Sabbatical year

The most humbling thing I’ve ever done…


I’m pretty sure the most humbling thing I’ve ever done is to try to learn a new language.

As Emily mentioned last week, intensive work on language learning is our primary focus in August. The process of learning a language is bound to have its awkward moments. Before you can have big, elaborate conversations in Spanish, you have to be able to speak like a child. And it can be pretty humbling, as a grown man, to speak to someone like a child.

A story may illustrate best:

We needed a flyswatter. Since we didn’t know the word for flyswatter (not one of the first 4,000 words you typically learn in a new language), we asked the attendant at our neighborhood pool. He gave us the word: “matamoscas.” I promptly forgot it.

So I went to the corner store looking for a flyswatter, hoping I could find it on my own. No luck. I tried to remember that word… Was it metatosas? Macachosas?

The tendency is to think that if you just say something “close,” people will surely get it. A little bit of mispronunciation can’t be that big of a deal. That’s not a great assumption. To illustrate: a Spanish-speaking friend recently tried to tell us her favorite foods in English. She told us they were jump and soap. Any guesses? I’ll give you time to think and give the answer below… Would you call those “minor mispronunciations” small or large hindrances to understanding?

Back to the flyswatter. I decided I’d just need to swallow my pride, grin foolishly charmingly, and try to explain what I needed to the clerk. I think I said something to the effect of, “I’m going to need something to hit things.” I did the universal “fly-swat” motion and sound effect as a complement.

He looked at me strangely, then a light bulb seemed to go off and he led me down an aisle where he proudly held up a hammer. “¿Sí?” “Hmmm… no.”

I had tried to say “los insectos,” but that didn’t seem to be working out. So then, in a great crowning moment, I — a grown man in a store — looked at this grown man working in a store, lifted my hands up beside my shoulders, fluttered them, and went, “Bzzzzzz.”

I don’t think the gravity of that moment — all of the pride swallowed and dignity trampled — hit me until later.

But it worked! The man had a look of instant understanding and rushed me to another aisle where he pulled out a…

… butterfly net.

Well darn. I told him we were closer, but not quite there yet. Then I said, “mortir!” and did the universal flyswat motion and sound effect again. I said “mortir” because I don’t know the word for “to kill,” so I figured “to die” would do. Sadly, I missed that one, too. It’s just “morir.” Give me a written test on these things, and I can do okay. In the heat of the moment, though, you never know what (non)-word might come out, which syllable you might put the accent on, or which verb tense you might use.

Thankfully, the kind store clerk again seemed to have a flash of understanding and rushed me to the flyswatters. I thanked him profusely and asked what it was called. He told me. I forgot again. I had to look it up to write this. Matamoscas…

We asked you earlier to pray for our language learning. Again, please do that. We know it’s critically important to have conversations that lead to quicker understanding than the one above.

The Holy Spirit came on people at Pentecost in such a way that they heard languages they didn’t know and yet understood them. They spoke to others who didn’t know their language, and yet they were heard and understood. We’re praying that God will give us the grace to hear and speak the Spanish language in such a way that we will understand and be understood. And we’re praying that especially in any opportunities to hear others’ stories and witness to the love of God, we might have a special measure of grace — a supernatural ability to hear and speak the language that we know goes further than our natural understanding.

Oh … our friend’s two favorite foods: jump and soap… those were ham (jamón in Spanish) and soup. See how a small difference in pronunciation can be a pretty big barrier to effective communication? And those came from someone much further along in her English than we are in our Spanish.

The kids doing their best "fly" look
The kids doing their best “fly” look

11 replies on “The most humbling thing I’ve ever done…”

I had to provide fountain hand gestures to accompany “toileten” when the water started fountaining out of my toilet because of whatever the plumber was doing downstairs while I lived in Germany. There really is no good way and your kids will pick it up much easier. It provides more appreciation for those adults who come to the US and we so blithely say they should just learn English.

Great post that puts your whole ‘adventure’ in perspective, esp for one who struggles with language acquisition. Tell the children that Dr Mack greets them with Buenos Diaz! (Most likely sic:) Praying for you in English to make sure that God receives the correct message:) Jim Mack

Sent from my iPhone

I suggest that you bookmark on your phone’s browser. I use it when I’m doing translation work, and it is invaluable.

Father, I lift up the Ray family and their language learning. Fill them with the same linguistic fire of your Holy Spirit as the Day of Pentecost, but let them also have enjoyable times learning along the way. Father, we thank you for their dedication and their heart. Please provide for them and open the doors for them to be effective in their missions. Thank you, Lord. Thank you. Amen.

HAHAHA! I can picture you doing the universal fly swat motion perfectly in my mind. When I combined that with picturing you do it in a store, to a stranger who didn’t understand you, I almost just fell over laughing at my desk!! Awesome…keep laughing it off!! Before you know it you’ll be a Spanish speaking fool 🙂 You helped start my day off with a smile so I’ll start it off with a prayer for you and your family too!! Blessings to you all!!

como ustad usted. when we were in Mexico on our honeymoon, we were in a taxi sailing along when we realized we wanted to stop and get out. “aqua, aqua” I said, WRONG, I mean “aqui!” love your stories, keep them coming. God bless. mui bien and so long.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s