When A Third Language Is Like A Slap In the Face

My daughter is learning Chinese. Every day at school, she spends one hour singing songs, playing games, and learning vocabulary. I sat in on her class one day, and it was incredible. I watched her raise her little hand and gleefully translate from Mandarin to English. And I was blown away.

And then I was like, what on earth?

We've been trying to get our kids to speak Spanish since birth. And they rarely do. But now, I hear myself hollering, "Stop fighting about Chinese!" from the front seat of the car while the two of them bicker about make believe dialogues Gabriella has created in the back.

I feel a weird mix of utter amazement that my kid is learning three languages, and how proud of her I am, and how wildly awesome the human brain is. But I also feel frustrated, and just a touch like I've been slapped in the face.

Why can't my kids be arguing in or about Spanish? (Bigger question: Why can't they just stop arguing altogether... or at least for six consecutive minutes?) But why does Spanish so often feel like a chore or a fight when Gabriella will eagerly sing me Mandarin songs or watch YouTube videos from class next to me on the couch?

So I had to step back and really think. And I actually have a few ideas why she's more engaged in her Chinese language learning. And thinking through these 5 reasons has also given me some fresh thought about how to re-engage her in Spanish once again.

#1 Technique

Often, the ways we're using Spanish is functional. We practice how to ask abuelita for breakfast when she's babysitting or how to talk about the day on video chat. Chinese, on the other hand, is fun. It's silly songs and robot bodies with Hello Kitty heads.

Check out this list of 101 Spanish Shows on Netflix and let the bilingual binging begin!

#2 - Expertise

In our house, Gabriella is the Chinese master. Billy (and to a lesser extent, me) is trying to learn along with her, and he's constantly asking her questions. She's already miles ahead of us all. Compare that feeling with the frustration she experiences when she tries to understand Billy in Spanish or attempts to communicate, but can't find the words?

#3 - Community

We know other bilingual English and Spanish kids. But every day at school, she gets to practice Chinese with twenty-two of her favorite classmates. Social motivation is huge for Gabriella, and she loves being along for the ride with all her péngyǒu (friends).

#4 - Culture

Gabriella recently asked if we could go to a Chinese restaurant and eat Chinese food. She's learning about culture at school, and she's fascinated. I've always been intentional to include Guatemalan and Latin American culture in our life and home, but I forget that, to her, American-Guatemalan cultural heritage is "normal." So she wants to explore something new, which is fun and interesting.

#5 - Consistency

Oh, language learning consistency. And as much as we try, we are simply not consistent with Spanish. Which means Gabriella gets excited for a minute ("We're going to always speak Spanish at dinner!), but then interest wanes when we get out of practice. And it prevents her from advancing as we're always starting back at the beginning, it feels.

Where do we go from here?

I'm thrilled Gabriella is learning a third language. But I do worry it will eclipse her Spanish skills in the long run. And while there's not much good that can come from fretting about that, I can learn from her incredible Chinese teachers and consider how we can reignite her interest in Spanish.

How can we make it more fun? Where can we help her achieve a sense of accomplishment? How can we incorporate community into the learning experience? Are there new ways we can engage culture? And can we develop more consistency to help her grow? (I already have an idea the answer to that last one, but we'll keep trying!)

Do We Need To Be Rescued from the Life We Always Wanted? {Giveaway}

It has been book palooza around here lately. I've been so excited to share with you about Embrace and Assimilate or Go Home, and now I get to add a final gem to this fall's trifecta of awesome! This week, my friend Shannan releases her first book, Falling Free: Rescued from the Life I Always Wanted.

I met Shannan at the Festival of Faith and Writing, where we were housemates and stayed up late eating ice cream and sharing stories about living in unconventional places and loving across cultures. I asked her three questions about her writing and her new book, and I hope you enjoy "meeting" her as much as I did. For extra delight, I'm sharing a free copy of her book to one lucky reader at the end!

Q: Can you introduce yourself to readers who've not visited your blog?

Absolutely! I'm Shannan Martin, wife to my jail chaplain husband, Cory, and mom to four quirky kids. I blogged for almost eight years as Flower Patch Farmgirl, and now I'm just regular ol' me, living life and writing it down. Five years ago, God thrust my family into the adventure of a lifetime, in which our safe, cozy, pretty, American Dream life was turned upside-down.

As you can imagine, it's a very long story... In short, we sold our dream farmhouse, moved to a shabby neighborhood in a nearby city, transitioned out of "impressive" jobs in federal politics, and found our faith come alive on the wrong side of the tracks, where we see God's goodness more clearly than we ever had before. Jesus chose low places, and we are discovering the thrill of doing the same. 

But it requires the ache and burn of surrender, which so far hasn't become second-nature. We're still us, wearing different lenses. We couldn't have imagined how beautiful and simultaneously unsettling and difficult life would become when we began to walk toward the pain around us rather than away from it. But I can look you in the eye end promise - I'd never go back.

Q: You are mama in a multicultural family and your family lives cross-culturally as well. How has living across cultures impacted your worldview? 

All four of our kiddos, ranging in age from 8 to 22, came into our hearts through the complicated, breathtaking gift of adoption. Each of their races and stories are beautifully unique. We began our adoption road after we faced unexplained infertility, but I now see that God was preparing us for something so much bigger than just the immediate building of our family. (Of course he was!) 

I know now that as my heart opened to the belief that families are built outside of biology or genetics, I was learning deep truths that would carry me through the changes headed my way. It helped me understand that my kids aren't actually "mine," and that we are all better when, as Mother Theresa said, we draw a wider circle around family. 

