12 tips to help Mormon Missionaries become fluent in their mission language.
The training center is widely recognized as one of the best language-instruction institutes in the world, though that’s not the only thing that’s taught. In a matter of weeks, these enthusiastic young students will be speaking foreign languages fluently enough to spread the gospel.
How Do They Do It?
At 8 a.m., in a small downstairs classroom, 10 missionaries start their day with a Mormon hymn — in Mandarin. Instructor Bracken Hodges is a student at Brigham Young University, which is next door. Like most of the instructors, he’s a former missionary (he spent two years in Taiwan).
“We’re working on the grammar structure … and we’re teaching that grammar structure in the context of teaching someone about Jesus Christ and what he did when he was on the Earth,” Hodges says.
The class recites phrases like, “What did Jesus Christ do when he was on Earth?”
Once everyone has the pronunciation down, Hodges quizzes individual students. After that, students pair off for role-playing exercises. One student plays a missionary, and the other a local — a potential convert.
“I was like a deer in the headlights on the first day, to be honest,” Jackson says. “But now I can understand like 98 percent of what the teachers are saying to me. I’m getting more and more excited as the time goes.”
Kirsten Weiss is one of the few students in this class with previous experience in Mandarin. She studied the language in college but says the training at the MTC is much more intense.
“The five weeks that I’ve been at the MTC, I’ve seen people go from having zero experience with Mandarin — or even learning any language — to going where I was maybe about my third year of studying at a university,” Weiss says. “It’s very impressive.”
Instructor Hodges says the secret is in the unofficial motto of the training center: “Speak your language.” Rather than memorizing a list of words, students learn through trying to speak their assigned language in various scenarios. When they stumble in saying a phrase, that’s when they find new words to learn, Hodges says.
A Novel Approach
A decade ago, many universities taught languages through rote memorization and translation. The context-based teaching that the MTC uses is relatively new in language instruction.
The approach has also gained traction in the U.S. military. In fact, the ties between the U.S. military and the MTC run pretty deep. The Army’s Intelligence Brigade, made up of linguists, is based in Utah and draws on former missionaries to fill its ranks.
The military trains soldiers in much the same way the church trains missionaries; they’re not conjugating verbs, they’re acting out real situations.
“I’m not going to give you multiple-choice questions. I’m not going to give you fill-in-the-blanks,” says Betty Lou Leaver, the provost at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. “Instead, we’re going to actually do something. So a task is something you might actually do in your life.”
But there’s a difference between training soldiers and training missionaries. To study Mandarin at the Defense Language Institute takes 64 weeks; missionaries leave the training center after just nine.
Many institutions want to know the secret to that efficiency, not just the military. The MTC frequently hosts visitors from government, academia and business.
But there’s something that can be hard to replicate outside of the church. It’s the thing that has these young adults smiling and bright as they spend every waking hour focused on their task.
“Everything we do is trying to learn by and with the Spirit, so that’s really the only way you can … stand it here,” says Benjamin Simpson.
Many other students said the same thing in one way or another — and whether you share their faith or not, the results speak for themselves.
Here are 12 tips to help LDS Missionaries become fluent in their mission language.
Learning your mission language can be difficult, but it’s definitely possible. I truly believe that everyone called on a foreign-language mission has the capacity to master their mission language in the mission field. While all have the capacity there are usually a few missionaries who never master their mission language.
I believe that by implementing these tips and tricks, LDS missionaries will be able to confidently learn their mission language. It may be a good idea to try each of these ideas for few days and then focus on whatever methods work best for you.
1) Only speak in your mission language.
If you allow yourself to forget your native tongue and only speak your mission language, you will learn quickly. Speaking your mission language exclusively will help you start to think in your mission language and actively learn new vocabulary.
2) Pray for the Gift of Tongues.
The Gift of Tongues is real. With God anything is possible. I believe the Gift of Tongues may be manifest in many ways in the lives of Mormon Missionaries. As with many spiritual gifts, I believe the Gift of Tongues is predicated upon our faith in God, purity and willingness to act.
3) Write down new vocabulary and phrases.
