The easiest way to learn a new language…and some thoughts on rule breaking

I spent nearly a decade as a high school Spanish teacher. 

That statement usually triggers one of two responses: 

1-   Groans.I hated learning (insert language here). I get that. We can still be friends.

2-   Um…so I’ve been thinking about learning (insert language here). What should I do?

I found myself asking the same question a few years ago. After  two years of high school SPANISH, four years of college SPANISH, travel to SPAIN and 8 years teaching SPANISH….I married someone whose family speaks Chinese. And it was time to learn a new language. The thought of doing it the same way I had learned Spanish turned my stomach. A bachelor’s degree made me barely conversant. At that pace, I wouldn’t be able to talk to grandma until I was a grandma. That’s when I discovered the PIMSLEUR method (find on Audible, Itunes, etc). 

My Mandarin isn’t perfect or even good, but within a few lessons I could have a conversation. Quickly, I was understanding and speaking a number of phrases. I could NOT get over how much quicker Chinese words and phrases came to mind than Spanish ones. But I think what I loved most about this method was…

It broke every rule for teaching foreign language. 

In language teaching (particularly in the American high schools where I taught) , there were some sacred rules. 

1.    You don’t speak English…like ever. 

2.    You need to understand the grammar (which will most likely involve charts and verbs). 

3.    Writing and reading are non-negotiables. 

And then came along this audio course, named after Dr. Paul Pimsleur, a linguistic researcher in the 1970’s, and blew it all to bits. My first lesson spoke English and translated everything for me. Ten lessons in, the course never once mentioned adjectives, noun clauses or the proper diagramming of a sentence. 

This course was the antithesis to how I taught language…and how I had been taught to teach language.

And almost offensively…it worked. 

I think a lot of areas of life feel like that. We live according to road maps that say “this is the way” and “this is what we do”. They were handed to us by good people who had the same maps handed to them. 

And the maps seem sacred…until someone wads them up, tosses them over the shoulder and succeeds anyway. 

For those of us who lead the next generation, particularly those of us who are faith leaders, I think this is a big deal because, at it’s core, discipleship is a lot like language- learning. 

It’s a skill. 

It’s something you know that becomes something you do. 

It's something you do that becomes a part of who you are. 

And if we aren’t careful, we’ll get stuck following the same maps, using the same methods, teaching the same patterns in the same order because that is what someone taught us. 

We’ll stop questioning, stop imagining a different way to…

  • Teach the Scriptures
  • Practice prayer
  • Experience worship
  • Measure growth

I’m not saying we throw out tradition, burn the rules or ignore best practices. After all, at some point that way of doing things was effective enough to write down. But I am saying it’s worth knowing why we do what we do. It's worth exploring if there's a better route to...


And, like Dr. Pimsleur, if you notice something doesn’t work anymore, it’s worth finding another way. 

After all, anybody who tells you that thinking and re-thinking your craft is a waste of time may just be a map dealer. 

And you may just be a map maker.