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High-Income WASP Schooled By Low-Income Minority in Language Acquisition

I am the poster child educational privilege. I was born in a high-income country to a married mother and father, both of whom completed masters’ degrees. They taught me to read before I started Kindergarten. With those advantages, I cannot remember a time when I was the person least likely to understand what was happening in a room.

Learning a language as an adult (a sleep-deprived adult, in fact) will turn that paradigm upside down. For a very, very long time (maybe forever): I will be the person who knows the least about what is happening in a room in Cambodia. Despite the patient work of our language helpers the past month, I am just as likely to say “I am sad” as “I am happy” when greeting someone in Khmer. And probably most likely to say nothing at all intelligible.

Fortunately, medical school and residency helped cultivate humility: while I was never educationally disadvantaged, I was often the individual with the least working knowledge of a subject. Completing training in Family Medicine usually means being the person on the team with the least “insider” knowledge (we are trained in medicine by internists, in pediatrics by pediatricians, in surgery by surgeons, and in a variety of other specialties by specialists). Though I never got good at keeping my mouth shut, I did get better at asking questions rather than making (incorrect) statements.

A long-standing joke describes people who speak three languages as “trilingual”, people who speak two languages as “bilingual”, and people who speak one language as “American”. Despite many years of Spanish education, I still fall decidedly in the latter category. The past few weeks have helped me understand why classroom learning is insufficient for second language acquisition. Language does not happen in a vacuum, because communication is not meant to be one-sided. Learning phonetics previously conjured up images of Eliza Doolittle announcing seriously at a horse derby, "the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain". I now realize that learning to speak in a way that doesn't require others to strain to understand is an important way to serve the communities we hope to reach.

The overwhelming goal of fluency becomes much less intimidating when I considered how and why our children have learned (and continue to learn) language. They want to share thoughts, and they want to understand the world around them. The bar is not set at perfection. The bar is set at communication, and a place in the conversation. They don’t need to understand every word I read in a chapter book to enjoy the story. And really, neither do I.

Perhaps my favorite realization this month: language learning is not a precursor to cross-cultural work. Language learning is the first stage of cross-cultural work. Relationships and trust are formed on the humble arches I must lay down to cross from a land in which I understand and am understood to a land completely “other”. I am neither the first, nor the last person to attempt such a crossing. While I draw courage from the millions who daily embark on similar journeys, I am most encouraged by the only Person who has ever built and crossed such a bridge perfectly: Jesus Christ.

What is more foreign to Heaven than earth? Which cross-cultural leap has required more humility than the Creator leaving perfection to suffer at the hands of imperfect, created beings? He came not only to speak our language, but to give love a voice that transcends all languages. If I epitomize educational privilege, He epitomizes ultimate sacrifice. He was born in a low-income country to an unmarried mother and father, neither of whom were highly educated. And yet by school age, He was both teaching others to read Scripture and to see truth.

Following Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations might begin with learning another language, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Following His example, I can begin building bridges into other cultures with love: love for people, love for their stories, and love in their language.


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