|(My current desktop background, to remind me of my goal to learn Italian. Not sure who gets credit for the original pic.)|
My youngest brother got his mission call last week. For those of you who aren't familiar with these, it's a letter that tells him where he will be living and serving as a missionary for two years. As part of the preliminary paperwork you tell them what languages you have experience with, or if there's a particular area you're interested in, but the call is a complete surprise and will often have nothing to do with what you've studied.
Nate is going to be serving in Tokyo, Japan. As he read those words aloud, I watched via webcam as he grinned, laughed, shouted in Japanese, and fought back tears. Nate has studied Japanese for three years--two in high school, one in college--and he has dreamed of going to Japan for even longer.
I was overjoyed for him, but in the back of my mind, I had a sudden realization: By the time he comes home from Japan, I will be the only one of my siblings not fluent in a foreign language. My older brother speaks Portuguese, thanks to being a missionary in Brazil. The next brother went to Denmark and speaks wonderful Danish. Now Nate is going to Japan. On top of that, my husband currently speaks about 4.5 languages.
Long after hanging up with Nate, I continued to be bothered by this thought of being the only one who couldn't speak another language. Part of my frustration came from the fact that I've done more formal language study than any of my brothers had before their missions; I studied Chinese for 3.5 years, one and a half of that in college and the other two a very difficult high school home-study course from a university, and I took two years of college Spanish. I studied 20 hours a week for Spanish 101--practically a part-time job--so it wasn't like I was just coasting through the classes, either. I wholeheartedly wanted to learn the languages. And then, just this year, I started studying Italian.
But my last Spanish class was 3 years ago, and while I still understand a fair amount of Spanish, I can't even form simple sentences anymore. It's been 4.5 years since I wanted anything to do with Chinese (ask me about my trip to China sometime when you have 2 hours or more to hear the story), and only recently have I been starting to pick up the pieces of that one, only to find I don't know what to do with those pieces anymore. Meanwhile, my Italian thus far consists of phrases like "Mangio il cioccolato," or "I eat the chocolate."
As I started to write in my journal about what I was feeling, I made a discovery. I wrote,
"I know that spiritual growth is the most valuable part of serving a mission, but I've never envied that, because I feel the Lord can give me that in other ways; but ever since I realized I would not serve a mission before getting married (I felt that long before I even met Ryan), I've envied those who get to serve foreign-speaking missions."
Even as I continued writing in that angsty, frustrated vein--venting my continued frustration over the dreams that were shattered during our trip to China, and berating myself for beginning multiple languages but never studying them long enough to be good for anything--I felt a small, quiet voice in my mind say, "If God can give you the spiritual growth without the mission, why can't he give you languages?"
That little thought stuck with me long after my tears and ink had both dried on the page. I had set goals the week before, some of which regarded language study; and though as I was writing that journal entry I came very close to crossing them right off my goal sheet, that little voice told me to work harder. I decided I could study Chinese and Italian, just as I once studied Chinese and Spanish simultaneously in college. I felt that it was okay if I wasn't fluent in them right away, but that I would be a better person for having worked on them. I felt that if I was consistent, eventually I would have opportunities to use languages to serve, and also the chance to simply enjoy knowing and using a second language.
I began praying for help with my goal to study languages, and suddenly, the 15 minutes a day that I had pledged to do on my goal sheet became an hour or more. My car trips are now filled with podcasts in Chinese and Italian, and my two-year-old suddenly stopped yelling at me for the duration of every car trip. My spare moments are now spent learning new Italian vocabulary instead of surfing on Facebook. I find myself repeating Chinese words and phrases in my head that I know I once learned but now can't remember the meaning for. I've started listening to conference talks in other languages while exercising.
I may not emerge two years from now fluent in a language, as my little brother will. But I'm learning. And more importantly, my heart is at peace. My time will come.