than being focused on saying everything you want to say eventually, focus instead on things that will help you get more input that you understand. (i.e. “How do you say…?” “What’s this?” “What’s happening?” etc.)

8. Talk. But remember, just as babies talk AFTER they have quite a bit of understanding, you should pace yourself in talking. In fact, before you start talking, you need to “play” with the language. Babies and children do this naturally. They practice the sounds they hear over and over and over. This helps both the brain and the nerves and muscles of the face, mouth and throat. Since you’re not a baby, you may want to do this in the shower or some other place where people won’t question your sanity, but it’s a good pre-talking activity. But when you do begin trying to talk, don’t let talking replace listening. Even after you begin talking you need to focus more time on active listening than on talking so you can continue to get comprehensible input. That’s hard for us because we have so much to say! But it is necessary.

9. Be brave. As you practice listening and eventually begin talking, you WILL make mistakes! It is inevitable. Children make LOTS of mistakes and we don’t condemn or judge them or deem them stupid. (Actually, with kids, we think it’s “cute”, don’t we?) You and l have to have the courage of a child to trust our understanding (knowing that we will not always be right) and to begin testing the language by saying things (knowing that we will make all kinds of mistakes.)

10. Expect plateaus. I guess it’s how the brain works, but it’s almost inevitable that after a few months of real progress in acquiring the language you may feel like you’ve hit the ceiling. In fact, you may feel that you’re going backwards. Don’t panic. These plateau periods may be needed by the brain’s computer to “cool down” and process all the information it’s been given. Or maybe it’s your nerves that need to cool down. Whatever it is, it won’t last forever. Keep calm. Be kind to yourself. Keep focusing on getting comprehensible input and you will have another “growth spurt” (Which will probably be followed by another plateau at some time.)


11. Enjoy! Language is made for communication. Use it to make friends. Use it to understand and enjoy the people and the culture better. Don’t get hung up on perfection so that you can’t relax and enjoy it. You CAN do it. The Lord hasn’t called you to failure, and he knows how important it is to your mission. So just do it!

By Pat Gustin

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