The Four Things You Need to Learn Any Language

Help! I want to learn a language but I can’t take your class!

Last month someone said this to me, I hear it pretty frequently.  So, I decided to blog the advice and resources that are my go to.  Many of them are not original, they come from the Growing Participator Approach by Greg and Angela Thomson, my heroes! The Thomsons have helped thousands of people grow into new languacultural worlds, building deep relationships across cultural barriers.

You need a team of about 5 people praying every day specifically for your language learning

The first thing I tell praying people is to enlist a team of about 5 people to pray every day for their growth into a new languacultural world. Make no mistake, staying encouraged while crossing cultures is a spiritual battle. We need God’s strength, power, peace, and intervention.  So, if you want to learn a new language, enlist a team. Like, right now. Stop reading this and do it! Ok, now that you’ve got a team, you can keep reading!

You need friendly, patient, humble people to play language games with you – Language Parents

I recently polled many people learning language and asked them what their number one question was. I figured it would be something about techniques for different stages of language learning. And I was dead wrong. Everyone said they wanted to know how to stay motivated. So I thought about how I stay motivated-and that’s by having relationships with people. Having someone show up at my house or the library or on Skype to play language games with me is what keeps me going.

These days I like to call these friendly people “language parents.” (I got that from Chris Lonsdale’s good book The Third Ear.) I’ve found them through friends, on, and by sending out flyers. However you do it, this is the first thing your team should be praying for you, every day.

You need a plan

I use, and I suggest that people use Greg and Angela Thomson’s 6 Phase Growing Participator Approach. Why? Because it’s based on communication, it’s centered on relationships with people, the techniques change as you grow, and because it works. It’s worked for me in French, it’s working for me right now in American Sign Language, and I’ve personally seen it work for about 100 people. You can find the most current versions of the materials at  There are also really helpful explanation and how to videos by my heroes 🙂 on Vimeo: You can find my overview of the 4 most important techniques here.

You need a coach

Everyone, including professional language coaches like me, needs a coach. Even pro athletes all have coaches. Coaches encourage us, troubleshoot things that aren’t working, and guide us into new areas of growth.  Honestly, this isn’t the direction that I was planning to go with this blog post, but if you are looking for a language coach, you can email me at and we can set up a time to talk about it.

Want to take a class?

I can personally recommend (because I’ve taught them!) the courses at SIL UND and SIL Australia.

Please leave your questions and comments below! Your questions will fuel new blog posts!


What do you actually DO with Wycliffe Bible Translators?

One of the biggest questions I get is “What does Nora actually do with Wycliffe Bible Translators?”
Here’s a story that illustrates precisely what I do.
Kelly (not her real name), a young missionary in her 30s from Asia moved to Eastern Europe. Before she could start work helping equip workers for Bible translation, she had to learn not one but two languages.  She had a few weeks training in language learning, but needed help in moving forward
Believe it or not, most Bible translation projects start with a hopeful missionary and one huge language barrier!
For eight months I worked with Kelly to help her find and train language helpers.  As she advanced in language, she needed to learn different language learning techniques, including these.  I coached her weekly via Skype to encourage her and troubleshoot her learning.  I also made demonstration videos of more advanced techniques for her to implement.  She is well on her way to successfully learning both languages.  As she succeeds, she will be ready to lead other new missionaries to success in language learning!
The 3 most common questions people ask about why language learning is so important are:

  1. Why don’t you just teach them English?
  2. How do you help people when you don't know the language they're learning?
  3. How long does it take for someone to learn a new language?

Why don’t you just teach them English? 
We all have a language that speaks directly to our heart.  My French is really good, and I can read the Bible and pray fluently in it.  But, when I want to have a conversation with God, I never choose French.  I go with English, my heart language. The teams I’m training are working to communicate God’s love in people’s heart languages.
How do you help people when you don’t know the language they’re learning?
I’ve been blessed to learn under my language learning heroes, who have worked out an approach to language learning that works for all languages.  So, I train people in the approach, the method, and the techniques that they need.  Then they apply it all to their specific language learning situation. 
How long does it take someone to learn a new language? 
It depends on their goals.  If they want to be able to work professionally in their new language, it takes about 1500 hours of time with a language helper.  Full time language learning is about 20 hours a week with a language helper, so that takes about a year and a half or two years. 
Here’s what I do to help missionaries learn language.
Several months of the year I teach a course in language learning for SIL, Wycliffe’s sister academic organization.  This year that means 2 months teaching in Australia, and 3 months in North Dakota.  During the courses I do lectures, create helps for language learners, lead language sessions, and meet with students to help them plan for their future language learning.  (And I grade papers too, but that’s not fun!)
Coaching language learners by email, Skype, phone calls and Facebook messenger, is something I’m really passionate about.   Currently I am coaching several people that are hoping to become language coaches themselves. I am extremely excited that my ministry is beginning to multiply!
I also moderate a discussion group for missionary language coaches and collaborate with other coaches to help their colleagues.  I’ve been helping one country in West Africa get a system of language coaching in place, and helping a coach in training develop powerful, interactive presentations for their missionary colleagues.
Meet Kelly, who is growing in her two new languages!
Kelly moved to Eastern Europe to head up orientation and training for new Bible translators.  Once she has grown enough into her new languages, she’ll be shepherding new missionaries preparing to work on Bible translation for some of the last groups without Bibles in their language!

