Welcome, folks, to yet another interview with an IMB worker; yes, those five-question time wasters are back despite popular demand. Lapses between interviews grow exponentially, mainly because nobody is answering my emails anymore. However, I crossed paths, virtually or literally, with someone too nice to turn me down.
Fyve Legumbre works primarily as in the language learning department of the IMB. She’s been on the field, in one fashion or another, for more than 10 years and less than 25, and is a proven commodity in helping others learn and master new languages for the purpose of spreading the Gospel. She’s well-qualified: her American parents raised her in far-off places due to their own international working experience, so she’s been multi-lingual all her life.
As usual, the intro is frivolous, identities are hidden, but the facts and the Q&A are completely true.
You’re the language person for one of the IMB’s affinity groups. What is that called – ENOC?
Not anymore. In years past, we had ENOC coordinators in each country, more or less. “ENOC” stood for Entry Orientation Coordinator. We had plans and programs for language learning and cultural immersion. In our relatively new system, language and culture are separated somewhat. The language folks work really as language coaches, focusing on helping missionaries acquire their new languages. I oversee language learning for our affinity, but a lot of the cultural adaptation and orientation falls under the mentorship program. I think!
I play a part in supervising the language team. That includes the language coordinators at our language centers and the programs we use there as well as those who serve as language coaches for our new missionaries.
Is there a type of person who is the best language learner? Men? Women? Married vs. single?
I haven’t really seen any sort of “best student” based on gender or marital status. More than anything, the biggest key is commitment. Personality also plays a role. Some of the people who learn the fastest are people who are more easily drawn into relationships. They are driven to find ways to communicate, and therefore practice their language skills. Missionaries who are also highly-motivated students often do quite well. Once people leave language school and arrive on the field, we continue working with them on a part time basis but it really is up to them to continue learning.
A recent missionary did quite well at her language learning task. When I asked how she did it, she said, “I view this entire experience as sort of a college thing. The IMB has given me a scholarship – free tuition – for about a year of full-time study. I’ve got to use that scholarship money wisely, and work hard at learning. I have specific language tasks that I do daily, without fail, because that’s the only way I’ll learn it.” And that’s the way to do it.
Do you find that some folks just never “get it”? That certain people just don’t have what it takes to learn a new language?
I guess we have stumbled across people in the last several years who did everything they could possibly do and still failed to master the language. However, I have to add a few caveats.
First, the total for the last several years is VERY small; perhaps as few as five units just couldn’t do it.
Second, I truly mean it when I say “everything they could possibly do…” Most of the time, people just need some help. They need someone to encourage them, or find the right learning tool, or need help managing their time.
More than running into people who cannot learn a language, I encounter people who could learn but just cannot seem to make the commitment to learn. They just need some help in focusing. We do all we can, and 99% of the time it all works out. Very rarely –even more rarely than the few who just can’t learn – we have to have some kind of official meeting regarding someone’s disinclination to study their language lessons.
Having said all of that, I need to emphasize that everyone arrives determined and motivated. It just happens that sometimes people are surprised at the difficulty of the learning process and as they struggle, they lose heart.
Your part of the world boasts some language institutes or schools where many IMB workers do the bulk of their language learning. Isn’t it supposed to be better to learn in the same community where you work and live?
We have used language schools for quite some time in our part of the world. We’ve found that formal learning works well for many people. Language institutes allow us to train the most students in the least amount of time. As well, language schools allow everyone to focus a bit more, to be more driven by a structured classroom situation. That cuts learning time.
We’ve seen a general pattern over the last several years. At language schools, the men and the women perform equally or the women learn faster than the men. Once everyone scatters to their place of service, the women often plateau or fall back while the men usually continue to advance. The usual reason for the disparity is that women usually experience the most distractions (children, management of the home, children’s education), things that keep them homebound and not immersed in the new language, thus ensuring that they will not continue learning without some sort of extraordinary effort. The men continue learning because they are the ones most often out of the house and into the community.
We’re aware of those issues, though, and we try work with families to make sure that expectations are reasonable.
What is the difference from the way you saw your parents learn language versus the way people approach language today? Lay out for us how the approach to learning has changed.
It is hard to recall, exactly, whether expats in years past were better at second languages than today’s IMB missionaries are. I believe they were better than today’s workers, despite being unable to prove it.
I remember that international workers (including missionaries) in the past moved out of the big cities and lived in towns all over the country. No one knew English. There was no English TV. The internet wasn’t around. Relationships, survival, and emotional health were dependent on your ability to learn the language well enough to fit in. Today? Not so much.
Today, technology makes language learning harder, not easier. People get all the spiritual feeding they need from iPods and podcasts, in English. They download iTunes music and streaming sermons from their home church. They are not driven to learn the language in order to worship with local believers.
They have Skype and international cell phone service and email, things that allow them to hold firmly to their old stateside relationships, making local relationships in local languages unnecessary.
They accidentally create an English-language bubble around themselves, in their homes, and it greatly complicates the language process. I don’t blame people for relying on those things, because I love staying in touch with family and friends back in the U.S., too, but a key part of learning a language comes from a certain drive to satisfy needs. Without those needs, the drive is lacking.
So technology has its impact. Are there other forces, things that make it harder for people today to learn languages?
I guess the generational gap makes an impact. There are two things that really spring to mind.
The current generation of young adults is very concerned about the impact that moving and working will have on their children. I know in years past, sometimes parents downplayed that impact, but it seems like the pendulum has swung too far the other way. It often makes missionaries unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices that language learning requires. Language learning does require time and work, and that can indeed take away some time from your kids, but you can change that and make learning a family activity.
The second generational issue is the approach to career. When my parents left the States, they were pursuing a career. Spending a year in full time language study (plus a second and third year at half-time study) wasn’t too much of a commitment. After all, in a 30-year career, what’s a year or two studying? Isn’t that a reasonable commitment to one’s career? My husband and I had the same mindset: this is our calling and our career. For us, spending a few years developing the right skills isn’t much of a sacrifice.
Today, though, most people do not take on jobs with the attitude of “This is who and what I will be for most of my working life.” They unconsciously assume that they’ll leave somewhere before retirement. And with the average career worker in the IMB staying at roughly 10 years right now, people are reluctant to spend 25% of their overall working time studying language.
Today’s new appointees are excited and enthusiastic, hoping to make an impact on the world. They want and need to be able to be able to minister effectively and quickly and sometimes the commitment and time needed for good language study seems almost too much.
Thanks for the insight.