How Do I Become Fluent? A Language Learner’s Guide

I occasionally get messages from students taking a foreign language (specifically Spanish) asking how to become fluent. There is no one-track, follow-these-3-steps guarantee to gaining fluency but with a few years of study and practice it’s doable so I thought I’d share some tips that helped me on my journey to fluency in Spanish. (and ones I’m using currently, although not-so-consistently, to learn Arabic)

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Language learning is a lifelong journey. We never stop expanding our vocabulary in any language, whether it’s our native tongue or not.


Three messages I’ve gotten recently:

 

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The best learning “tactic” you can have is the desire to learn. My personal motivation was traveling to Honduras as a teen and realizing the need to be able to communicate with the people there. If you want more convincing check out the infographic below about the benefits of a bilingual brain.

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Either way, find your why and your language journey will be so much more meaningful and will be what gets you through the lulls and moments when you feel overwhelmed.

That brings me to my next point… you will feel overwhelmed and like you want to give up and like you’re in over your head and oh-my-gosh-I’ll-never-get-the-hang-of-this-language, why-does-everyone-understand-except-me! I can’t tell you the times I walked into my college Spanish classes with sweaty palms and an abnormally high heart rate. It can be nerve wracking and I think a lot of people give up right around that time. But that is exactly where you have to push on through.

Learning a language will only happen for those who don’t mind looking foolish. If you are self-conscious about how silly you might sound then chances are it will be much nervousmore of a struggle. Because here’s some news: YOU WILL SOUND RIDICULOUS. You will. There is no getting around the fact that as a language learner (LL) you are going to mispronounce words and use the incorrect verb tense and just flat out say things you didn’t mean to say like one time when I told someone I had “a horse in my bathroom.”

*Things to keep in mind

  • Receptive language (comprehension) is typically developed before expressive language. I hear so many LL’s say, “I understand most of what they say! I just can’t answer back!” That’s normal.
  • It’s very unlikely that you will go from zero to fluent in just a year’s time. Allow yourself plenty of time to learn the language and don’t beat yourself up about what feels like slow progress. It’s hard to put a time limit on language proficiency because there are so many factors and we all learn differently.
  • You’ll probably have to invest financially. To learn a language you have to be intentional with your time and money. (but I hope through this blog post to give you some money- and time-saving tips you can use on your way to fluency)
  • There are four parts to learning a language: hearing, speaking, reading, writing. Make sure you are practicing all four!

 

Once you’ve discovered your motivation and accepted the fact that there will be moments when you will feel like giving up and that you will occasionally sound dumb, let’s talk about some practical ways to start and/or supplement your language studies.

  1. Take a class. I’ve known people who have become fluent just by immersion (see below) but if you live in a country where the target language is not prevalent (U.S.) you need to start here with some kind of formal class with an instructor, preferably one you can interact with, not an online class.
  2. Immersion. Whereas the class will give you the foundation for grammar, vocabulary, basics of pronunciation; immersion is the best and fastest way to become conversational and then fluent. It is suggested to have some formal training in the language before this step. Immersion is best carried out by traveling to the country or culture where your target language is spoken in every day life. This works best if you surround yourself with individuals who do not speak your first language. (and/or marry one of them like I did!)
  3. Practice outside of class time. IF you have the desire to learn you will have the desire to practice. (which is how I knew I desired speaking Spanish more than I desired playing the piano when I was younger) ūüėČ And if you have a busy schedule like I imagine you do, there are ways to multi-task while practicing a language.
    • I used to listen to Coffee Break Spanish podcasts while cleaning and doing laundry. (recently I’ve checked out Pimsleur language program CDs from my local library as I’m trying to learn Arabic and I love their teaching method. I’ll listen to them in the car.)
    • In high school I found a local Spanish language newspaper that I would pick up occasionally to try to read. I’d mark words I recognized and try to figure out the gist of the story. Most local libraries also have children’s books in Spanish.
    • Watching cartoons (for me, it was old Disney movies) that you know the characters and storyline will help give you confidence in the language and you won’t feel as lost as you hear the foreign words. It’s exciting the first time you start recognizing words or phrases and can understand their context in the story.
    • Listen to music. Many popular songs in English are translated to Spanish but just remember that most are not translated word for word. A couple artists I would listen to were Kari Jobe and Hillsong in Spanish. Having music or the TV on in the background as you do other things is helpful even if you aren’t directly paying attention. It is training your ear to the sounds of the language whether you are conscious of it or not and is an easy way to learn popular phrases.
    • Make friends with speakers of your target language! I would keep in touch with friends in Honduras but I also got involved in a tutoring ministry during college based in a neighborhood of majority Mexican and Guatemalan families. Building relationships with these families face to face made me feel comfortable trying to speak their language and motivated me even more.
  4. Apps on your phone are great tools to aid in language learning. Google translate IMG_0515can be used in various helpful ways, (not in translating large texts) for example I use it to “test” my pronunciation in Arabic by using the mic and speaking a phrase I’ve learned and then seeing if it understands me. DuoLingo is fun because it sets up language lessons as a game that covers the four areas: hearing, speaking, reading, writing. It keeps up with your level, lets you set personalized goals, and sends you reminders to practice. This app now offers courses for over 60 languages! (which is crazy distracting for someone like myself who probably has Language Learning ADD) I like the Spanish Dictionary app which works as a simple English-Spanish dictionary but also has vocabulary trivia, important phrases listed by category, and a Word of the Day feature. Mango is another good program offered by some local libraries.¬†A good supplemental website for Spanish (that still doesn’t have an app to my knowledge) is StudySpanish.com¬†– there are good grammar explanations, verb drills, quizzes, audio of speakers from different Spanish speaking countries to hear the difference in accents.

