The Lord has ways of humbling His missionaries. About the time they think they’re learning the new language, someone will inadvertently or blatantly let them know they talk funny. Do we really sound bad? What makes us talk with a foreign accent? Can it be avoided? Why do missionary kids speak so much better than their parents? The adults have superior intelligence and education, but language learning has little to do with these. The parents attend classes and slave over books while their children learn the language playing with the native kids. We could learn a lot from our children!
There are three basic aspects to speaking a language: pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Mom and dad missionary can use their intelligence and education to advance in the grammar and vocabulary. Their children will probably excel more in the pronunciation. Grammar is important. We must know the correct word order, verb tense, gender, number, noun modifier agreement, etc., or we may be misunderstood. Our vocabulary must increase, or we will limit our message and talk like children instead of the educated adults we are. A missionary might say, “I get by in the language.” May I say as kindly as possible, dear brother, “As an ambassador of Jesus Christ, you must do better than that!” Correct grammar and an ample vocabulary are important, but in the beginning, pronunciation must take top priority.
Do you know anyone, perhaps your family doctor, who is from a foreign country and speaks English with a strong accent? You would not question his intelligence or education; it probably far exceeds yours, as does his vocabulary. But he talks funny. You have to really think hard to understand some of his words. Will his speech improve with more time in our country? It’s not likely. Perhaps he has been here twenty-five years already. Is it possible for a missionary to sound funny speaking a new language? Will he sound funny even if he stays on his field for twenty years? I don’t need to tell you the answers. The important question is this: does he have to sound funny? Or can he learn to speak without a bad American accent? Yes, he can! First, he can begin at a very young age; two or three years old would be good. But since he has missed that window of opportunity called childhood, he must take a second option. He cannot be a child, so he must be like a child. A child hears and imitates new sounds. That’s why he speaks the new language without an accent. The doctor speaks as he does because he carries his native language speech habits over to English. That is what all adults tend to do.
Suppose I am learning Spanish. I see the word “pesos.” I think the “e” sounds like “ay” in pay, and the “o” is like that in so. Of course, I know how to pronounce the “p” and “s”. I say the word and the native speaker understands me, but I have mispronounced at least four sounds in this word! I sound funny. I try again with a little word like “tal.” I know the “a” is like “a” in father and I already know what a “t” and an “l” sound like; we have them in English. However, I make two errors on the “t,” and the “l” is seriously flawed. The problem is that I have no idea I am saying the word wrong. I sound funny to the native speaker, but he doesn’t know what I am doing wrong. He probably thinks all gringos talk funny. Maybe I need to learn shorter Spanish words like “y,” which means and. I know both the “y” and the “i” in Spanish sound like the vowel in bee. Trying to say that little one-letter word I make at least two mistakes. First, I begin the word with a consonant! (We always begin English words such as eye, arm, open, and eat with this consonant called a glottal stop, but we don’t even hear it!) Secondly, I pronounce an English vowel and then glide toward the Spanish “i.”
The way to avoid forming bad habits in a new language is to begin by learning new habits. That’s what our doctor, mentioned above, failed to do. It might be good if we didn’t see the words written at first. Remember, children learn—and learn well—with their ears, not their eyes. Since it is impossible for a missionary to change his age from twenty-eight to eight, the next best thing is to learn the skill of phonetics (the study of human speech sounds) before he begins forming bad pronunciation habits. Then when he hears the word “pesos” he will learn it phonetically. He will listen carefully and notice that the “p” is unaspirated and the vowels are pure and unglided. He will also recognize that the final “s” is really the “s” sound and not the “z” sound that an English speaker would naturally say in this context. His phonetic skill enables him to produce the exact sounds. He also recognizes and imitates the rhythm of the new tongue.
A few missionaries are exceptionally good language learners, and they learn to speak quite well. Imagine what they could do with specialized preparation! Some without linguistic training will speak with an atrocious accent. And most will just sound funny. However, we at BBTI believe the King of Kings deserves ambassadors that don’t sound funny!