The table looks like it belongs in a kindergarten classroom: small papers with crayoned cars, trains, and simple stick figures, and full-sized sheets quartered into rough approximations of a park, a hospital, a house. We aren’t kindergartners, but as adult language learners, we are training ourselves to take on the simple, curious, focused mindset of children. After all, who learns languages better than a child?
Our language helper is Yanna, a bubbly Chinese-American who is thrilled at the chance to help us learn—and, for now, butcher—her native language of Mandarin. We point to the pictures; she patiently says the Mandarin word. Over and over. Then she says the word and we point.
The sounds are strange and garbled to our American ears. After an hour, though, we are able to differentiate between dozens of Mandarin words and phrases. Better yet, the next day we remember them. And we learn even more quickly, as both the sounds and the process become more familiar.
She tells us a sentence: “We took the train to the market.” We scramble for our pictures and place them together. Then questions: “How did they get to the market?” “Where did he go?” “Who went to the market?” We understand the questions, muddle a rough response, pointing enthusiastically to the picture whose name we are trying to say.
“Market” is “long mong xie chong” or something like that. Mostly we just know it has lots of syllables, which is good enough for now. Easier is “he”, a high-toned “ta,” and “they,” “ta-man.” But these blessedly short words and somewhat familiar phonetics are few and far between in this strange language. Still, the sounds slowly untangle themselves in our ears, our mistakes are surprisingly few, and before our eyes and ears Mandarin unfolds like an enchanting landscape.
I won’t need Mandarin in Czech, of course. Neither will any of my four classmates, who are heading out to Namibia, Somalia, Thailand, and Chad. Mandarin isn’t the point here; what we’re learning is the process. It is so different from how I learned Spanish in school: no vocabulary lists, no grammar drills.
Here is the mind-blowing thesis: Language is a natural human capability. It’s not like math or reading or driving a car. Every human being (barring those with exceptional disabilities) learns a language with no formal teaching. Like learning to roll over or to walk, human beings are hard-wired to learn language.
So here we are in our Mandarin group with our little pictures, learning language the way my baby nieces do: lots and lots of listening, connecting that listening with understanding, and delaying speaking. Most babies, after all, don’t talk until they have 12 or 18 months of constant input!
Traditional classroom methods, textbooks, and worksheets have their place. That’s the advantage of being an adult: we can be purposeful and focused in our learning, and we can read. But the backbone of it all is the same a child: listen with comprehension. Listen, listen, listen.
A tap at the door tells us it is lunchtime. The three hours with Yanna have flown by. Never once did I consider the time, so deep was my focus on this small world.
We emerge from our Mandarin haze and realize, for the first time, how tired we are. But it is a satisfying tired, like the burn of a good workout. We marvel at what we’ve learned. Some of us learn more slowly than others, but we have all learned an impressive amount, and are surprised at this unexpected gem of skill we’ve found within our brains. Every single one of us can say truthfully, “I’m a natural.”
I can’t wait to find a Czech language helper. I can’t wait to start hearing Czech phrases and let them slowly sink in and unravel themselves in my brain. I want to know Czech, certainly, to be able to get around town and understand sermons and talk with teenagers. But now I am also excited to learn Czech, to tap into my brain’s natural ability and watch as my understanding and ability grow and grow and grow. What a gift from God—literally!