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Happy language learning! It is quite an adventure. ‚̧

What advice do you have for language learners?

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The Pain of Independence: a political deviant

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I’ve never been too worried about conforming. You should have seen my high school wardrobe (it was, um, *creative*) or consider the fact that I’m from the South but have an actual aversion to sweet tea and the SEC. (Yeah, several of you stopped reading right there. I know.)

I wouldn’t call myself a nonconforming rebel either but I’m pretty good at resisting peer pressure. I always felt that my inner convictions and deeply-held beliefs were far more important than popular opinion.¬†During adolescence, right about the time I started finding my own voice and thinking critically about what I believed I received disapproval for straying a little too far from conservativism. (statistics show that most in my generation have)

About 13 years ago I spoke out in History class at my small, Christian high school in defense of immigrants and felt instantly the chasm between my viewpoint and that of my peers. I’ve since gained much more confidence, knowledge, and courage especially on the topic of immigration and have proudly landed somewhere in the moderate area of the general political spectrum. (and I think the political views of many of my classmates have also evolved) I doubt I will ever find myself at any point in my life pledging loyalty to a specific party.

First of all, I should mention that I’m not inherently political. I don’t keep up with most politics honestly and I certainly don’t go around picking internet fights with every faux news article I see shared. (I. see. a. lot. – hello, unfollow button?) The issues I am engaged with are the result of very strong convictions formed by very personal experiences, my relationship with my Savior, and the study of His teachings. I am an imperfect human doing the best I can to follow a perfect King. I honestly would avoid politics altogether (it just isn’t a pleasant subject) if it weren’t for the fact that it highly affects a lot of vulnerable people for whom I care deeply. I won’t go into detail on each policy with which I agree or disagree or those about which I honestly don’t know much. I definitely recognize that most hot-button issues are not easily resolved and are not as black and white as “right vs. wrong.” If it were so I think we would have more clearly marked camps. Obviously I believe that my beliefs are “correct” otherwise it would be non-sensical to believe them, but I do find it necessary to continually seek new information and perspectives and do my best to respect the individual who holds a contrasting opinion to my own. Respecting the individual does not mean tolerating insults, bullying, emotional manipulation, or speech that denigrates a person/persons. We have the right to shut. that. down.


Conformity vs Nonconformity

A neuroscientist, Gregory Berns, conducted an experiment on conformity vs. nonconformity in a group setting by scanning the brains (using a type of MRI) of volunteers as they answered a series of simple questions. Actors were placed in the experimental groups to confidently give wrong answers. The results, other than confirming previous research that group work influences an individual’s decision-making, showed the why behind a majority of individuals’ conformity under¬†peer 7c2daebd86bfcb3047644e7971b0a4e7--conformity-satirepressure. It didn’t have to do with the volunteers’ conscious decision to change their answers in order to follow the crowd. The brain scans actually showed heightened activity in regions associated with visual and spatial perception meaning that popular opinion¬†had in fact somehow changed the very perception of the volunteers. They were convinced to believe something¬†that wasn’t true.

