Language & Culture Learning

Strong relationships build ministry that works. The Language and Culture Learning team helps staff form solid cross-cultural relationships. We train coaches, consultants and teachers. These people then help workers learn a language and practice cultural skills.

Our staff teach people who are studying languages. We coach those who are living and working in new cross-cultural settings. To help them learn, we also develop online materials and courses. Some staff live and work abroad, and some stay in their home countries.

For foreign language trainers, you’ll first learn basic language and culture learnings skills at one of SIL’s training schools.  A field assignment (or overseas experience) is recommended. To improve your skills, you may attend workshops or conferences, take online courses and assist on courses as a Teaching Assistant. Experienced staff will mentor you. Some staff go on to get advanced degrees in Second Language and Culture Acquisition.

For English teachers, TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) training is essential, as well as experience teaching internationals.

Have a passion for languages, living cross-culturally and helping others learn languages? Then you should consider joining us in Language and Culture Learning.

A Frustrated Calling Leads to Greater Joy

Nora McNamara never thought learning a language would frustrate her. As a student, she learned Spanish in high school and college. Then she taught in Spanish. After that, she moved to France and learned French. She was excited to go with SIL to Benin in West Africa and learn a language there.

But it didn’t happen. The difficulty of the language surprised her. Other non-native speakers discouraged her from trying to learn it.

“I didn’t learn the language,” Nora said. “I couldn’t do what I was there to do if I couldn’t speak the language.”

Feeling frustrated, she came home on furlough. She thought Bible translation was her calling. For her, missions was part of Christianity. And even her non-Christian relatives had supported her.

Nora became a Christian as a teenager, and her role model in the faith had done short-term mission trips. So for Nora, it was always part of the deal that missions went along with Christianity. She attended church on Sundays and Wednesday nights and heard missionaries speak about their work.

When she discovered linguistics in college, she fell in love with it. She doesn’t remember who first told her about Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL International, but she remembers why Bible translation resonated with her.

After becoming a Christian, her friend took her to get a Bible. It was a King James Bible, and Nora read it every morning. Though she understood it, the Scripture didn’t impact her the way it did when she heard it at church.

“Finally I realized the reason it wasn’t hitting me in my heart the way youth group was, was because it wasn’t really in language I spoke,” Nora said. That was the beginning of her call to Bible translation—to translate the Scriptures into people’s heart languages.

Another confirmation of her calling came at an InterVarsity retreat. She saw a poster that was completely blank except for quotation marks at the top and the bottom. The very bottom of the poster said, “This is John 3:16 in 3000 of the world’s languages.”

And that’s when Nora said, “I’m in.”

She joined Wycliffe Bible Translators.

“I had people around me who affirmed that this was in line with my giftings,” Nora said. “God was really gracious.”

But now she was home on furlough, full of frustration and discouragement.

The Discouraged Becomes the Encourager

After connecting with a language coach, Nora told the coach what she did in Benin. But as she talked, Nora realized she’d been learning the wrong way. The coach agreed and encouraged Nora to train with her.

So Nora started working with the language coach. But it wasn’t long before the coach asked, “You already know all these techniques, don’t you?”

Nora admitted she did.

“Do you want to do my job?” the coach asked.

“I would love to,” Nora answered.

And that’s how Nora found her purpose, not as a Bible translator in West Africa, but as a language coach in the midwestern United States.

Nora bubbles with enthusiasm when explaining what she does.

“I help missionaries learn the language so they can really get into the hearts and lives of the people they’re called to.” She explained many missionaries think it’s too difficult or even impossible to learn another language. “Basically, I give people the help that I didn’t get.”

When she first started language coaching, she thought the problem was accountability. She thought her job was to tell people, “You’ve got to do it.”

But as she thought about her own struggles, she realized accountability wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to learn the language. She had gotten discouraged and didn’t know what to do next.

Now she knows if people aren’t progressing in their language learning, it’s because they’re discouraged.

When she wakes up in the morning, she often already has messages on Facebook from missionaries in south Asia because of the time difference. After answering their questions, she makes her coaching calls.

One couple she coaches works in southern Africa. Nora spends two hours with them on WhatsApp to facilitate their language session with the language teacher. The couple hadn’t received any language training the first time they went to the field and came away feeling discouraged. Then they met Nora and returned to southern Africa.

“Now I get to help them in learning this language, which is amazing,” Nora said. “That’s a lot of fun.”

She has more coaching calls with missionaries all over the world who are learning all sorts of different languages. Nora hears what’s working for them and advises them on what to do next.

“My job is to figure out what’s discouraging them and encourage them,” she said.

Teaching and Learning

Nora described three techniques she teaches: Total Physical Response, Information Gap and Clarifying a Recording.

She calls Total Physical Response “Listen and Point” or “Listen and Do.” A few items are gathered, and then the language speaker asks the language learners, “Where’s the cup? Where’s the spoon?” Learners point to the cup or the spoon, and the session progresses to more complex sentences: “Put the cup under the table. Give the big red cup to the horse.”

Information Gap games are really fun, Nora said. In this technique, a visual barrier is set up between the speaker and the learners, then they have conversations in the style of Guess Who or Battleship.

For Clarifying a Recording, language speakers record themselves talking about their typical day or some other subject. Then language learners listen to the recording. When they come to a word or phrase they don’t understand, they ask questions of their language teacher while staying in the language and trying to figure out what the word or phrase means.

Nora summed up her job. “I teach people to play Simon Says, Pictionary, Charades, Battleship, Guess Who and Taboo.”

In the evening, Nora facilitates an English class for new Americans and volunteer English teachers.

“That’s super exciting,” Nora said, “Not only helping these people to learn English but also helping these community volunteers know best how to help these new Americans learn English. My job is basically multiplying myself, teaching other people how to coach people and then coaching people myself.”

She also coaches teams of people who partner with OneStory. These teams go out for three or four years and learn the language so they can tell Bible stories in that language. Sometimes they work to get a community interested in starting a Bible translation. Other communities have a translation, and the stories interest them in using it. And still other people are not literate, so the audio stories give them access to the Scriptures.

“I get to coach people from all sorts of different organizations,” Nora said. “In SIL we have some expertise that is helpful to people in other organizations for community development and church planting.”

Nora’s not leaning on just her past experiences to give her empathy for her students. Each day she tries to spend a couple of hours doing her own language learning.

“I need to practice what I preach,” she said. If she’s not learning a new language, it’s harder for her to understand what other people are going through when they learn a new language.

For her, the joy of language learning comes from the relationships she builds with people. So even when learning a language remotely, she wants to learn from a person, not from a book or an app. This way, she’s not only building a relationship but also learning about culture.

But even with her own language learning, she doesn’t know all the languages that her students are learning. Instead, they discover the language together.

With a degree in linguistics, Nora teaches technique, not language. So before she starts coaching a missionary, she reads anything she can about the language.

Recently, some missionaries took photos of a dictionary’s introduction and sent them to her. They said they couldn’t understand the grammatical and linguistic explanations in the introduction. But they thought Nora could use the information to coach them.

Nora plans to start a master’s in Second Language Studies, and if that goes well, to get a Ph.D.

“I’m never going to stop coaching people, and I’m never going to stop learning languages because those things give me so much joy,” she said. But the degrees will make her a much better coach. She’ll know more of the science behind languages and will be able to teach and train missionaries even more effectively.

“It is the best job,” she said. “Watching people succeed gives me so much joy.”