When you are talking with someone and you hear a word you don’t recognize, jot it down. When you get back to your missionary apartment in the evening, you can look up the words you didn’t understand. You may also look up new words and phrases during your language study time.
4) Read The Book of Mormon out loud in your mission language.
I’ve heard of a group of missionaries who were promised by a General Authority that if they would read the entire Book of Mormon out loud in their mission language, in a certain period of time, that they would become fluent in their mission language. While that promise may have been directed at those present, I believe reading The Book of Mormon to be one of the best ways to learn to read in your foreign language and discuss the Gospel with investigators on your mission.
5) Memorize a few hymns in your mission language.
The process of memorizing words to your favorite hymns will help you to learn the meaning of words more deeply. It will also give you something to sing in your mission langauge when you are in the field and after your mission (I still sing some hymsn in Spanish that I learned on my mission). Besides improving your language ability, memorizing a hymn will help you find comfort on your mission. A memorized song can be like a faithful friend you can constantly call on.
6) Ask natives for help.
Almost all native speakers will be delighted to help you to learn their language. Natives may be your most patient and helpful teachers. Besides helping you learn new vocabulary, native speakers can help you refine your accent and learn phrases unique to your area. Asking for help with your language-learning endeavors can even be an effective way to start a conversation with a stranger on the street.
7) Pray in your mission language.
If you make it a habit to have a prayer in your heart in your mission language, you will become fluent more quickly. Since we should have a prayer always in our hearts- what better way to learn a language than to have a prayer in your mission language always in your heart and mind?
8) Read your assigned language book(s).
One of the best resources you can take advantage of as a missionary is the grammar book you are given in the Missionary Training Center. I don’t think a single missionary regrets reading through their grammar book, but I believe many regret not having read through it. Since you will likely be in the mission field for at least 14-22 months, you will have plenty of time to read through your language book(s).
9) Open Your Mouth.
I’ve talked with many immigrants in the United States who have lived in the U.S. for years and have still not gained a proficient mastery of English. I think one of the main reasons missionaries learn foreign languages so quickly is they constantly talk with people in the language. The more you practice a language, the more fluent you will become in the language. There’s no reason to fear talking with someone you don’t know- so open your mouth- both before, during and after your mission. You won’t regret it! And you’ll make new friends, be a good example for others and your language skills will improve. The Lord said in Doctrine and Covenants 60:2 “But with some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent which I have given unto them, because of the fear of man. Wo unto such, for mine anger is kindled against them.” Open your mouth on your mission and the Lord will bless you!
10) Don’t speak English with your English-speaking companions.
This has to be one of the hardest language learning techniques to implement. It may be easy to do with some companions, but with others it may be extremely difficult. If you and your companion manage to speak the mission language all of the time, you will both learn your mission language much quicker. On my mission in Argentina, I noticed that the Americans who learned Spanish best were those who spoke only Spanish- even when their companions were Americans. You’ll have plenty of time to talk in English when you return home from your mission.
11) Label items around your apartment in your mission language.
To do this, you simply make write down the vocabulary words of the items in your room. For each item you make a separate sticky note to put on the item. You can label doors, cabinets, counters, appliances, TVs and other miscellaneous objects. After you do this, you simply take a moment in every day to look at the vocabulary words of the objects you labeled. Even if you don’t make a concerted effort to study the labels, you should still notice yourself learning the new vocabulary.
12) Use Google Translate to translate The Book of Mormon.
I used this technique to help me learn Tagalog after my mission. I would read The Book of Mormon in Tagalog, verse by verse and translate every word I did not understand. Since my wife served in the Philippines, I wanted to learn how to speak Tagalog. By the time She got home from Her mission (after about a half year of studying here and there) I had already read to the middle of Alma. Though I still couldn’t speak very well in Tagalog I was fairly proficient in reading and understanding the scriptures in Tagalog.
Author: Alex Balinski
In 2012 I began creating mission prep resources on the Prepare to Serve website and YouTube channel. My family and I live in Provo, Utah. Feel free to let me know how I can improve Prepare to Serve! Connect with me on Google Plus, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.