 

 

On the flip side the volunteers that stuck with their gut and did not conform with the
incorrect answers of the majority showed an interesting find in the brain scans as well. The amygdala, part of the brain associated with emotions such as fear and rejection, lit up. Berns called this “the pain of independence” which he says is “the clearest marker of the emotional load associated with standing up for one’s belief.” It takes courage, friends. Especially if a lot of the time you feel like you are standing up alone.


This is to point out the risk of social ostracism when one is part of a homogeneous group that doesn’t facilitate diverse viewpoints. Peer pressure is a beast.

But what if I truly agree with my group? Great! The objective is critical thinking and being able to arrive at our own conclusion and if that conclusion happens to be exactly what those around you think then, well, majority rules. ūüôā Congrats.¬†(but maybe have a little grace with the person you meet who came to a different conclusion?)

Of all the social settings in which I’ve lived I can say that my college campus, Lee University, felt like that sweet spot of intellectual autonomy + Christian tradition. I felt very little anxiety about voicing my convictions there.

Some of the things I appreciate about my country are democracy and the freedom to express any opinion or belief. In theory we say we can respect differing opinions but we often consider a person with an opinion in contrast to our own to have some sort of character flaw. (or in evangelical circles… a crisis of faith)

Democracy depends on majority rule in the midst of dissenting voices but what happens when the majority conforms to the loudest and most obnoxious voice(s)? I hate to say that more than once I have fallen prey to psychological bullies trying to reason or guilt me out of my deeply-help opinions. Other than these less-than-desirable methods of persuasion I do appreciate having such diversity of belief in my circle.

5a20ce32c8aed4bb9feb267dcf376a65--my-life-quotes-a-quotesI would venture to say that if every one of your friends and acquaintances agrees with you religiously and politically then you probably live in a bubble and are lacking some factors that would help hone your critical thinking skills. Maybe you’ve created that bubble intentionally (I certainly gravitate toward likeminded people) and that’s your right but I’ll probably pass on having a political conversation with you. When entering into any kind of discussion over policy my first thought is, “Who is someone you know personally affected by this?”

Something else that keeps us in bubbles, and has surprised me recently, are our search engine biases. Online algorithms used in everything from our social media accounts to email to the ads on random websites we visit to what we search for in Google often keep us from venturing out of our idealogical sphere. Ever searched for something then all of a sudden see it pop up in ads with every new window you open? Same concept. We typically see what we want to see, literally and figuratively.

Our society, in its ideal state (of being), would be free thinkers and give themselves permission to dig a little deeper than their party and the news clips and sound bites and viral memes. We would graciously admit defeat when our candidate loses and we would have the integrity and humility to admit when our candidate or party is wrong. We wouldn’t assume someone’s entire idealogical makeup based on one position they hold nor would we attack someone’s opposing viewpoint with all the built up force of a lifetime of political frustration.

i.e. I share a heartwarming story about an undocumented immigrant I know who is struggling to make ends meet (unqualified for state benefits contrary to popular belief) and faithfully serves in her local church congregation. This is obviously personal and emotional to me but I am not attacking any opposing view or, believe it or not, trying to promote an agenda. I’m simply sharing a FACTUAL story from a compassionate perspective of an issue about which I care deeply.

This opens a can of worms where others (who in fact have no personal ties to an individual who had to make the difficult decision of leaving their home to provide for their family) assume the right to verbally attack me or the protagonist of my story. My question is, how did this incite such fervent refutation? Why is a popular tactic of arguing politics to take the humanity out of the debate? – and it’s done so passionately?

For the very reason that we usually bring a little too much baggage to the debate, I am very hesitant to share specific political beliefs online. We rarely understand the context, nuance, or background of the person posting the comment. There still exist many who don’t exercise as much deliberation when posting or sharing. Occasionally I’ll entertain a friendly discussion of politics from behind the screen but mostly I feel it is best reserved for personal conversation. (which isn’t necessarily always friendly either, haha)

I could get a variety of reactions to this blog post (assuming that even a handful of people read it) due to the diversity of my friends list. I don’t even know how many might actually relate to my story. My social network includes nominal evangelical Christians, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims; devout evangelical Christians, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims; atheists; agnostics; Republicans; Democrats; international friends who don’t know the meaning of either political party; heterosexuals; members of the LGBT community; so many races and nationalities I couldn’t count them all; police officers; active military; veterans; pastors; addicts; teachers; documented immigrants; undocumented immigrants; professors; missionaries; feminists; doctors; lawyers; etc.; all who are human beings with their own experiences, stories, passions, struggles, and beliefs.

