The Missionary Training Center's foundational training coupled with a year or more of immersion in the field equips Mormon missionaries with impressive language skills.

The Missionary Training Center’s foundational training coupled with a year or more of immersion in the field equips Mormon missionaries with impressive language skills. (Shutterstock)

NPR had a great piece over the weekend on Mormon missionaries’ remarkable foreign language skills.

Calling the Missionary Training Center “one of the best language-instruction institutes in the world,” the story focuses on the innovative “context-based” training techniques that are used at the MTC for rapid assimilation of language — some of which are being adopted by the military.

The story may be optimistic in terms of the speed of new missionaries’ language acquisition:

In a matter of weeks, these enthusiastic young students will be speaking foreign languages fluently enough to spread the Gospel.

As some of the comments point out, a scenario of weeks is not typical. For most missionaries, the MTC provides a solid base to build from, but the real learning happens over the next year or more of immersion in the field:

. . . missionaries do not leave the MTC with a great deal of language skills, but they do have a great foundation to build on. I remember my first weeks in Finland. I understood nothing, and no one understood me. As time went on, and I worked hard, things gradually improved.

Although the article may be overly pollyannish, I think it points to a wonderful thing, which is the extraordinary emphasis Mormonism places on young people learning more about their world.

This week, one of my friends is heading to Russia to pick up one of her sons, who is finishing his mission; her second son is now serving in Ukraine. Another friend is about to send two of her triplets to different parts of France. An acquaintance has marveled to me that her twenty-something son, who served in the Marshall Islands, was for a time in charge of translating General Conference into Mashallese (a language her family didn’t even know existed until her son’s mission).

And in this emphasis on languages, Mormons in America are unusual. According to Gallup, only a quarter of Americans can speak a foreign language well enough to hold a basic conversation. Other, more recent, studies suggest it’s even worse than that. According to the Department of Education,

Just 18 percent of Americans report speaking a language other than English. That’s far short of Europe, where 53 percent of citizens speak more than one language.

And since those are both self-reported statistics, and people tend to aggrandize themselves when speaking to polltakers (saying they went to church this week when they didn’t, saying they gave more money to charity than they actually did, etc.), the reality is probably even worse.

We Mormons learn languages for the immediate goal of proselytizing the world. And that’s a wonderful thing, but to me it’s equally important that we’re teaching our young people they are citizens of a vast and complicated planet with hundreds of other cultures, other histories.

As Nelson Mandela said,

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

 

 

 

5 Comments

  1. Nicely written, Sister Riess. It did take me about a year to become fluent in German, though I saw several Elders and a Sister who became fluent in a matter of a few months, and even one Elder who seemed to become fluent in about a month after leaving the LTM, and no, he did not already have it as a second language. Sometimes we just see miracles happen.

    We are all different, but we were all seeking to serve to the best of our own abilities. . . .

  2. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Back in 1970, there was a World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan, while I was serving on my mission in the northern part of the country. When the USA tried to staff the American Pavilion at the Fair with people who spoke Japanese, about half the people it ended up hiring were recently returned LDS missionaries, including several I had served with.

    I get the Japanese Liahona, and every month there is a page that shows the names and pictures of the missionaries called from Japan. There are usually 10 to 20 new missionaries a month, plus some senior couples, which is about equal to the number of missionaries called to Japan from the US in every two month Language Training Mission class. One of the consistent things I have found is that usually five or more of the new missionaries from Japan are called to English-speaking missions on Temple Square, in the US, and in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Japanese missionaries actually ALL travel to Provo for their basic missionary training, even if they return to Japan to proselyte.

    This has included several children of one of my Japanese missionary companions. They have served missions in the US, and/or attended BYU Idaho or BYU Hawaii, and some are working in the US. The Church is creating a cadre of members around the world who have lived in other nations and come to know and love the people of those nations, often building life-long connections. It builds up the Mormons as another international “Tribe” (per Joel Kotky’s book on the economic influence of Jewish and Chinese business people around the world).

    I believe it was Elder Didier who related being taken by Boyd K. Packer to a stake in Sanpete County, in rural Utah. During a stake priesthood leadership meeting, Elder Packer asked those who spoke a language other than English to stand and be prepared to bear a short testimony in the language they learned as missionaries. Some 15 different languages were spoken, in an out-of-the-way community where the main occupations revolved around agriculture.

    The potential for Mormons to be instrumental in supporting mutual understanding among nations is real.

  3. Marilee Coles-Ritchie

    I love the Nelson Mandela quote. We need more bilingual schools. We need to look at immigrants with their cultures and languages as assets in public schools and enhance the languages they speak.

  4. I learned some basic italian through years of studying music, etc. I also studied for 6 weeks at the LTM/MTC in Provo and 22 months living in Italy on a student visa. I read Italian, compose in Italian, and script write in Italian. While in Italy I produced an original musical play which has since been performed multiple times over the years without my participation. I also served as an unofficial consultant for local School Board involved in revamping the high school experience in Italy. What I am saying is I could converse on many topics and share insight on personal experience and observation. Surprising, majoring in music in college when i returned home, I could even read and translate Church Latin as we were required to study via the music composed in those centuries (at a non-religious State College.) The MTC experience translated into expertise in my academic and professional life.

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