Over the years, our family has unofficially "adopted" many others into our homes and hearts, and we truly are better together. I'm extremely honored to have a window into the greatness of God and his compassion and love in creating a world rich with differences. 

I love learning about the birth cultures of our kiddos. I love celebrating with them. I love the way it has allowed me to more clearly see the cultural differences of our new community as something to truly cheer about. Diversity is the MAGIC! 

On the flip-side, having a twenty-two year old African American son with a heartbreaking history has split me open to the pain of racism flooding our cities and streets. We cannot love what we cannot know, and quite honestly, part of my "knowing" came quite easily to me through the love of my children. But I cannot encourage people enough to build friendships outside your race/socioeconomic status/religious tradition/political belief. It's the only way to begin to grow together.

Q: What is your hope for Falling Free? What do you hope readers take away? 

My deepest hope is that those who read will walk away with a more luminous sense of how freeing it can be to lose oneself for the sake of God's kingdom. We get to be less. 

We are invited into the cozy comfort of being smaller, of having less, of not being in control all the flipping time. We get to think outside the traditional box when it comes to how we view community, parenting, and even (especially?) church. 

Everyone's story looks a bit different, by God's brilliant, perfect design. In Falling Free I'm sharing my story. But I believe deep in my bones that God has written stories for each of us that we cannot begin to imagine. The first step toward living those stories is opening our fist around the things we cling to, and beginning to really trust that we were never meant to be in charge. THAT, my friends, is freedom.

My copy of Falling Free is on the way, and I can't wait to dive into Shannan's beautiful words, wise insights, and genuine humor. It releases tomorrow, September 20. To win a copy, enter the raffle below!

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I Saw Jesus in Detention

A few months ago, Billy and I organized a group from our church to visit men at Stewart Detention Center in south Georgia. It's the biggest immigrant detention center on the East Coast, and it is run by the private prison group CCA (Corrections Corporation of America).

Our visit came a couple weeks after our church had mailed Father's Day cards with the hope of encouraging and remembering those separated from their families. It's difficult to find appropriate greeting cards in such painful circumstances.

Through these experiences and our church partnership with El Refugio ministry, I've learned a lot about immigrant detention over the last few months. In light of the federal government's declaration to reduce private prison contracts (but not privatized immigration detention centers), I wrote a piece called "I Saw Jesus in Detention" being featured on Christianity Today's Her.meneutics blog:

A few months ago in the early morning, I joined a group from my Atlanta-based church on a two-and-a-half-hour drive down I-85 South to the Stewart Detention Center, one of the largest immigration detention centers in the country. Some of the immigrants detained in the facility had requested visitors, and so our church responded. I tried to imagine—who would be so lonely as to ask a stranger to meet with him? Someone living in a very isolated place. Stewart is located in Lumpkin, Georgia, a rural town near the border of Alabama. Many of the center’s residents have been transferred from other states—some as far away as California—and as a result are cut off from family, legal representation, and support networks.

When our congregation asked about the purpose of our trip to Stewart, we relied on Christ’s invitation in Matthew 25:36: “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Of course, this wasn’t prison exactly. It was immigration detention. Maybe that’s why, when we arrived, I was unprepared for the distinctly prison-like look of the facility.

P.S. In case you missed it, I also wrote for Her.meneutics in June, a piece entitled "My Marriage to an Undocumented Immigrant." You can read it here.  

That One Thing We Need To End Poverty

"Now, if you could boil your experience down," he began, inching closer to me in his metal folding chair, "and name the one thing that would make a difference in your neighborhood, what would it be?"

He was referring to my year in Atlanta with Mission Year. I  had lived in a marginally maintained shotgun house in a poor community. I had taken the bus anywhere I needed to go. And I'd lived off a $70/month stipend while I volunteered at a local middle school. Now, I had come home, was preparing to return to college for my sophomore year, and was still trying to figure out how to answer the haunting, post-missions question, "How was it?" Now there was this.

How would I solve poverty? And with only one arrow in my quiver?

I hemmed. I hawed. I mumbled something about resources. I looked away, confused and discouraged at my own lack of a solid solution. I remember he caught my eye and said, "Money? That's the answer?"


I probably remember that question a couple times a year. Over a decade of studying poverty and living in poor communities, and I still wrestle with answers. And sometimes I feel angry. Like seriously, what is it? What is that one thing?

Last week, my friend Leroy Barber released his latest book, Embrace: God's Radical Shalom for a Divided World. As I tearfully watched the book's trailer, I thought about that question again.

The answer is relationships. Community.

This shouldn't come as a surprise to me. Shane Claiborne says it well in Irresistible Revolution, "I had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”

Issues are huge and overwhelming and intimidating to tackle: poverty, mass incarceration, immigration, education, health care. But when people reach out across divides to interact in truly authentic and genuine relationships, the conversations are different.

I was especially moved as Leroy described how the people of Israel were being called to seek good for the people who destroyed them. God the Restorer is relational and always invites us into community.

I can honestly say in my own life that I have rarely been moved to action by statistics, Facebook arguments, or political rhetoric. But my passion for change, reconciliation, and justice has stemmed from hearing stories on front porches, watching the day-to-day lives of my neighbors, and listening to the hurts of people I love. Relationships inspire change. They move the needle.

The message of Leroy's book resonates so deeply in my own heart. And a fun little side note for ya, I have an essay in the book, talking about cross-cultural marriage. Because there's not a more fun way to reach across a cultural divide than to just marry into the family, right?

Enjoy the trailer here, and you can order your own copy of Embrace here on Amazon.

How have relationships across divides impacted you? 

A Life with Subtitles. All rights reserved. © Maira Gall.