Friendship Together Bonding Unity Youth Culture Concept

Of course we’re going to disagree on things. Hopefully we can learn from each other without compromising our core values. As Christians, may we use scripture as a pruning tool for ourselves and not as darts to throw at “the opposition.” May we allow the Holy Spirit to work on our hearts… as well as our tongues. Can we vow to put down our weapons of divisive speech and approach each difference of opinion while waving the banner of kindness instead? We are on the same team after all.

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The Worlds of Excess and Lack

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Take about a minute to study the illustration above. Move your eyes back and forth between the child with the iPad and the child eating off the ground. What do you feel?

This hit me like a punch in the stomach.

Shocking.

True.

How can I do more?

It says what I haven’t been able to find the words to say for a while now. Here in Central America I live in the tension that you feel when you look at this image. It’s an uncomfortable place, I admit.

I’m much more comfortable in my middle class home in Alabama, watching House Hunters on TV, surrounded by all my iThings and justifying the couple hundred dollars of recent purchases I just made on frivolous stuff for myself. I mean, I’m not rich and wasteful like those people, right?

We play the comparison game. The truth is that in the U.S. I feel borderline poor and almost convinced that I deserve more: more convenience and comfort, better service, newer gadgets, faster technology, the latest styles. But who is making me feel this lack in my life? Advertising companies? The family down the street? That friend from high school who flaunts her lavish lifestyle on Instagram? Maybe it’s time to cut those things out. I’ve recently started a discipline online of unfollowing people/media/companies that feed that insecurity in me, that insatiable hunger that tells me I need and deserve more more more. They. Are. Lies. (For parents, it might be those that convince you that you should take out a 2nd mortgage just to get your kid all those gifts for Christmas.)

As an adult (more specifically, an adult living as a foreigner in a developing country) I am fully #woke to the fact that in my family we were lavishly spoiled as children during Christmas. (which I loved as a kid, don’t get me wrong) But I think it fed that little materialism monster in me and now it’s my job to try to starve him.

It’s the reason I have a hard time answering when someone cheerfully asks, “Do you love living in Honduras?” Well, part of the time, yes, but not because I’m thoroughly enjoying myself or super comfy or even “living the adventure of a lifetime.” My lifestyle here is very different and a lot of days are hard. It helps keep me grounded and more aware of the majority world’s reality and I value that far more. In the states I can easily and comfortably forget the suffering of those outside my door – the ignorance is bliss kind of thing. Even when I go back home and spend an extended length of time I start to forget. We humans have such short attention spans.

Here, the suffering is unavoidable.

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Now that I have seen I am responsible. – Brooke Fraser


If you’re still wondering if you might be considered rich or not by global standards, Screen Shot 2017-11-27 at 1.20.26 PMcheck out the Global Rich List and see how you compare. I can bet you’re at least in the top 3% richest in the world. ūüėČ

  • sidebar: It certainly isn’t a USA vs. majority world problem either. Economic inequality is sometimes the most extreme within the borders of one single country. The gap between rich and poor in Honduras is painfully obvious.

I just finished reading the book 7 by Jen Hatmaker¬†– I’m behind the times, I know.¬†The tagline is “an experimental mutiny against excess.” Yes. It encouraged me (Again. I will forever and ever need these reminders) that there is value in living more simply and that most of the things we think we need aren’t really necessities but, in fact, excess. The premise of the book is to free ourselves of the bondage of materialism while at the same time opening our eyes to the needs of others around the world. liberation + solidarity.40e6ebd24f7c0e79951a2463ca2290e6--truth-quotes-a-quotes

A good friend of mine used to say, “The most important things in life aren’t things.” Amen.

A few years ago I blogged about something similar after reading Jeff Shinabarger’s book¬†More or Less.

I wrote, “the real kicker is that the kind of life I live here (Honduras), which at first I considered sacrificial, is still seen by many around me as living in abundance. That blows my mind.” The car I felt embarrassed to drive during college now looks like a huge blessing when I consider that most families here do well to buy one used shared vehicle. And mine was one of FIVE vehicles that my immediate family owned – practically unheard of here in Honduras.

I‚Äôm caught between these two worlds ‚Äď but I want so badly that they understand each other.” (Full blog post here.)

My great frustration in life is feeling misunderstood. (My Myers-Briggs [INFP] and Enneagram [4 w 5] personality type results confirm this) So, as if to complicate things even more I decided to move to and marry into a new country and culture and language. Communicating effectively and achieving “being understood” is even more challenging yet at the same time more rewarding when it happens.

