Have you wondered what it’s like to be a worker in early stages of language learning? Christar workers all go through this process. Here’s a glimpse into that world.
The alarm rudely squawks at 7 a.m., yanking Stephanie* out of a deep sleep. She quiets the beeping and gathers her drowsy thoughts: It’s Wednesday, I’ll need to be on the street to catch the bus by 8 a.m.—assuming it’s on time. That’ll give her enough time to fry two eggs, take a tepid shower and cram her vocabulary before she runs to the bus stop.
On the bus, Stephanie typically reads, prays or daydreams. Today, she puts her mind to work, silently practicing pronunciations of the words she reviewed this morning. The cracked pleather on her bus seat pokes through her skirt, and she adjusts her position, careful not to sway into the young mother with her sleeping infant beside her. She vigilantly watches the streets rush by, watching for the stop where she’ll switch from bus to tram. She shudders at the thought of missing the stop in this part of town. Even though this city is starting to feel familiar, she doesn’t feel confident to find her way through the chaos if she departs from the exact route she has practiced these last few months.
It’s in those moments of sweaty panic that months of learning words and grammar evaporate and her mind goes blank. That same worry strikes when she steps up to pay at the market or tries to converse with the kind elderly lady who lives in the apartment across the hall. Her mind empties as the wrong words spill out, muddled and mispronounced. But recently, the deluge and panic have decreased, and she’s noticed that the words are starting to stick. And there’s her stop! She jumps from the bus and cautiously makes her way across the street to the tram.
Sighing with relief and fatigue, Stephanie knocks on the door of her language helper’s modest home. The 90-minute journey, weaving through the dusty city and switching between bus, tram, ferry and foot, is a fitting warmup for the mental exercise ahead. Her language helper, Ada, is a patient woman with two young daughters who play quietly in the next room while Stephanie and Ada attempt conversation. They go on for almost two hours before their stomachs distract them with rumbles of hunger. Stephanie is relieved to give her mushy brain a break from the language struggle of the day.
Savory aromas waft from the kitchen where Ada has already prepared her family’s meal. Stephanie gratefully accepts the invitation to stay and partake of rich soup with flatbread. She relishes adventurous eating, and her taste buds have thrilled over the complex textures and spices that fill the kitchens of her new home city.
Home. She’s still caught off guard as she thinks about the permanency of her commitment to this place. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be here, but she trusts God’s timing. Stephanie has wanted this life of a cross-cultural worker for as long as she can remember. Even in the political turmoil of this country, she feels safe because she knows it is where God has her right now. Her six teammates have been so kind to her in this transition. They got her moved in and accompanied her to set up her cellphone, bank account, transportation pass and residency card. She feels guilty at times, knowing they are glad to have her here, but worried she is learning the language too slowly and fearful that she will soon switch from newcomer to burden for the team.
As she finishes the hearty lunch with Ada and her girls, she thanks them and starts the winding journey through the crowded city streets back to her apartment. Her mind is worn and weary from the grueling language practice. Gazing out the window of the bus, she rests her brain and watches the scenery rush by.
The colors still seem brighter here; the fashion looks foreign. The people on the bus, tram and streets wear a cloak of mystery. Stephanie thinks about the words of hope these people have likely never heard. She prays that the new words she learned today would stick, each seared into her mind, each a step toward authentic conversation. Her heart longs to say phrases of eternal consequence, that go beyond “Thank you for the soup.”
This mix of frustration and excitement about the joy of the gospel and her frustration with not yet being able to speak in the heart language of her least-reached friends creates a sense of impatience. She knows how many have yet to hear of the love of Christ, and longs to be fluent, to have conversations that matter. Yet, Stephanie also believes that the same God who called her loves these people all around her. The apparent delay and slow slog through vocabulary is transformed into a holy and Spirit-empowered privilege that has been granted to her. With that in mind, she takes a deep breath, exhales and returns to her musings over pronunciations and salvation.
As she climbs the dimly lit steps up to her apartment, Stephanie looks forward to the calm that awaits. Her brain complains of overload, but her afternoon schedule demands that she push through the mental fatigue. A letter to her support team needs to be written, and she has a Skype date with her sister. She should probably straighten up before the team comes over for the weekly prayer gathering this evening. But, right now, she needs a moment. She settles down on her bed with a cup of strong coffee—oh, how she misses pumpkin creamer—to read and gather her thoughts.
Stephanie opens her Bible and finds where she left off. As her eyes land on Acts 8:8, a phrase grabs her attention: “so there was great joy in that city.” She pauses and her eyes wander from the page to the window and the traffic below. There was great joy in that city. She smiles at the phrase and prays, “Lord, bring great joy in this city, too! Bring great joy through the hope these people can find in Jesus.” Closing her eyes and resting her head against the wall, she muses, What if God transformed this city with His joy? What would that look like?
That glorious potential energizes and compels her back to the day’s reality. Each task, each journey across the city and lesson in language is a step toward sharing that joy.
For today, it’s enough to give her energy to push through an afternoon of arduous tasks. It diffuses the doubts of another week of feeling inadequate in her inability to ask for directions or purchase laundry detergent. Every word and phrase is bringing her one step closer to articulating the message of Jesus, the great joy, in this city. And that is why she patiently embraces each word and each day as a language learner: for the sake of that great joy!
How can I get involved?
Dozens of Christar workers are currently in the throes of language learning. Pray for courage, perseverance and vision in this process.