Here’s What Happened When I Failed At Language Learning

I grew up with the old-school Berenstain Bears books, the ones where Mama Bear was always warning Papa Bear against riding his bike along the edge of a crumbling cliff, but he’d do it anyway, and then say to Brother and Sister Bear: “This is what you should not do. Now, let this be a lesson to you.”

Amy asked me write about language learning, an area in which I feel spectacularly unsuccessful. Since my life, like Papa Bear’s, appears destined to be a cautionary tale, let me tell you about a few things that went wrong for me in language learning.

  1. Perfectionism

I was panicking all the time because I couldn’t get it right, and feeling like a total idiot (after all, small children spoke this language). When you freak out, your brain shuts down, so my brain was trying to work past that shut-down, as well as trying to retain information.   Perfectionism made language learning a million times harder than it had to be.

  1. Comparison

My husband, Andy, made quick progress in language-learning. While that was nice for him, I just felt stupider and stupider. We’ve talked about this a lot since then, and we’ve realized that for Andy, he pretty much exchanged one job for another. In America, he went to work and came home and ate dinner and got up and did it again. In the Solomons, it was the same pattern for him, only the work was a lot more fun, interesting, and adventurous. Meanwhile, for me…

  1. Life happened

We lived in a remote village for months at a time. I was trying to figure out how to do life under very primitive circumstances. I had two pre-schoolers who had been through multiple transitions. I got pregnant during our first village stay, puked my guts out for months on end, then went back to the village with a newborn and an additional role: homeschooling my now-kindergartener and pre-kindergartener. (Anybody who’s homeschooled knows that you can’t teach just one. They all want in on the fun.)

Looking back, I wish I had been less perfectionistic, but I wasn’t. I wish I had been more aware of our entrenched roles and how we might have changed them, but I wasn’t. I wish life had been easier, but it wasn’t. I wish I could say that things eventually settled down and I learned the language anyway, but I didn’t.

After three years, Andy took on a different role and we moved away from the village, back to the capital town where the trade language (which I had already learned) was widely used.

I’ve always been disappointed in myself for my failure in language learning, but here’s a thing I just realized while I was writing.

When I’m asked about language-learning, this story of failure is what comes to my mind.

But you know what? Before we ever moved to the village, I had learned the trade language, very successfully.

Of course, that was in a classroom with a teacher while my children were being cared for by a babysitter and somebody else cooked dinner and washed my clothes. So maybe the village experience wasn’t just me, being incompetent. Maybe the village experience was a bunch of stuff, none of it particularly conducive to the acquisition of language.

I don’t know what life would have been like if I’d succeeded in language learning, but here’s what happened when I failed: the translation project got done even though all I did was fix lunches for the translators. The New Testament was well-received, without me being able to say much more than “Hello,” “That is a very big pig,” and “Yes, I’m going to the beach to swim.” Literacy projects are still underway, and I had nothing whatsoever to do with them.

The truth is, my ego wishes it were otherwise. My ego wishes I could sit here and tell you how marvelous I truly was.

Instead, it wasn’t about me, not very much at all.

The other day, Anne Lamott said in her Facebook status that she heard this very clear word from the Lord in church recently: “It’s okay.”

And that is the word I need so many, many times. I start to worry if I’m doing everything right, I look around at everybody else who’s doing so much better, my life goes absolutely crazy at the drop of a hat—and God is right there, saying, “It’s okay.”

He’s got this. When I don’t.

Breathe, breathe, breathe.

It’s okay.


Where have you been hearing “It’s okay” these days?

Photo Source : Unsplash


  1. Elizabeth February 11, 2015

    Two things I love about this post, Kay. One, that the translation project got done anyway! That God was in everything, helping the work to get done. You didn’t get in the way of that — love that. And two, the great accomplishment of learning the trade language! I didn’t pay much attention to that part in your memoir. But you learned a language, and that’s a big victory. Love it.

    1. Kay Bruner February 11, 2015

      I always see the failures first.  I wonder if this will ever go away…  And if not, it’s okay.

  2. Jenny February 11, 2015

    This post is a great encouragement and a wonderful reminder that God uses each of us with whatever gifts and abilities we have! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Kay Bruner February 11, 2015

      Thanks, Jenny.  God loves us right where we are, delights in us as we are.  Delights in our growth, too, I think, just like we delight in first steps and wobbly new handwriting.  Mostly I think he has so much more going on than I can possibly imagine, when I’m stuck down in the teeny tiny depths of my own incompetencies!