And it’s not just on the Honduras end. Sometimes it’s hard for family and friends back home to relate to my daily life (no fault of their own) or to understand that the values, norms, and status quo in Honduran society are different. It gets tricky trying to balance two different value systems. Small talk becomes even more painful when you have so much heaviness weighing on you. Very few in the states truly understand the plight of an average individual trying to make ends meet in a developing country like Honduras and even fewer truly grasp the reality that:¬†The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income and the richest 20 percent accounts for three-quarters of world income.¬†The inequality is staggering and it’s an inequality that has actual faces and names here.

Did you know? The money spent on diet plans in the U.S. alone could feed all starving children around the globe? The 60 billion dollars spent on Black Friday in the U.S. could solve the food crisis TWICE and the water crisis 6 TIMES?

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The wonderful thing is that statistically, Americans are more likely than any other country to voluntarily give to help the poor in other countries. Ironically, those with lower incomes actually give a higher percentage. We could improve on the fact that there is still 33% in our country who do not donate to charity at all.

On my previous short-term trips I would come home to the U.S. to my big comfortable bed and just cry because I didn’t know what to do with what I had just experienced. I knew something was terribly wrong with how I saw the majority of Americans living – their skewed priorities, their indifference to “outsiders.” Unfortunately after a few weeks, those strong feelings of unrest and conviction would start to wane. The awareness that 62% of the population of Honduras live below the poverty line would fade to the background of my consciousness because it was no longer right in front of my face. I would continue with my life and get caught up in the same trivial first world problems. I now consciously choose to keep it in the forefront of my mind no matter how uncomfortable it makes me.

I also choose to keep speaking up about it. I’ll be like that annoying dripping in the kitchen sink that just won’t. shut. up.

You’re welcome.

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal.” Matt. 6:19

What are some practical ways you liberate yourself and your family from the bondage of materialism and/or stand in solidarity with those suffering in and outside our borders?

*Two other life changing books on my shelf regarding this topic are Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider and The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns.*

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Blending: Newlywed Daily Life

Today marks four months of marriage. I’m totally counting (and celebrating!) each month but Nat√°n told me just to let him know once we’ve reached a year. *eye roll*

These four months have involved a lot of blending. Blending of two distinct cultures, upbringings, families, personalities, responsibilities, communication styles, general preferences, and expectations. In a lot of ways we had already started some of the blending almost five years ago when we started dating. The fact that I had moved to a new country meant that I was already doing quite a lot of adapting previous to meeting Nat√°n. If I hadn’t been open to a complete cultural change from the beginning there would have been (and would still be) a lot more friction.

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That doesn’t mean I don’t lay down some gringa rules in this Honduran household. 1. Bath and Body Works Wallflowers and candles – this house will smell like a magical garden of magnolia blossom white tea ginger honeysuckle sweet pea, dang it. 2. Decorative pillows are meant to be seen, not touched and certainly not slept on. 3. You can eat your stinky dry cheese all you want but I will keep the fridge stocked with my heavenly cheddar cheese, even if it means splurging a bit at the grocery store. 4. Let me introduce you to a little invention called a coaster. 5. I’m sorry, we’re doing what today? Is it on the family calendar??

He likes to joke that I’m “American-izing” him and my whiteness is rubbing off on him. ūüėČ (you. are. welcome.) Occasionally when he doesn’t want to yield to my really great American idea he claims imperialism. (deep down I know he likes all my ideas)

[One of my ideas is that he will continue to eat fried okra with as many meals as possible until he is as obsessed with it as I am.] 2017-05-02 18.56.45

Contrary to common belief about Latin men being machista¬†he is a wonderful partner who treats me as his equal and willingly shares in domestic responsibilities. I’m so thankful for that. Really, it’s something that attracted me to him from the beginning. I recognized that he knew how to run a household and wasn’t afraid of a broom and dustpan. I’ve learned valuable home skills from him too like how to wash clothes by hand in the pila (outdoor wash basin) and make flour tortillas.

Newlyweds

I can honestly say that nothing has felt more natural than becoming his wife and blending our separate lives together. I halfway expected a big moment of either euphoria or difficulty. Maybe that moment is on its way but so far I can attest that it has just felt right. As a person who thoroughly enjoyed and made the most of¬†singlehood, I now know that I really really enjoy marriage in general and I really really enjoy sharing life with the person I wholeheartedly decided to marry. ‚̧

 

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The Art of Being Real on the Mission Field

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This isn’t¬†a how-to article. I promise I’m not another expert.¬†This just happens to be something I am trying to learn myself¬†as I make it through this missionary/expat/immigrant journey in Honduras.

