Monday, May 18, 2009

Study by Immersion: Not Just for Languages

For those of you who don't know yet, I'm going to Guadalajara, Mexico for a month to study Spanish as part of UALR's study abroad program. I leave July 8, and I'm both excited and nervous. I've never traveled outside the United States before. (I haven't traveled within the United States much either, for that matter.) I'm not nervous about the swine flu or drug cartel violence. What actually frightens me most is talking to native speakers. What if I can't understand them as they rattle off español at lightning speed? What if they can't understand me as I fumble for words and phrases stored in the second-language section of my brain? I'm a communicator by nature, so not being able to communicate is scarier than a global pandemic in my book.

To improve my Spanish skills before I go, I've been studying SpanishPod. They have podcasts ranging from Newbie to Advanced levels. I enjoy listening to the Newbie and Elementary levels because even though I don't learn new grammar or vocabulary, I do learn new phrases and culture. I'm most at home with the Intermediate lessons, and I can understand the Advanced lessons if I look at the accompanying transcript as I listen.

Today, I was listening to SpanishPod while I cleaned house, and an Advanced lesson came up in the queue. I instantly hit pause, longing for the transcript crutch to guide me through the fast speaking and unfamiliar vocabulary. Then I realized that when I'm in Guadalajara, nobody will offer me a PDF transcript of our conversations; I will have to dive in and soak up the Spanish without  any study aids. I hit play and listened.

I couldn't understand exactly what was being said, which made me a little uncomfortable, but I was at least getting a feel for the cadence and pronunciation of Spanish at full speed. Whenever I actually grasped what was being said, I rejoiced and felt hopeful that I could eventually understand more. By immersing myself in the language, I will gradually grow more comfortable and more capable.

Isn't the gospel a little like that? When we first decide to change our lives and draw closer to the Lord, we are in unfamiliar territory. We cling to the first steps of faith and repentance. We renew our baptismal covenants each week as we partake of the sacrament. We study our Sunday school lessons and follow the scripture chains outlined in our study guides. These steps are all wonderful and essential, but the next step, making that leap from being saved by grace to being changed by grace, is a little scary.

How do we do it? Well, we study by immersion. After all, isn't our time here on earth like a spiritual study abroad program? We surround ourselves with people of faith who can testify of the Lord's amazing power in their own lives. More importantly, we fumble around for our own elementary level faith and dive right in, soaking up the blessings the Lord offers us. As we practice living by new standards and promises, we grow more confident in our own abilities to learn and grow. Best of all, we gain our own testimonies of the Savior's redeeming love.

Just like learning a language, we will all stumble now and then. One of my Spanish teachers once asked for jugo de araña instead of jugo de naranja at a restaurant in Mexico. Luckily, the waiter realized she didn't really want spider juice, but orange juice. Likewise, the Lord understands our hearts and will gently guide us as we learn. Thank goodness, because I need a lot more study before I'll be fluent in the gospel.

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