  3. a gurl February 11, 2015

    We just got back from our trip to Nicarauga. We go back in 5 months. While there one of the interns was sick. On our last day in Managua she mentioned that though she was sick she felt like she should of prayed more and that she in a sense failed God. I told her it is ok to get off of the hamster wheel and that God loves her right where she is. I totally get that drive. That was me 20 years ago. I could not do enough to be accepted by God. I could not pray enough, do enough bible studies etc. Then my world fell apart. I lost my kids to a horrible, abusive first marriage. I walked away from God because I could not perform enough.

    And today? It is okay. To just breathe. To supposedly fail. To lean into that grace that has held onto me all of those years.

    It is rough being back in the states. But that too is Okay…

  4. Brittany February 11, 2015

    Yup, I keep struggling with one leg caught in the trap of perfectionism, comparison, and feeling like I should be doing more!  According to my organization, I’m supposed to be in full time language study — 30hours a week of language.  HA!  How I’m struggling to get half that.  By the time I do the little bit of homework for my classes a couple of times a week (at least I never skip out on the homework!) and do the little conversations that I have to to get through the groceries, the bills, the neighbors…  I’ve got NO brainpower for more study.  Not to mention by the time all of that is done, I’ve got to take care of the littles, feed us all and make sure we aren’t buried alive in filth.  Everyone told me how difficult it would be to focus on language with running our household, but I thought I would at least have the desire to work on the language.  Turns out, that while I really do want to learn it, most days I just don’t feel like it.  Yet, it’s okay.  I am going to class.  I’m doing the homework.  I’m not ignoring people who talk to me.  I truly do engage (I try!) people.  It’s okay that I am not getting my 30 hours.  It’s okay that I sometimes switch our TV over to english so I don’t have to hear one.more.word. in Romanian.

    1. Kay Bruner February 11, 2015

      It’s impossible to understand how exhausting language learning is if you haven’t done it before.  We’re all pretty idealistic ahead of time, I think.  It just seems like it should all work… but… reality bites!!  And I think we can’t discount the reality that we’re almost always trying to do language learning in the midst of the enormous transition to a new life.  The emotional adjustment sucks up brain space, too.

    2. Ashley Felder February 11, 2015

      I was the same way, Brittany! Sometimes I didn’t do my homework. I feared what my teacher would say (recovering people-pleaser here), but sitting down at 9pm to do homework after a day full of classes and babies and shopping and cooking and cleaning, I usually just collapsed.

    3. Pam G February 12, 2015

      Brittany, my heart goes out to you.  Been there. REALLY! (I’m a “seasoned” 25 field veteran who has a bare survival level of language in….count them….five languages.) I’ ve pretty much been in language learning mode forever.  It’seems not identity killer for sure….and with small kiddos at home it’so nearly impossible if we insist on defining this task the traditional way.   In my book the is a difference BTW language STUDY and language LEARNING.  Study involves classes and homework and formal exercises….and memorizing…and also often involves a lot more talking the listening or responding.  It’s about performing….and the risk of failure when youcan’the perform well enough.   Language Study is also about learning the vocab and structures that someone else thinks you ought to know.  Then what is Language Learning?  It’seems US ING language for meaningful purposes and building relationships….listening aND responding far more than youproduce….making mistakes and drawing pictures, grunting pointing….whatever you need to do to COMMUNICATE.  Personally I would count lol those “little” conversations you have for groceries, bills, and neighboring so as clock able language learning minutes/hours.  Informal lerning time adds up quickly…and is far more productive in the long run.  Give yourself a pat on the back for engaging in life in Romania…and keep moving forward…you’ll get there!

      1. Brittany February 12, 2015

        Thank you so much for that encouragement, Pam!

  5. Kay Bruner February 11, 2015

    Hey, good for you.  I’m glad you were a safe place for that intern to voice her concerns, and I’m glad you were able to confirm God’s love for her.  I think maybe we just have to go through this process of working for acceptance, failure, and then finding Love faithful.  It really is all okay.  Even when it hurts!  Blessings!

  6. Laurie February 11, 2015

    I saw the same Lamott post. Her words are often about grace. That’s what you are giving yourself when you say, “it’s okay.” I need to pass this post on to a friend who has lived between the US and Honduras for a long time. She’s once again with her family in Honduras, and she’s remarked lately about being sensitive that her language skills are not passing ‘snuff in the town where she lives. I need to remind her that God says, “it’s okay.”

    1. Kay Bruner February 11, 2015

      It’s so hard when we can’t live up to our own hopes, and the expectations of others.  I would so much rather be successful than receive grace!  Sadly!  I read Anne Lamott because yes, I need grace all the time.

  7. Grace L February 11, 2015

    I’ve been living and working in East Asia for 8 years and never had the time for formal language learning. How I wish I could have taken two years to just study and really learn the trade language, but we were already committed to our BAM and were not able to take the time. I tried to learn on my own but only had limited success. I have come to realize that my perfectionism really hampers my ability to speak. That plus being somewhat introverted. But nevertheless, we are able to live and function here quite well and are greatly helped by working with local people who speak English. I have come to accept that I will never be fluent, and that’s okay. We have good relationships with local people and we can do our work well.

