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An introvert's guide to overcoming language barriers

July 10, 2017
by Heidi Salzman

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I signed up to come to Ecuador. If I had, I don’t know if I would have come. But when I look back on all that God has done over the past ten months that I’ve been in Ecuador, I realize that He chose me for this.

One of my biggest struggles during this term has been learning the language. They say Spanish is the easiest language to learn, but my brain obviously didn’t get the memo. I took a two-month crash course in Spanish this spring, but it was much harder than I ever expected.

Every day, I’d wake up, scarf down my typical Ecuadorian breakfast of papaya, a pancito (bread roll), hot chocolate, and orange juice, kiss my kitty goodbye, and start the fifteen-minute walk to the bus stop. After flagging a bus that was stuffed fuller than a Thanksgiving turkey, I’d squeeze in and ride thirty minutes to the language school. I was always the first student there but I appreciated the few minutes before the rowdy European students arrived. 

I had a private tutor, which, as a diehard introvert, I appreciated. My professor was strict, didn’t leave much room for error and as a result, most days I felt like retreating to the bathroom to cry.


I’d been in Ecuador for seven months before I started language school, but I experienced culture shock all over again. I was used to living in Shell—a small town on the edge of the Amazon—with other English-speaking missionaries. Now I was living in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, with an Ecuadorian family. I found Quito quite the circus and my Spanish slow and choppy compared to the fast-paced talkers at stores and restaurants. The only familiar thing was my faithful kitten who would keep me warm on rainy nights and greet me when I came home.

My first week at language school was fun. The other seven …not so much. The first week I was tutored by a bilingual Ecuadoran woman who would recognize when I was tired, paid attention to how I learn best, and helped me work through the kinks. The second week I came in ready and excited. But that all disappeared when I learned my teacher went to Argentina and I had a new tutor. This professor didn’t know any English and I barely knew any Spanish. It was a nightmare come true. 

With the help of my Spanish dictionary and a lot of acting out what I was trying to say, I started to learn more Spanish, understand my teacher, and enjoy school a little more. Then three weeks into language school, I was presented with an opportunity that reminded me that I was there for more than just learning the cultural language. I was able to share the Gospel with my teacher in Spanish; truly a dream come true for me.

I had dragged myself to school that day, not excited for another four hours of “language torture”. But as my teacher and I began to talk, the topic moved towards spiritual things. Nervous but excited, I jumped on the opportunity to tell her about Christ. I had several other opportunities to share with her and others as well, including a day I sat down next to an elderly man on a bus. He started asking me questions and as I began talking to him, I suddenly realized that I was speaking another language and I understood everything! In that moment, I saw that I was making progress and it carried me through the duration of language school.

Those two months taught me many things besides Spanish. It taught me that even though you feel discouraged or like hiding in the bathroom and crying, God is using whatever circumstance you’re in to grow you. He’s using you as His voice and hands to share the Gospel with the lost. So, if things look bleak for you right now, just remember—it’s for a reason and God’s going to use it for His glory. Nothing He does goes to waste. 



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Written by Heidi Salzman