The love of travel and love of missions are not always the same thing. For me, they go hand-in-hand. It is a dream come true for me to be able to live as a missionary in Latin America. I’ve seen the wholistic transformation that happens when the Church steps up to care materially and spiritually for¬†needy brothers and sisters. – A biblical mandate I believe –

Santa Cruz

Line of patients waiting to enter one of our medical clinics in Cop√°n, Honduras

As a newlywed and a newly-returned-to-Honduras foreigner, this stage of life comes with a lot of transition. I’ve been traveling to Honduras (+ other Latin American countries) for exactly half of my life now and I previously lived here for a year teaching, so it’s not like this whole experience is brand new. In fact, I’ve lost the sense of novelty in a lot of aspects. I have to be intentional about seeing this country and culture with fresh eyes in order to maintain a sense of wonder and appreciation for its differences.

And let me tell you, it has its differences.

It is different from my life in the U.S. probably in more ways than you expect. (even though I bet it also has more similarities than you would expect.) I want to take the chance here in my blog to lay out a few realities in the most gracious way possible. In no way would I want to:

  1. disrespect the wonderful people of Honduras, nor their treasured traditions & customs
  2. display any type of ethnocentric arrogance
  3. “poor mouth” to receive pity as if moving to Honduras¬†was some form of holy suffering for the Lord
  4. or, on the contrary, ignore the obvious and pretend that I am living life as a typical North American newlywed

…because I’m not. Here, I am stretched and challenged in ways that I wouldn’t be back in2017-05-07 09.16.06-2 the states. I’ve given up a few comforts and conveniences. (necessities or luxuries depending on which perspective you have.) At my worst moments, I am grouchy and whiny and look for¬†someone to share in my misery or at least feel sorry for me.¬†Thankfully, my Honduran¬†husband, mostly undeterred by the little things I find ¬†uncomfortable or inconvenient, patiently brings me back to reality and reassures me that whatever I was frustrated over is probably not that important in the grand scheme of things. (he gives great pep talks)

For example, back home I am used to complete climate control inside my home: everything from the temperature to pest control to aromas to noises Рnot even an ant or foul odor would sneak by without my noticing and inflicting vengeance.

Here I HAVE NO CONTROL. It is pure chaos for the five senses. There is hardly a distinction¬†between the outside and the inside therefore I am totally exposed to whatever elements – heat, wind, critters, dust and dirt, the smell of my my neighbor’s lunch on the stove, the scent of the garbage truck passing by, the sound of my neighbor sneezing, the incessant honking of a car down the street, the party music at a ridiculous level all night long –¬†decide to invade the house at any given moment. (a lot of this due to living in such close proximity to so many other houses)

Because we live in the city we are also in close proximity to other helpful resources like the grocery store and banks. *thumbs up*

FACT

The fine line that we walk as expat Christian workers is how to communicate our reality to those back home without sounding like grumblers. The truth is that no matter how many times I post online or call my mother to complain about how much “I am drenched in sweat and it’s not even 9:00 a.m.!” it doesn’t cool me off any more and she really isn’t going to¬†understand what it feels like in the day-to-day¬†unless she is here living it with me.

A more serious and difficult subject is violence and corruption. These are deep-rooted social problems that can affect the expat’s life in real ways. We often don’t know how to talk to those back home about the implications that these factors have on our daily lives. Generally it means going about daily activities with a heightened sense of caution and occasionally fear.

This brings us to¬†the reality that many missionaries deal with battles that aren’t manifested in physical form. Emotional and psychological trials are real and¬†can be underplayed if we aren’t careful. Loneliness and sadness can be painful parts of the missionary’s journey – but how do you casually drop that hint in a newsletter? For those back home, pray for discernment on how to best care for your missionary friend in this area.

Daily, I ask the Lord to give me patience and grace to deal with my circumstances. I voluntarily moved to this country (which I have loved for some time now) and count it an¬†honor¬†to have the opportunity to serve here. How can I complain about trivial discomforts when I am living in what most of the world’s population would consider luxury? I don’t make it a habit to guilt myself into feeling the awareness of my privilege. It’s important to be aware but guilt is not what drives our service or our generosity. Being caught up in the gaze of our¬†Savior and His assignment to a hurting world is what propels us.

