The worst question to ask someone about their language!

You’re talking to someone in your new language. You hear a word you don’t understand. You get the person to explain it to you. The meaning sounds a lot like another word you know in the language.

Temptation strikes.

You ask, “What’s the difference between these two words?”


Why is this the worst question to ask? Because people don’t think about their languages this way.

Here’s an example. What’s the difference between little and small?

You could Google it and come up with a technical answer, but you probably don’t know it off the top of your head.

You just know what sounds right.

And that’s how we want to be in our new languages, knowing what sounds right.

So, what should you ask instead?

“Can you give me some examples of other places you’d use that word?

“Would you use it in this sentence? How about this one?”

So tell me-what has your experience asking questions like these been?

3 of My Favorite Books This Year–Have You Read Any of These?

Several years ago, my ministry shifted radically from service in Benin, West Africa to equipping missionaries all over the world. Life was changing fast, full of new challenges, and often a jumble of exhilaration, sleepless nights, and a lot of prayer!

One thing that God has used to equip and anchor me through this season was a good book. Actually, there were several!

These are the books I’ve recommended most this year. There are tons of great titles out there, but these were really meaningful to me.

Book 1: The COACH Model for Christian Leaders

Coach and speaker Keith Webb teaches Christian leaders how to create powerful conversations to assist others to solve their own problems, reach goals, and develop their own leadership skills in the process. Whether leaders are working with employees, teenagers, or a colleague living in another city, they’ll find powerful tools and techniques to increase leadership effectiveness.

One of my favorite quotes from this book was “Christian coaches acknowledge the working of the Holy Spirit and trust Him to be guiding and leading the coachee through many different means.” This idea has helped me to entrust the people I help to God, and remember who is really responsible for their success!

If you’d like to get it on Amazon, here’s the link.

Book 2: Prayer: Forty Days of Practice

This unique book guides you to pray in deeper and more authentic ways. The short prayers and thought-provoking imagery, interspersed with contemplative reflections and suggested practices, will stir, inform, and encourage you. 

One of my favorite prayers from this book was “May love be stronger in me than the fear of the pain that comes with caring.” I found it beautiful and challenging!

If you’d like to get it on Amazon, here’s the link.

Book 3: From the Inside Out: Reimagining Mission, Recreating the World

The evolution that has taken place in the world of mission over the last twenty-five years has left many Christians asking brutally honest questions about what we do and why we do it. Are we doing more damage than good? What does it look like to truly love and serve the marginalized in an authentic and effective way? What, actually, is the gospel and is it truly good news?

One of my favorite quotes from this book was, “If a place is treated simply as a cross-cultural experience then we run the risk of commodifying that place for our pleasure, and our ministry there will likely colonize more than liberate. When God plants us in a place, that place becomes our teacher.”

If you’d like to get it on Amazon, here’s the link.

What are some of your favorites? I’d love to hear them — especially if you’re in a season of transition. Leave a comment below!

How do I start learning a new language?

Sound sorting image
Me doing a sound sort in Kikamba

A colleague just emailed me this question

I was intrigued with your confidence that one could train one’s ear to distinguish sounds and that would give a boost to enabling language development.  (Maybe you did not say that at all, but that is more or less what I heard…) So, how is it again that I would start?

So, here is a lovely list of links that answers that question! The last link is the one that is specific to ear training for distinguishing sounds, but you can’t start there, if you’re just beginning in a new language. First you need to lay the groundwork, as follows.

  • First watch these 2 videos to orient you to the big picture and to encourage you that you can make immersion happen anywhere.
  • Then enlist a prayer team and get a language parent
  • Prepare your  materials
  • Watch these videos to help you understand the games in the manual
  • After you’ve played listening games for about 30 hours, you start adding in this sound sorting game. You want to get your ear tuned into the language before you start this, that’s why we don’t do it from day one. If you’re interested, you can read more about it here.

Was this helpful to you? What questions do you have? I’d love to answer them!

How to plan for working with your language parent-beginning phase

A good plan for learning a language is a plan that changes over time. The games you play in the beginning are not as powerful for you later, and the games you can play later are way over your head in the beginning.

To be honest, I’ve been using the plans that Greg and Angela Thomson wrote, which you can download here.

But when I am making a plan from scratch in the beginning phase, it follows this  outline. This is also the general outline that Greg and Angela follow in their plans.

  1. Greeting, hospitality and small talk.
  2. New Objects (around 12)
  3. New Objects + Old Actions
  4. New Actions (around 4)
  5. New Actions + Old Objects
  6. Handy Phrases (around 3)

Let me unpack this a little bit.

1. Greeting, hospitality, and small talk. 

So, I’m a kind of task oriented introvert, and I tend to jump right in to playing games when I start, so I have to write this in to remember to treat my language parent like what they are-a person. Embarrassing to say, but yes, if I don’t have it written down, I forget.

2. New Objects (around 12) Demonstration video here.

Every day in the beginning I want to play listening games to learn new words. What’s important here is that I have actual stuff. Fruit, toy furniture, dolls, stuff I bought at the market, whatever. Interacting with 3 dimensional objects in this phase, things with color, shape, and texture, makes the learning stick. Watch this video to see how this kind of game works.

3. New Objects + Old Actions

The key here is to kill two birds with one stone. Instead of reviewing the actions I learned before by themselves, I can practice my new objects and strengthen the old actions at the same time. It is REALLY important to do this, mixing the old with the new. It doesn’t have to be objects and actions, it could be objects and colors. And then get more complicated. Make it objects, colors, and numbers. Then throw in old actions too! Three brown cows are jumping. You grab 3 toy cows, a brown crayon, and then make the three brown cows jump.

