Language Learning: Bloopers, Blessings & Big Results

Communication plays a central part in everyday life, especially for a missionary learning a foreign language.

As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Several ReachGlobal missionaries took time recently to share the realities of learning a new language – including their favorite bloopers — as they strive to touch the hearts of people in Latin America.

How did you go about learning Spanish or Portuguese? 

Joshua Smith

Joshua Smith, Mexico: I learned in Pamplona, Spain, before moving to Mexico. I would study three hours a week (two days a week) at the local university through their language program. I attended classes for roughly three years.

I also focused a lot on informal learning—spending time with Spanish-people, TV, church, music, whatever would allow me to listen (even The Simpsons, 24, and a Spanish soap opera became teaching tools!).

Craig Weyandt, Brazil: They say there are two ways to learn a language—the hard way and the harder way! I had a private tutor for several months during my first year in Brazil. My second year, I left my team and lived in a city in the interior of Brazil where I was forced to speak Portuguese. Today I read the newspaper and speak mainly Portuguese in the house with my wife, who is Brazilian.

Brian Duggan

Brian Duggan, Costa Rica – Latin America Leader: I attended a four-week intensive in early 2008 at ILE (Instituto de Lengua Espanola). In my role I lead staff who work in three languages: Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole.  Each country I travel to gives me opportunity to work on its language, but Spanish is my primary target.

What’s your best language blooper? 

Ted Kautzmann, Venezuela: There were tons!

We hadn’t been in Peru long when I had this old washing machine that needed repair. I was given a business card of a repairman. His name was Primitivo, which means primitive. Not rare in Peru, but rare enough. You think Fred Flinstone’s gonna show up with stone tools to help you.

So I said something like is Primitivo there?

The lady said “No…”

I didn’t understand, but you take a guess because you’re tired and just have to go with it. So I said, “Do you know when he’ll be back?”

She said, “No! Él ha fallecido!”

Still not understanding, I said, “Do you know his new address?”

She responded the same.

Frustrated, I ended the call with “When you see him let him know I called.”

When I looked it up, I realized she was telling me “He has deceased!”

Ted Kautzmann

Another missionary told a Brazilian that he was going to another city and had to drive on the highway. The Brazilian said to be careful driving in the dark because of the “venado.” The missionary remembered this word to mean deer in Spanish.

So he said, “Well, where I live in Wisconsin we have them all over the place and it’s dangerous.”

“Oh really?” says the Brazilian.

“Oh yeah, they get hit all the time!


“Oh yeah, that happened to me not too many years ago.”

“What did you do?”

“I pulled over because they can make a mess on your car—guts and everything.

“What then?”

“ I dragged him off the road because he was big!”

The Brazilian looked just awful. They finally realized that the word “venado” means transvestite in Portuguese, not deer!

Judy Muselman

Judy Muselman, Costa Rica: One of my teeth broke while I was in the Dominican Republic, and when I called the dentist’s office to make an appointment, instead of telling her my tooth was broken I used a word that said my tooth was growing.

Smith, Mexico: In changing from Spain to Mexico City, I found out that my kids and I were swearing quite a bit because the normal word for “rear end” in Spain is viewed as a pretty vile swear word in Mexico. Oops!

Angie Ziel, Costa Rica: After almost getting run over by a car while carrying my groceries and walking with friends, I called out, “Cuidado con mis huevos!” Which translates into (slang) “Be careful with my balls!”

Duggan: Perhaps this is not real classy, but early on I did not pronounce ñ [similar to “nya”] very well.  So I would congratulate someone on their birthday with “happy anuses” by saying cumpleanos.  That definitely brings an embarrassed laugh.

Gordon Pike

Gordon Pike, Costa Rica: I do like the one that my Spanish grammar teacher told me about the guy who was writing his personal testimony out and had the teacher check it over.  In wanting to describe the change he had experienced when he accepted Christ about 20 years before said that he had experienced a great menopause in his life 20 years before.

What is the best thing about learning a new language? What is the most difficult?

Ziel: The best thing was being able to communicate more clearly and share on a deeper level with Spanish-speakers. The most difficult thing is constantly having doubts and making mistakes everyday, even after years of study and practice.

Smith: Most of my spiritual gifts are wrapped up in my ability to speak (teaching, exhortation), so initially not being able to speak the language caused a bit of an identity crisis. It was good, though, and forced me to rediscover my value and identity in Jesus, and not in my gifts or abilities.

The best part of learning a new language is that it allows you to enter into the inner-circle of culture. You catch nuances, ideas, dreams, foundations, and cultural challenges that you could have never gotten through a translation. It is also a key medium to building meaningful relationships, which is pretty vital to longevity on the mission field.

Craig Weyandt

Weyandt: I was so proud to finally learn and speak another language. One of my greatest disappointments is that I don’t dream in Portuguese.

Duggan: The biggest challenge is that language learning becomes significantly more difficult as we age, and I began at age 45.  But I never considered learning the language to be a short-term goal.  It’s one that I will always be working on.

Pike: The best part were the friends we made among other language school students.

How important is it for missionaries to learn the native language? Why?

Muselman: The thing that has always thrilled me most is when the Lord has helped me learn a spiritual truth in Spanish, and then has provided an opportunity for me to share that truth with people I meet.  Communication is the key – and our Spanish doesn’t have to be perfect in order for God to use it to speak to someone’s heart.

Smith: Essential. If Jesus humbled Himself and took on the form of a man for our sake, how much more so should we be willing to share the gospel with our neighbors in a language that they can understand.

Angie Ziel

Ziel: In my opinion it is critical. The time, energy and effort spent in learning Spanish more than pays for itself in the relationships one is able to build and the appreciation of the receiving people. It also helps us be more humble and gives us something to laugh at together which can be a great way to start friendships and help people feel more comfortable in your presence.

Pike: It is essential! I am not saying they have to learn Spanish perfectly.  Unfortunately, even though I have spoken Spanish for 26 years, mine is far from perfect.  However, any missionary must work at perfecting it for their entire career, and the way to start is to take the time to learn the basics at the beginning of their missionary service.

Duggan: Learning the language for local staff is incredibly important.  Our goal in our division is for each missionary working in local ministry to continually improve their language ability. It shows respect, humility and a genuine desire to relate as equals when we minister in the mother tongue of nationals.

© 2012 EFCA. All rights reserved. 

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