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Ben & Mel Kniesz

Joy & Humiliation: Language Learning

“And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” Acts 2,6

That is the ideal language acquisition scenario, I am sure, some might say! To be honest, in the past I did not feel that way. I always enjoyed the process of learning, unearthing secrets of a new language and being introduced to a new world. Why then is it sometimes so hard to be a language learner in Taiwan?

For one, age is a huge factor. It was way cooler to learn a new language at aged 14 than it is at 34 when people wonder why you are not “working”. Then there is just life. Sure, many envy us for those chubby little legs running through our house, maybe less envy for the mess, the noise and stinky diapers. It seems reasonable that learning would be less smooth when little hands keep grabbing your pens and a little butt just sits on your book. Maybe it is also the constant embarrassment of saying things wrong and having again mixed up 蛋糕 (Dàngāo) “cake” with 禱告 (Dǎogào) “Prayer”. The realization that we now know how to ask many questions but do not dare to ask them because we do not understand the reply. Or just the annoyance of having to translate every single label in the aisle until you can finally find the desired product.

Yes, there is great joy as well! The day that our son just suddenly opens his mouth and starts chatting with another kid in Chinese. Or after months of him being a quiet observer, his teacher tells us she had to reprimand him because he was talking so much in class. Hallelujah! It is a great adventure to be learning a language together with your kids!

Ben & Mel Kniesz

But it is also humbling, maybe even humiliating. In Germany our kids did not see us this exhausted, over-whelmed and helpless. We are more dependent on the help of others than ever before. We used to be the ones serving in church, now others are serving us and there is not much we can give back. We often feel clumsy, incapable and out of place. This is where being a language learner turns into a crisis of identity.

Will we ever be able to serve here effectively? Not being able to communicate makes you really lonely and sometimes even English can be tiring to speak. Seeing our kids not being able to communicate and feeling lonely, hurts even more. We try to help but it takes time and once again what we can do is limited. Then that toxic downward spiral begins.

Our eyes begin to wander and look at those with Asian languages as their mother tongue and how much quicker they are able to learn and blend in. Is it even worth it to invest in “Western” missionaries that have a much longer language process ahead of them? At this point we realize we have turned it into something about us, not about God!

Maybe this is what language learning is truly about: Learning humility! Not coming from a position of power, but of one of a helpless child. Not taking yourself and your own mistakes so seriously. Living what you preach, that our God is mighty through those that are weak! And even enjoying this crazy ride! Thank you for every word of encouragement from you guys, every hug and funny language mistake story. It is a privilege and a wonderful lesson to be here as language learners!

Ben & Mel Kniesz – Taichung

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