“If I could only go back and do things differently.” How often do we say that to ourselves? Until somebody invents a time machine, there’s really nothing we can do to change the past. And if anybody ever does, then we’d have to start worrying about the whole space-time continuum thing that never makes any sense in the movies we watch. But the one thing we can do is to learn from other people’s mistakes and avoid them ourselves.
Unfortunately for me, I chose not to learn from other’s mistakes but decided to repeat them myself. The biggest piece of advice most missionaries get is to devote their first year or two in the country to language acquisition. “Don’t get sucked into ministry.” “Learn to say “no” to people.” “Pack your schedule full with language classes and study time to give you an easy way out.”
I heard all of this and more before I left for Thailand. I knew the realities, but I came over on a one year program through my mission agency and my family and I weren’t sure if we would make it more than a year. So instead of language acquisition, I entered head first doing the ministry I came over to do. Before I knew what happened, I was sucked into the ministry vortex. One year changed into 18 months and then came our first furlough. (By the way, I can’t stand the term “home assignment”) I barely knew any Thai, yet I was trying to be a productive missionary to Thai people.
With our first furlough finished, stint number two was about to begin. I was determined to make things different. I negotiated six months away from any ministry to delve into the Thai language. It was great. I learned so much. But I thought I had reached a point where I could go back to the ministry and only study part-time. Truth be told, I really wasn’t there. When I would try to talk to the students I was working with in Thai, I barely understood anything they said back to me. They were talking way too fast. When they noticed I wasn’t catching on, they reverted back to English, because the little English they knew was far superior to my Thai.
Then came the move. My family and I moved away from Chiang Mai to Korat. We were helping to start up a new ministry in a city that is barely reached with the gospel. Korat isn’t anything like Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is filled with missionaries and tourists. The Thai people there know English well. The ones that don’t, at least know specialized English for whatever business they are in. Korat, on the other hand, doesn’t get any tourists. The only foreigners in the city are some Vietnam War Veterans and a handful of missionaries. I was suddenly forced into a world where you either had to know the language or drown trying.
If I had a conversation with people, there was no reverting back to English. Even our staff meetings were conducted in Thai. I was instantly lost. But I didn’t give up. I kept at it and probably saw the most dynamic growth I have ever had in Thai. In about three month’s time I went from not understanding much that was going on, to actually being able to go into the market and hold down a reasonable conversation as well as being able to participate in the staff meetings. This was true language immersion. It was both stressful and fun. I highly recommend it.
So, I never went back full-time into language study. It has all been part-time. While I can say that it has been fruitful to an extent, If I were to do it over again, I think I would have devoted my first two years to language acquisition and stayed away from any ministry. I also would find a city like Korat to do this study, so I could really immerse myself in the language. I’m confident that this is the best route to go for the long-term missionary. Hopefully, any future missionaries out there reading this will learn from my blunders and follow the advice I didn’t. But if I know human nature, then there will still be many learning the hard way, just like me. 1.21 jigowatts of power!