Robin Thomson was born in India where he spent twenty years teaching and training church and community leaders. For the last twenty six years Robin has lived in London where he has spent his time writing and teaching on cross-cultural mission to the South Asian community. He was married to Shoko, who died from heart failure in 2018. Robin has two adult children and four grandchildren. He is the author of several books on Asian culture and religion. His latest book is Living with Alzheimer’s – a Love Story, published by Instant Apostle.

What, me? Learning a new language?

One of the disadvantages of having English as your first language is that so many others around the world speak it as well. That makes it harder to learn their languages (well, that’s our excuse). We start off with the phrases we have recently learned, or remembered from school days, and the other person replies in perfect English. We feel disappointed that we can’t keep going, but also quite relieved to switch back into English.

This has often been my experience. When I lived in India for a number of years, I worked at learning the local language – first Tamil, then Hindi. But I was teaching in English, and also found that so many others, apart from colleagues and students, spoke English, that my progress was very slow. Actually, in recent years of visiting India frequently, I have improved my Hindi a lot, because I have spent time with people who don’t speak English.

But learning another language is possible even for English speakers! And it’s also beneficial, both for stretching our minds and for building relationships. The great thing these days is that there are so many courses and helps for learning almost any language – on our phones and computers. Most of them are free, at least for beginners – though they always want you to take up their premium version, which they tell you is so much better.

For example, look for podcasts on your phone. Under Education, choose Language Learning. There are programmes for beginners (and more) in French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Czech, Korean, Russian, Welsh, Dutch… What else would you like to find? The quality varies but there is almost certainly something that will help you get started, or pick up where you left off however many years ago.

Or on your computer, type the name of any language, or just ‘language learning’, and you will be amazed at what comes up. There are also companies that provide a range of options, such as Babbel or Busuu, Duolingo or BBC Languages.

So no more excuses: here is a good opportunity, either to do what you always wanted but never got round to, or to try something quite new. Most of the introductory courses suggest you spend a few minutes a day learning, remembering and practising.

What languages are spoken in your area? Do you have neighbours from other countries? Or shops? Is there a community that your church would like to build links with? They can all speak English, of course, to some extent, and often other languages too. But your effort to greet people in their own language, or even to begin a modest conversation, will open up new relationships and take you into new friendships and communities.

I am currently learning Japanese. My wife (who died two years ago) was Japanese, but we spoke English almost all the time. I wish I had learned Japanese long ago, but I’ve decided it’s not too late, even though it’s definitely harder to remember words as you get older. When I visit Japan I would like to be able to talk to our family there. Most of them don’t speak any English, though that is changing. I would like to talk with them about things that are important to them and to me. Progress is slow, but I hope it’s steady. Ask me again in a few months.

Think about people that you would like to communicate with. Then take this chance to get started.