    When we are with people who know us and can communicate with us in English or with simple language, I find it satisfying. However when I am with people who do not know me and they try to speak with me and then they think I am stupid because I don’t understand, that is frustrating. That’s when I have to either extricate myself from that situation because I am too uncomfortable, and/or just accept my language limitations and know that my worth in this place is not dependent upon being able to communicate with everyone. Kay, I like the emphasis in your post to say, “It’s okay.” I am okay with my language limitations. I am okay with where God has me and how He is using me here. And I am so very grateful for the local people who are so happy to communicate with me in English. My worth is not dependent on my language success, and that’s okay. Communicating God’s love non-verbally is worth a lot more!

    1. Kay Bruner February 11, 2015

      Some of my most potent experiences of God’s love have been non-verbal.  The lady in our village who just randomly one day took me in her arms and called me “my daughter”–I could understand that much 🙂  It was a day I was really, really depressed, and she randomly held me and called me her daughter.   I don’t think I’ll ever be over that experience of pure love that had nothing to do with language, and everything to do with another woman who just, for unknown reasons, loved me.

      1. Grace L February 11, 2015

        Kay, what a beautiful picture of non-verbal love. Thank you for sharing that. For those of us who have limited language, we have the privilege of speaking non-verbally. Perhaps we say more that way than if we could express our thoughts. Every Friday afternoon as our 9 ladies get ready to leave work for the day, I give them all a big hug and tell them “God bless you” using the trade language. Oh, how they love those hugs (I don’t think they get many hugs in their families) and oh how they soak up that love. Here’s to our fellow limited language ladies – let’s communicate non-verbally in response to one of Jesus’ main commandments – to love one another.

    2. Pam G February 12, 2015

      “I’ve come to accept that I’ll never be fluent….”  Good for you, Grace!  While I don’t want to minimize the true value of learning someone’s language, it is also possible to get so hung up on our failures the we miss out on the relationships that are available all around us.  So….YES, it’seems OK not to be perfect….and YES it’s OK to be … well…incompetent…I don’the know about you, but language learning hits hard on my inner need to, at least appear to, becompetent.

      1. Grace L February 12, 2015

        Yes, Pam, I can relate. I do so wish that I could speak at least the trade language really well, but it is no longer on my radar screen. I keep trying my best and I really focus on listening to those who speak the trade language clearly. Maybe I will someday be able to pick up the language the way a child does – by listening and repeating. So ever hopeful…

        I really do dislike the interactions with people who come to the conclusion that I am “stupid” because I cannot say much. I spend more of my time focusing on the relationships with people that I can go deeper with. We all need that affirmation, and perhaps especially so when we are in another culture.

        I would always advise people to get as much language learning as they possibly can. But for those of us who struggle and have barriers for focused learning, it does not mean we are failures for doing God’s work where He has called us.

        1. Pam G February 12, 2015

          OK…so here’s the deal (from my perspective, of course!) People can spend literally YEARS in language classes and make no progress in actually being able to use language in a meaningful way.  Why?  Because they are learning classroom talk…not everyday people talk.  They also hear a LOT of BAD language from their fellow students…and often get very little comprehensible input from their teachers.  Classroom learning can LOOK like focused language learning … but, in my book, unless the language you know is accessible for use in everyday talk it is NOT learned.

          On the other hand, just listening and repeating “like a child” will only get you so far, too.  The language you hear needs to be at least 80% comprehensible, or just flows over us in a wave of sound.  Think about the way we talk to our babies & toddlers.  “Mother speech” is full of repetition.  Very concrete and focused on what the baby is attending to.  And when baby points, we accept that as a response.  We work with baby to help them tell us what it is that they want.  THAT is the kind of language input we need (daily) in order to acquire a second language.

          The challenge is finding people who are willing to talk to us like we are babies and to accept baby speech from us.  It sounds like you’ve found at least a few of those kinds of people, Grace.  Good for you, for focusing on those relationships.  If you want to super-charge your language learning, maybe one of them would be willing to step up to the plate and help you focus specifically on your language development for a couple hours per week?

          Sometimes it helps to have “another” reason to get together, like a cooking lesson, or crafts, or negotiating a trip to the post office, or getting the plumbing fixed.  Then the focus is on just communicating and negotiating meaning (and building relationship) rather than on producing correct language structures.  Success becomes achieving communication rather than achieving correct pronounciation/grammar.