I apologize if I’ve ever made unfair generalizations about the country of Honduras or taken¬†advantage of someone’s unfamiliarity with the culture¬†to exaggerate a situation in my favor. This is not the work of missionaries. We should try¬†harder to communicate with respect and truth and pure motives. We should try to be more open and direct with those who offer help, not playing the role of “poor pitiful me” nor that of a superhero.

We are human and we have weaknesses. I thank God for a husband, an ideal partner, who is strong when I am weak, and for a Heavenly Father who is stronger than both of us.

“…how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” Matthew 7:11

I choose to count my blessings right before I turn to share them with someone else. I might not have all the earthly comforts I sometimes want so badly but¬†I’m called and equipped for an assignment bigger than my desires.

Dear Younger Me: First Mission Trip

This is a letter to my almost 15-year-old self on that very first exhilarating mission trip to Honduras in February 2004. Note: mission trip (STM) refers to evangelical Christian humanitarian work typically in another country.¬†My teenage self would probably roll her eyes at this letter, but… Little Idealist, these are lessons you will eventually learn.

El Jardín

In a medical clinic during one of my first trips. El Jardín, Copán, HN.

Dear Younger Me,

Finally! You’ve been waiting and praying about the chance to go on a mission trip and it’s finally here. So much expectation and anticipation (and let’s face it… drama,¬†because well, you’re 14.) It really will prove to be more life-changing than you can even understand in this phase of life. I know you have done so much preparation and feel like everything in life has been leading up to this big, glorious moment. It will actually prove to be just one of many gloriously small moments that will ultimately string together in a beautiful way that only God can orchestrate. Just wait.

Journal this experience.¬†I know you do this anyway because you’ve always been the weirdo kid who documents EVERY. THING. Good for you. One day, you’ll be 27 and a more experienced, slightly wiser version of yourself and you’ll be¬†going through your old things and come across your old mission trip journal and you will sit in your room and cry over the pages because of how faithful God has been. And you’ll laugh at how cute and naive you once were.

LEARN.¬†That is your first responsibility as a team member on a mission trip: to learn. Learn the language. Learn the culture.¬†If you are serious about opening your mind and heart up to this new part of the world and want to effectively serve in some capacity with these people then there is only one option that makes sense… LEARN TO COMMUNICATE WITH THEM. You can’t build a ministry in another country through hand gestures and handouts while thinking like an American (read: United States-ean).¬†Relationships are key and the foundation is communication and understanding.¬†Do the hard work: learn the language.

Being a learner means you realize that you actually don’t know best.¬†Do you know who does know best? The natives, and usually, the missionaries. The ones who live there day-in and day-out. They know what is appropriate and what is not. They know which situations are dangerous and which are not. As a team member, an outsider (no matter your age), it is not your place to question their leadership or decisions. Like, if they tell you to stop¬†laughing obnoxiously loud in a public restaurant¬†because you are¬†being disrespectful of the country’s social norms don’t roll your eyes because “ugh, what a party pooper.” (Other than already attracting probably more unwanted attention than necessary, you are reinforcing a negative stereotype of North Americans – being disrespectfully loud and dominating of public spaces). You are also part of a team of people who is¬†representing a local ministry or organization. LIVE BY THEIR RULES. It might seem super stuffy or strict compared to your church back home but… you are not at home. Respect the hosts’ rules.

Once you get to truly know the people and the culture you’ll find that they aren’t that different from you. You’ll get past the point of identifying all the differences and will start to celebrate and relish in the similarities of your common humanity. You’ll see dignity in each person and will be less likely to make blanket statements about their culture or race. As time goes on¬†and you start having more conversations with the natives you’ll realize you stop talking so much about the natives. You’ll probably start out quoting faulty¬†statistics about the country to friends¬†back home or making wild generalizations about the local people as a whole… (Yeah, you’re gonna think you’re an expert on the entire Honduran population within your first trip or two. You’re kind of annoying.) Then you will get to know their hearts and will feel silly¬†for making all those ethnocentric assumptions. (Thankfully, your Honduran friends are gracious people. Most will forgive you.) ūüėČ

You’ll¬†undoubtedly come home from this first trip with excitement and tears and pictures, sharing stories of what you saw and felt. Who wouldn’t? You might encourage a couple other friends or family members to join you on following trips. Some will listen intently, some will get bored from your stories pretty quickly because they didn’t experience it with you. They’re not going to understand. They don’t get why you cry because you have such a nice house and so many don’t, and why¬†suddenly you are borderline taking a vow of poverty. You just went though a real emotional journey over the last seven days and those who didn’t experience it can’t exactly relate.

