Apart from my decision to follow Christ, the next most life-changing decision I ever made was to study Spanish. As I was preparing my four-year plan for high school, my father encouraged me to study a foreign language. The high school I attended offered Latin, French, and Spanish. I thought, “nobody speaks Latin. They’re all dead.” Nobody in the Texas Panhandle where I grew up spoke French either. However, there were many Hispanic people so I decided to study Spanish. I figured that I would be able to talk with them if I studied Spanish. Little did I know how much that decision would affect my life.
When I first began as a 14-year-old student of Spanish, the language was very difficult for me. Each day, the teacher gave us a pop quiz over the previous day’s vocabulary. I didn’t see a pattern to it. The terms confused me, especially the verb forms. Then one day I overheard another student say that we would be studying verb conjugations in class that day. Once the teacher explained verb conjugations, I saw a system. The rest was history.
Now I had a framework to hang my Spanish on. I learned the five verb endings for each form in present tense. Once I got that pattern down, I made straight A’s all the way through high school and college. I never made less than an A in any class. Spanish seemed to come naturally to me.
Since that time in my life, virtually every job has had something to do with Spanish or language. When I was 16, my father took me on my first mission trip. Our church had a mission on the Mexican border. After two years of high school Spanish, and making straight A’s, I thought I could speak Spanish fairly well. Turns out my language was overly simplistic. I could not form complex sentences. I had never heard of the subjunctive mood. But I came back from that trip determined to learn Spanish.
When I returned to class after my first trip, I pestered my teacher for everything I could get my hands on. I would ask questions that were way too advanced for a third-year student. She would say, “that will come up in next year’s class.” So in class, I read books that were more advanced than the class I was taking. I wanted to learn this language. I wanted to share the gospel in this language.
The next year I was disappointed to learn that the church was not taking high school students back to the Mexican border. They only allowed college students to go. Since I was a high school senior, they said I could not go unless I could interpret. So I said, “no problem!”
To help me prepare, I found out what my assignment was going to be. Construction. We were going to build a church building. My role was to interpret between our team and the Mexican workers. So I began to teach myself construction terms. I made a vocabulary list of construction tools like hammer, screwdrivers, wire, and construction materials. I planned to take a bilingual dictionary with me so I could look up any new words.
When I arrived at the border, I discovered my assignment had changed. Instead of interpreting for construction, they assigned me to the dentist. I knew nothing about dentistry. But I am a quick learner. So began my first experience as an interpreter at age 17.
In college I responded to the call to preach the gospel. After my first year of college, I took my only trip to Brazil, and returned through Columbia. I spent several weeks trying to learn Brazilian Portuguese. Since it was close to Spanish, I found it fairly easy to understand. When I arrived in Brazil, I soon discovered that my Portuguese was severely lacking. I could understand most of what people say to me and about me, however, my language came out a hodgepodge of Spanish and Portuguese. Later I learned that they call it Portuñol.
I began traveling as often as I could to Mexico and later to Columbia again. As I traveled, my fluency began to improve. Over the years I have made so many trips to Mexico I can’t count them all. I went to Columbia two times. I went to Cuba six times. I have been to Spain twice and Portugal once. I also went to Ecuador.
Changing majors in college, I finally decided to become a high school teacher. While I was working on my teaching certificate, the state of Texas decided that all students had to be instructed in their own language. I had already signed a contract with a school system in West Texas to be their 10th grade English and Spanish teacher. Since the state of Texas decided every student must learn in his or her own language, the school district sent me back to school that summer to get my endorsement in ESL.
Now, I never wanted to become an ESL teacher. That was not my goal. That was not a desire of mine. Yet due to my contractual obligations, I had to return to school for the entire summer and spend eight weeks in intensive study. The state of Texas paid for it. Not only did they pay for books and tuition, they also paid a stipend. So upon finishing the course at the end of the summer, I moved to my new city and began teaching Spanish, physical science, and ESL.
At first I really hated teaching ESL. I am not sure why, but because I was fluent in Spanish, the students would not practice their English. Truthfully it is much better if you don’t speak their language. I discovered that about 10 years later when I began teaching ESL to students from various nations while in the same classroom.
After I completed seminary with my Masters degree in theology, almost every church that approached me wanted me to do something with Spanish. In my very first church in Lubbock Texas, we decided to begin an ESL ministry. Several of us received training in ESL as well as adult literacy.
The University across the street from my second church had an ESL language program. Several times they tried to get me to teach with them, but I turned them down due to my church obligations. Eventually the church allowed me to teach part-time at the University. That was where I really began to like ESL.
Teaching adults ESL was a far more rewarding opportunity. These were adults from around the world who were paying their own expenses to come to America to learn English from native speakers. Many of them were professionals from their own countries – Japan, Taiwan, Germany, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Guatemala, and Qatar. Each was intelligent in his or her own right. Each was educated. Each paid their own expense, and they were not forced to be in class like high school students. Therefore, we had no classroom discipline problems. They knew they would be wasting their own time and money. Plus they knew if they were really a problem, we could have them deported. No problems.
Since those days I have had the opportunity to teach ESL in Cuba, Belarus, Ukraine, and Thailand. Those trips usually only lasted about two weeks. People often ask me, “What can you teach people about language in just two weeks?” The experience was more like a laboratory than a classroom. Many of the students that we ministered to had already studied English. However, they lacked practice with native speakers. Our role as teachers was to provide practical learning experiences where they could practice what they had learned with native speakers.
If you have ever studied the foreign language, you may remember the exhilaration you felt the first time you spoke to a native speaker, and he or she understood you, and you understood him or her. That’s the kind of exhilaration the students felt in their own countries when they could communicate with a native speaker.
Invariably, the students would ask who was paying us to teach them English. They were shocked to discover that we raised our own funds to make these trips. When they asked us why we would do that, we told them about the love of Christ. Many of them decided to become followers of Christ as well.
Most of those trips I took as a part of Michael Gott Ministries International. People might not come to a church to hear an “evangelist,” but they would come to learn English. The church buildings that we used were often filled to capacity several times a day as we offered English in two-hour blocks. By the end of the two weeks, hundreds of students of all ages would decide to become followers of Christ.
Through my involvement with Michael Gott, and my ESL experience, I have had a part in hundreds coming to know Christ. On several of the trips when we went to Cuba, I actually interpreted for Michael Gott. At other times I was able to preach on my own. In Belarus, Ukraine, and Thailand, I preached through an interpreter.
If you had told me when I was 14 that I would preach the gospel in the shadow of the capitol building of Havana, Cuba, I would’ve told you that you were crazy. I have done exactly that on more than one occasion. That one decision to study a foreign language has led me to teaching ESL around the world. People I would never be able to speak to any other way will come to learn English. That’s why ESL is such a valuable tool for spreading the gospel. Can you speak English? If you can, then God can use you to reach the world