          My very best language tutor was not a tutor at all.  She actually preferred child minding for foreigners.  But she was a GREAT person to talk with.  She had a sense of what I could/couldn’t say, she was always stretching me a little further, she worked with me to try and understand what I wanted to say and then gave me the words…she was willing to talk with me about the same things over and over again…she had an amazing tolerance for my bad pronounciation – in other words – she HELPED me to talk….oh….and when I was having a REAL bad day because I missed my kids, she would give me a back rub.  Now THAT’s a language tutor!

          1. Grace L February 13, 2015

            Wow, what a lot of good insights for language learning, Pam. Thank you so much! I must admit that I have not been very focused on language learning recently. Part of my reasoning is that I don’t seem to have a lot of energy for it at my age (70) along with running a small factory in our house. And I have spent a lot of my energy with the two younger women I am closest to helping them to learn English. But I could get them both to help me to learn some new (usable) vocabulary and phrases each week. Haha, I know the words for scissors and cloth and embroidery…

            I like what you said “She had a sense of what I could/couldn’t say, she was always stretching me a little further, she worked with me to try and understand what I wanted to say and then gave me the words…she was willing to talk with me about the same things over and over again…” I know my two dear sisters here would do that for me (even though they know a lot more English than I know their language). I am blessed to have people like this in my house every day. Thank you for encouraging me, Pam.


  8. Danielle Wheeler February 11, 2015

    Kay, I love this post.  I think God is whispering, “It’s okay” all the time, we (I) just don’t often actually listen and take it to heart.  Thanks for the sweet and needed reminder.

    1. Kay Bruner February 12, 2015

      “peace, be still,” right?  in every moment of life.

  9. Cecily February 15, 2015

    I need to hear, “IT’S OKAY!”  on so many levels.  My God knows that I came and poured out my life as I have sought to follow Him.  He’s the kind and merciful Judge of all of it, as imperfect as my life is on so many levels.  But may His love reign in my heart, that love that is not bound by language, and may it touch those who need it (which is everybody!).

    And, when I have poured it all out, that will be enough.

    1. Kay Bruner February 15, 2015

      Amen, sister!  I’ve just been writing through “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”–Lent starts this week 🙂  And it’s just been hitting me again how great God’s love is, and how quickly we makes rules and make ourselves the judge in places where God’s love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness has already gone before.  Blessings to you!

      1. Cecily February 15, 2015

        Thanks, Kay.  He hasn’t made me the judge.  He knows that there is so much that I can’t see.  But He sees it all and knows it all.  And, as you say “His love, mercy, grace and forgiveness has already gone before.”

  10. Maria February 16, 2015

    Thanks so much for this post and the comments from others who have gone through language learning. We’re preparing to jump into it in a couple of months, and I confess with three little children it looks pretty big. I really appreciate your viewpoint of ‘looking back’, from the position of having been there. You went, you tried, and you learned some – but what you didn’t learn didn’t hinder the work from being accomplished.

    1. Kay Bruner February 17, 2015

      The whole transition to a new place with little ones is enormous, to say nothing of language learning.  Grace and peace!

  11. Kim February 17, 2015

    Thanks so much for your post Kay, and for your book As Soon as I Fell. I live in a major city in India and English is so widely spoken I haven’t learned the language, or felt the overwhelming need to. And honestly, when we were dropped out of the sky into this place almost five years ago I could barely figure out how to make dinner, do laundry and take care of three kids during the day, much less focus hours and hours on Hindi. I felt ashamed for a while as most people in our circles are required to learn Hindi and many were surprised I could only say “Namaste.” I’m over that now, thankfully and see my time has been used to serve in other ways and the people I needed to reach the most didn’t need for me to speak Hindi, but rather to be present and available in their lives in the ways I’m wired to do so.

    Anyway. Thanks for your transparency and sharing your life story with many of us who needed to read it right now.

    1. Kay Bruner February 17, 2015

      You’re welcome 🙂  LIFE!!!  It’s hard work!  I’m so glad you’ve felt free to do what you could and leave behind what you couldn’t.  That’s a lesson never too late to learn, I’m finding!

  12. Malia February 18, 2015

    Thanks, Kay. This is so powerful and needed and timely and gracious. I read myself in all of your points and needed to hear God’s “It’s okay” regarding not only language learning but all “ministry” accomplishments overseas. I don’t have great stories to tell churches. I have children . . . but they are life, and they need all of me right now. It’s okay. Expectations can be stifling if they’re coming from the wrong direction: my own pride, others’ ignorance, etc. And yes, homeschooling one child is impossible. Even the toddler wants part of the action. 🙂 I so appreciate your writing. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

    1. Kay Bruner February 18, 2015

      You’re so welcome, Malia!  Yes.  It’s SO okay not to have big stories to tell, because your children are life!  Jesus had some things to say about that 🙂

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