4. New Actions (around 5) demonstration video here.

The key here is to get up and DO the action.  That’s how to make the words stick-our brains make a connection between what our ears are hearing and what our body is doing. This is Simon Says, and it’s really fun! Resist the temptation to point to a picture of a person doing an action, actually do it!

5. New Actions + Old Objects video here.

Same principle as before, mixing old with new to be more efficient. This should be fun and silly, ok? You’re learning to understand your new language in all sorts of different combinations, and that’s great!

6. Handy Phrases – demo video here.

I like to learn to understand a few new handy phrases every day. I just play listening games with them with my language parent, but when I’m out and about, I say them as best as I can. The key here is learning to understand them, and understand them as whole chunks. Don’t get distracted yet trying to understand all the little pieces in them, that will come with time.

Another super important key is how you ask your language parent about them. A classic mistake is to say “How do you say ‘Good morning’ in your language?” They want to help, and so they’ll give me a phrase. And then I’ll walk around saying this phrase to people, and get discouraged when they just look at me funny and don’t understand. A better thing to do is ask, “What do you say to someone the first time you see them?” In one place I lived, it was “You woke up!”

I spend about 30 hours total playing only listening games with my language parent before I add in talking games-which shall be the subject of another post. Thanks for reading! What has your experience been playing games like this? I’d love to hear that, and your questions!


How do you get people to teach you this way?

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

People ask me this all the time! I’m going to answer about finding language parents for  the beginning phase here, because it’s the trickiest bit.

The most important thing is to find the right kind of person. And, that’s probably not someone who has the title “teacher,” or “tutor.” (I am writing this as a third grade teacher, who loves the profession, don’t get me wrong.)

Here’s the thing. Suppose you are a professional basket weaver. You’ve been doing it all your life, you learned it from master basket weavers, you are known for being an excellent basket weaver in your community. This is how you feed your family.

And then, in comes a foreigner who doesn’t speak your language, dresses funny, and doesn’t know how to behave politely in your country. They ask you to weave baskets for them…but not the way you’ve always done it. These strange people, who are NOT professional basket weavers like you, have the nerve to come in, be rude, and tell you how to do your job. How do you respond?

That’s why using this framework goes much better, in general, when we get the nice woman who sells me veggies on the corner, or the retired woman who has some free time, or the guy who sells salt at the market. There are certainly exceptions, but as a general rule, avoid finding someone with some kind of educator title.

Ok, now you have your flexible, patient person. How do you get the idea of the games across? There are a few tips:

  • You can teach your language parent a little English or some other language, using the same materials and same games that you’ll use for their language, modeling for them what you want them to do.
  • You can find someone who speaks their language and understands what you’re after to explain it to them. I had clients call a friend in the capital city and explain in English what they wanted to communicate. Then they passed the phone to their language parent and their city friend explained in a common language.
  • If they speak a language you speak, you can explain it to them.
  • Use language about games and rules, here is a link to the rules I use. Framing it as a game with rules gets more cooperation than having seemingly arbitrary dos and don’ts.
  • If there is more than one learner, one can stand behind the other learner, facing the language parent, and do the actions, cueing the language parent to give the instruction. Think of it as guided Simon Says!
  • Even if your language parent doesn’t speak English (which I actually prefer), they can watch the games on these demo videos and get an idea of how they should go.
  • Be patient and flexible. If a game doesn’t go the way you want it to, and you need to change it, after a little while say, “Ok, now we’re going to play a different game!”
  • Candy. Seriously. I give everyone, language parent included, five pieces of candy. Anyone who breaks a rule (learners talking during a listening game, language parent using a language other than their own) has a piece of candy stolen by someone else. It keeps it fun and light, much better than me constantly saying “No English!”

What have you tried? Please share what’s worked and what hasn’t worked!

Materials for Beginning to Learn a New Language

This post is mostly just sharing links to the materials I use when I’m starting out in a new language, all of which are drawn by Angela Thomson, except my bad picture dictionaries. Those are all me! (I am editing this post as coaching clients interact with these materials and tell me what they need, so do keep checking back!)

Many of my ideas and most of the good ones come from my mentors, Greg and Angela Thomson. Their written manuals are here. Helpful demonstration and explanation videos they’ve made are here.

Specifically, this video talks about the materials that you may want to use for beginners. One caveat- I take photos of the actual objects I use, and sketches that I make on the spot for the phrases, instead of using the dictionaries that Angela talks about in this video. Samples are below.

My picture dictionary. I take this snapshot, and record my language helper saying (or signing in this case) Number one, tiger. This is a tiger. Tiger, and so on.
power tools.jpg
Part of my tool phrase picture dictionary. The first one is of someone sneezing. Most days for the first 100 hours or so, I learn to understand a few new tool phrases. After I act out what I want to learn to say/, my language parent says it a few times, and then I sketch it poorly right then and there. Then we play listen and point. “Who is saying ‘Bless you’?”

As you can see, I am quite an artist. The person in the first picture is sneezing, in case you didn’t get that.

Here are links to other materials that I print out and use. These are all excerpted from the Thomsons’ graphics packet found at this link.

Meeting 2 Game 2 People Doing Things

Body and face pictures

Emotion pictures

Nature Scene


16 Pictures Info Gap Game

Weather Info Gap Game

Patterns for making a house and furniture

Making dolls from pipe cleaners

You should also get some play money, or print some out for the country you’ll be living in, this is helpful for learning numbers. Print it out in color, fronts and backs (although 2 sided is not needed), and have several of each denomination of bills, and 10 of each coin.

In addition to the maps linked above, you’ll want some simple outline maps of the region you’re working in, and color pictures of the flags from the surrounding countries, as well as your country of origin and any other country that people are likely to talk about with you.

What have you used? I’d love to see pictures of what’s working for you!