Helping Kelly grow in language was a joy!
This is a note that she sent me:
“Thank you so so much, for you've been a great encouragement to me, not to give up when language learning is too difficult. I will always remember you saying, "it is not perfection but progress" that is important when learning a language. I'm thankful for the ways you showed me how to make my learning session a lot of fun. The materials you've sent are very helpful,  for instance the video of a lady learning English, the picture books etc. They were very helpful for my language helper to see and to make her understand the way a learner like me can really learn the language.
Aside from language learning side you have taught me to keep my faith in the Lord who sent me here, and remind me to keep a close walk with Him by spending personal time with Him. I am so truly grateful for each prayer you prayed after our Skype meetings, and God is always faithful to answer.”
I am so thankful for partners that make it possible for me to help people like Kelly share God’s story with people in their own languages. 

4 Essential Techniques for Language Learning–Have You Tried Any of These?

In January and February this year I had the honor of equipping 13 new missionaries for language learning. Our students are preparing to head into the mission field.  For them life is fast, white knuckle, and often a unique mix of exhilaration, sleepless nights, and a lot of prayer.

One thing that I gave my students to help them on their journey was a summary of the 4 most powerful techniques I know. I'm deeply indebted to Greg and Angela Thomson for these ideas.

If you're in a season of language learning, looking to start, or just want to understand the process a little more, consider checking these out.  There are lots of great books and a ton of advice out there, but these techniques have really been helpful to me.

Technique 1: Total Physical Response (Simon Says!)

Total physical response (TPR) is a language teaching method developed by James Asher, a professor emeritus of psychology at San José State University. It is based on the coordination of language and physical movement. In TPR, instructors give commands to students in the target language, and students respond with whole-body actions (source).

I love using this technique to tune my ear into the sounds of a language and quickly build my comprehension vocabulary.

If you'd like to hear my language learning heroes Greg and Angela Thomson talk about and demonstrate this (they call it the Dirty Dozen) click here.

Technique 2: Information Gap Activities (Battleship!)

An information gap task is a technique in language teaching where students are missing information necessary to complete a task or solve a problem, and must communicate with their classmates to fill in the gaps (source).

I love playing these games to start really communicating with the limited language I have as a beginner!

For a video of my mentors Greg and Angela demonstrating information gap games, click here.

Technique 3: Negotiating Meaning (Taboo! Charades!)

Negotiation of meaning is a process that speakers go through to reach a clear understanding of each other. Asking for clarification, rephrasing, and confirming what you think you have understood are all strategies for the negotiation of meaning (source).

One of my favorite examples of negotiating meaning happened in France with my sister and her friends, one of which was getting sick and wanted something to help her coughs be more productive.  I hadn't been in France too long, so I did a lot of negotiation of meaning.  At the pharmacy I said (in French) "This is my friend.  She is sick. She coughs.  She wants to…". Then I made a coughing sound and gestured things coming out of my chest.  The pharmacist said (in French) "She wants to expectorate?  She wants an expectorant?"  Victory!

Evelyn and I negotiate a lot of meaning in the next video.

Technique 4: Unpacking a recording

In later language learning I make recordings of my language helper talking about things.  Then we listen to it together, and stop the recording for an explanation in my new language of things I don't understand. It's using language to learn language, and it's a lot of fun.

For a brand new video I made in Australia about these four techniques, including demonstrations of unpacking recordings and negotiating meaning, click here!

What are some of your favorite language learning techniques and victory stories? I'd love to hear them — especially if they're funny. Leave a comment below!







Does speaking in a second language make you think more or feel less, or Head languages vs. heart language

"…several different groups of bilinguals were more immune to common cognitive biases when making decisions in their second languages than in their native tongues."

I just read this blurb on one of my favorite languagenerdblogs, nerdily titled Language Log.   There's more to it, which you can read here and here

This certainly is my experience-I am much less likely to fly off the handle when I'm living in one of my other languages.  I blogged about that a while back here.  The time lag between brain and mouth in my other languages helps me self edit (and has made me think more than once that I should just give up speaking English and stick with Spanish or mmmbellymay or something.)  More than that, though, words just don't get to my gut the same way if they're not in English.

My new motto

Inigo “you keep using that word. i do not think it means what you think it means.” inigo montoya, the princess bride

Found this quote on transplanting me.  It's my new motto for language learning.  Especially tonal languages like mmmBELLYmay and Thai.  Here's a Thai learner's story (not mine, although I wish I could claim it.  Mine is below):

"one of the first phrases i learned to say after i arrived in thailand
was “excuse me” or “i’m sorry” and i’ve said it a lot. everywhere.
all over the place. all the time. any time i felt i’d made some sort
of error – which, really, was every time i had any reason to interact
with anyone. you know, accidentally bump into someone, “excuse me”. not
moving fast enough to get out of the way, “excuse me” i didn’t
understand what was said and had no idea how to communicate that,
“excuse me”. and the list goes on and on. today in language class i
learned that i hadn’t exactly been saying what i thought i’d been
saying. instead i’d been saying, “i farted.”

did i mention i’ve said it a lot?"  transplanting me

So, I've made plenty of this kind of mistake all across the world.  I'm going to leave you to google to figure out my absolute best language error (that I know about!).

I was eating with a bunch of French people, really smart, gracious French people, and finally dared to talk.  "The bread is so good here!  At home it's filled with preservatives."

Ok, now it's your turn to go have fun with Google translator or an online dictionary something and see why that last sentence made me blush.