The Theory of The First Year (1 of 5) Language

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The following is my theory of the first year of being on the mission field. This is in the context of a missionary learning Chinese in China (though it can be applied elsewhere).

The general idea is the first year is going to be one of the most difficult years on the field, but also the most foundational. This is not a new concept, and many come to the field prepared for it, but it seems many forget everything they were taught the second day on the field.

Everything seems adventurous and fun when you land with tons of money to set up your house in a new place. But it is scary. The setup process seems to catch people off guard: spending large amounts of money, being pressured to find things they like in a short period and having no idea where to find them. But this isn’t really about “how to setup with the least amount of stress“. There is something else I am aiming towards.

Instantly upon arriving on your new field you will experience “culture shock“. Many deny culture shock, but it starts the first day that you’re on the field. It is the source of many of the crazy things people will do in their first year. It is the source of many tears. It is the source of what just caused a person who seemed to be doing well in America to be a wreck on the mission field. (Honestly, getting to the field and realizing that a restaurant does not serve cold drinks and does not have ice for your drinks is enough to make most Americans crazy.) But this isn’t really about, “how to deal with culture shock on the mission field.” There is something else I want to discuss…

…the goal of the first year.

What is the goal of the first year? It is to learn the language and the culture. Correct! But more importantly, the language. What I mean is: if in one year you can carry on a basic conversation in Chinese, but you still don’t know how to use chopsticks, you have succeeded. On the contrary, if in one year you know how to use chopsticks, but you can’t carry on a basic conversation in Chinese, you have not succeeded. Therefore, the theory of the first year that I want to write about is not as much about culture adaptation as language acquisition.

So let’s talk language.

The theory of the first year is simple: if you do well in the language during your first year, you will be working towards fluency, but if you don’t do well during your first year, then you most likely won’t become fluent. The first year will set the pattern for the rest of your language learning time and is foundational for future ministry impact. Language is the most necessary part of the equation, but also the hardest to do and easiest to neglect.

Now, of course, I don’t know everything about it. I don’t even claim to be an expert, but I have lived in China for five years and I have been learning the language ever since. I’ve have “studied” for about 2 1/2 years full-time, then started a Chinese ministry.

I have learned Chinese “okay,” but even that is questionable.

So why am I writing this? Because I have learned a few things, and I want to help. I have watched other people. I have drawn some conclusions. So in these posts I want to help you focus on learning the language in your first year. (Yes, this sounds like a given, but if it were so easy, then I wouldn’t have to be writing a post about it, so stick with me.)

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5 thoughts on “The Theory of The First Year (1 of 5) Language

  1. David Bennett

    Good point! I like your emphasis on the language, even over culture, early on. I like what you said about getting a sound foundation for language. I also look forward to your later post.

  2. Krista

    Thank you, Mark! your post on music was informative and thought provoking. I prayed for you and your family today. :)


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