Speaking of poverty… YOU ARE NOT A POVERTY TOURIST. You did not pay $1,200 to¬†travel all the way to Central America so you could “experience poverty.” (Which you never actually did. Seeing poverty is not experiencing poverty.) The thousands of people who live in rural Honduras and are trying to survive off a dollar a day are not staged for your entertainment¬†or learning exploit. This is their real life. I know you’re excited about all the pictures you get to show to everyone back home but count the cost of that photo you just snapped¬†with your iPhone* in that family’s private space while gawking at their extreme lack. Be sensitive and consider each person’s dignity before doing anything.

*I went through 3 entire disposable cameras on my first trip 12 years ago

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Apparently all I did on my first trip was hold other people’s babies.

Now, let’s talk about your clothes for a second. This isn’t a pertinent issue necessarily but it reflects your attitude toward those you are serving. If you show up uncharacteristically dressed like a bum in cut-off capris and cut-off ratty t-shirts,¬†the message you are conveying is: you aren’t worth my best… or at least, you aren’t worth my average. I’m telling you now, there is no need to raid the thrift store for the nastiest items before your trip because “you don’t want to ruin your good clothes.”¬†This is a fine excuse if you are helping with hard labor or a messy job like painting but consider your activity… washing hair for lice? Giving worm medicine at the entrance of the pop-up clinic? Dress appropriately and show respect in that.

Ok, I know you most likely will not receive this well right now because you are high on enthusiasm and naive idealism but you will come to learn this with time and it needs to be said… you are not the hero. Like, it is not about you at all. Take your piece of humble pie and swallow it well because no one likes an arrogant team member. You are one of many team members and unity is key. First of all, you are doing the humbling job of serving other human beings, so esteem them higher than yourself. Secondly, you are working with other volunteers as a unit and any individualism on the job has to go. Thirdly, you nor your team are the first nor the only ones to do this kind of work. It is valuable and needed! But it is not exclusive to your group. You don’t have a monopoly on “free medical clinics in Honduras”and you certainly didn’t invent the idea. Celebrate the fact that you are joining so many others in the effort to share Christ’s love in a tangible way!

It all feels glamorous right now but it won’t always be. You will experience more fear and pain than you even imagined but you will find more love than you even imagined also.

Let this experience move you to inward and outward change. You will slowly start to see the world completely differently. You’ll probably have a slightly different perspective on success, faith, politics, and current events than others. Let it move you to make a difference at home as you dream about going abroad again. You didn’t have this awakening inside your soul just to apathetically¬†return to¬†abundance and self-indulgence. Your eyes will be open to hurting people all around you. DO SOMETHING. Don’t sit casually waiting on your annual mission trip to come around again. You have a bigger purpose and there is too much at stake for you to put on your missionary hat for only one week out of the year.

So, in conclusion, little 14-year-old going on 15, your years ahead have so much in store. Don’t worry about learning all these lessons at once. It will happen in its time. Just you wait,

27-year-old You

(who still anticipates more lessons in the future)

___________

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Then in college I wrote this poem in an attempt to express the love affair I have with the country & people to which I don’t belong.

A Call to Love

Broken streets and broken souls call
I am compelled to answer, answer them all
Your small hands have taught me more than textbooks could contain
Your selfless joy is like my heart’s refrain
I‚Äôd choose you over a city of gold ‚Äď all of you, every inch
I’d choose you first and I’d choose you again
I am a jealous lover, it’s my heart you win
You’re more than a memory, more than a friend
More than beauty and dirt and land
More than a good story to tell, more than I can stand
I am who I am because of you
It’s taken years to express, but for years it’s been true
My commitment to you runs deeper than a flutter in my chest
You have all of me, my worst and my best
I love you longer than seven days
Beyond borders and languages, my love stays
I love you stronger than a smile or a tear
Because I choose to love in the face of pain and fear
I’ve felt welcomed, accepted, rejected and betrayed
I was close to giving in and letting apprehension have its way
But I am led to you by a greater Hand
And my trivial emotions are irrelevant to His plan
I haven’t forgotten you, I never could
You are my first love, and my love is for good

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Oh yeah, 27-year-old me still likes holding other people’s babies. ūüôā Nueva Alianza, Cop√°n, HN.

 

#detailsdeHonduras part 3

This is part of an ongoing photojournalism project. See part 1 and part 2.

(Kristen Bruce Photography and Multimedia)