Tongue-tied: Being Humbled and Finding Grace

The following is a blog post that I wrote three weeks ago. I was a bit too sore to post it at the time (often, the lessons God teaches us are painful at first, but grow sweeter with time); but after reading it again today, I am greatly encouraged by how far I’ve come—ever by God’s grace!—in what feels like ages but has been, in fact, just three weeks. Part two of this blog post will be an update on where I am now in the language-learning process, for the patient reader who cares to continue. And now, my thoughts from September 19th:

With my friend Elizabeth--she speaks Italian and some English, and she was such a help to me during the retreat!

How profoundly humbling, and what a great blessing it is, to be shown love and grace by God’s people in another country. This weekend I went on a retreat to the mountains of Valencia with the youth group (which, in Spain, includes “youths” ranging approximately from the age of twelve to thirty) of the First Baptist Church of Alicante. What an experience! After having missed church for two consecutive weeks due to travel, I was so longing for the fellowship of believers. Of course, the weekend was complicated a bit by the oft-frustrating reality of a language barrier. (But don’t you speak Spanish, you may ask?) The humbling answer is that…although I understand my teachers in class and am able to communicate satisfactorily in the classroom setting, communicating with facility outside of the classroom is another feat entirely. In consequence, I found myself, frustratingly limited in my ability to communicate this weekend. My frustration was heightened, I think, by the
fact that I love words and language and therefore hardly knew what to do with myself when I was, in effect, bereft of the gift of rich, deep communication.

Paula and I. This girl has a Spanish father, a German mother, and is fluent in Spanish, English, and German at age thirteen. Wow.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I was able to have some incredible conversations with extremely patient, kind friends who helped me when I struggled to find the right words and who answered my endless questions about grammar and vocabulary. What a blessing that was! At the same time, the more I learn, and the more I improve…the more I realize how far I have to go. This weekend, for example, I discovered that a number of the words and uses of words which I’ve learned in textbooks over the years are not at all used in the same way in real life…at least not in Spain, where a particular variation of Spanish is spoken. To be reminded that books cannot teach me everything was, again, very humbling for an inveterate bibliophile such as myself. In addition, to feel almost mute at times because of my limited vocabulary or because of the difficulty of thinking quickly in Spanish, was profoundly humbling. But what a testimony and example the believers in the group were to me through t
he way in which they welcomed me, cared for me, and loved me, even as I stumbled over the beautiful words of their language.

The delightful group of people who went on the retreat--what fun it was and continues to be to get to know them!

My experience this weekend, and in Spain in general, has helped me realize how incredibly isolated I’ve been when it comes to languages. Yes, of course I’ve taken a foreign language in school ever since middle school. Even so, learning vocabulary and grammar in class is so very different from “living a language”, as my director puts it. I’m beginning to realize how very much I will have to learn outside of the classroom if I’m ever going to have a fair command of the Spanish language. Which is, of course, why I’m in Spain—it’s far more exciting and compelling to learn a language when speaking it well is a necessity for daily living and communication!