Language for love and service: LDS missionaries rock languages

The Book of Mormon in Afrikaans, Hmong, Chinese (Simplified), Catalan, and Turkish
The Book of Mormon in Afrikaans, Hmong, Chinese (Simplified), Catalan, and Turkish

US education, as well as do the majority of US companies, lacks motivation in teaching languages.  They generally see learning a foreign language as extra, a hobby, for those who have a deep interest in the particular culture.  Sometimes we need to communicate with someone who speaks another language, however.  In those cases, we prefer to “outsource” that education by counting on multilingual immigrants or on other countries’ education systems (eg, Scandanavian, German, Indian, Vietnamese).  Money motivates language-learning for most US institutions.

Except one very American institution: the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) or Mormon Church.  They teach hundreds of missionaries every year, and those going overseas require in-class and in-country immersion.  If you’ve met an LDS missionary overseas, you know how successfully their missionary system trains them in languages.  I’ve met fluent Mormon speakers of French, Italian, and Polish, and the Missionary Training Center’s (MTC) website boasts exotic languages, such as Icelandic and Malagasy.  (The website itself can be read in languages such as Aymar Aru and Fosun Chuuk.)  If you don’t believe me or their website regarding their education’s quality, note that the US State Department, CIA, and FBI actively and enthusiastically recruit former LDS missionaries.

The question arises: when no other US institution expends the resources necessary to teach languages successfully, why does the LDS Church do so?  LDSers believe whole-heartedly that they possess a teaching that they themselves should communicate to all human beings, no matter the education or nationality of their audience.  Out of love and service for their audience, they speak to them in their language.

Business approach to languages

Our businesses and educational system largely do not successfully teach language.  Business exists to make money.  As a result, they will focus on rich people, who generally receive the best education.  As a result, rich people in other countries more likely speak English than other local people do.  The business message is not intended for everyone, but for those who can pay; most often it’s only secondarily for poor, uneducated people.

When business enters a country, therefore, the people look for those who can speak English.  Rather than the Americans expending time and money learning the local language before and during the time they are in the country, they count on the fact that the locals already expended the resources to learn English.

Let’s say, for example, I want to sell a new cell phone in Vietnam. I need to sell to the people with money.  I can’t just start knocking on doors.  If I did just knock on doors, the people I find most likely won’t speak English, and probably won’t have enough money for expensive cell phones  Fortunately, I will probably find some well-educated English-speaking Vietnamese advertisers who can help me.  For a little money, I can hire them to communicate my message targeting potential customers with enough money.

US public education tends to support this model.  They train kids to succeed in this business environment, to produce the one who can invent the cell phone or who can sell it in Vietnam.  Therefore, our system focuses way more resources on math and English than other subjects.  Our educational system is a long way from teaching Vietnamese.

LDS Church diverges from business model

Members of the LDS Church believe themselves primarily as messengers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  (I’m not endorsing this idea; I’m just trying to reflect LDS theology.  If I’ve mis-represented it, please correct me in the comments.)  This message teaches about love and service towards the weaker neighbor.  Any human, rich or poor, is capable of receiving it.  Language should not be a barrier.

The LDS Church could follow the same model as the cell-phone vendor, above.  Go to the country, find local English-speakers who want to spread your idea in the local language.  Many US churches actually follow that model.  Other churches focus on training local bilinguals in their church’s theology, to then teach it to the local non-English speakers.  It probably costs much less money and time than teaching the language to every missionary who goes to the country.

Fulfilling the calling of messenger offers its own rewards because it is (or should be, at least) based on loving service.  The LDS missionary conceives of his or her job principally as loving service, whether serving in New York City or the mountains of Peru.  The president of the Missionary Training Center (MTC) wrote, “There is great joy as you participate in this most important work, and we know that you will reap great blessings as you serve.”  An earlier president likewise wrote, “If you serve a mission faithfully and well, you will be a better husband, you will be a better father, you will be a better student, a better worker in your chosen vocation. Love is of the essence of this missionary work. Selflessness is of its very nature.”  In the end, the missionary gains by becoming a more loving, service-oriented person.

Learning the language is itself and act of loving service because it enables the missionary to speak to and connect with any local person in this act of loving service.  The local person’s education or economic status does not matter.  Practicing loving service in other countries as a missionary requires knowing the local language in order to connect, and working on connecting makes the missionary a better person.

Language and love

Connecting with others in their own language expresses love.  If we have an important thing to say, we want to say it in the language the hearer understands.  (Remember Henry V’s attempt to speak French to Katherine of Valois?)  We take on the burden of communication; we don’t “outsource.”   Rather than make someone learn our language, we learn theirs.

The difference between succeeding and failing in language education is motivation.  Many people have started learning a language, and then stopped as motivation ran out.  The LDS missionaries succeed where no one else does because serving and loving others is baked into the motivation.  The missionaries are always working to be sure that this service stands at the fore of their minds as they work on their language.

This rule can apply to any of us.  When any of us take actions of love, we become better at loving actions.  Our loving actions make us loving people.  When we extend ourselves through language, our love makes us better people.

Please help me understand this question: Why is learning someone else’s language an act of love or service?  Help me understand why the system works the way it does.

Photo Credit: Philip Newton (pne) from Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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22 thoughts on “Language for love and service: LDS missionaries rock languages

    1. You’re right. You’ve got to know your audience. A lot of folks stay aloof from the poor, though. They pay someone who deal with the poor, non-English speaking, unwashed masses. They think they are above speaking to the poor on principle.

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  1. Richard, I fully endorse your comments here. Intelligently and sensitively written — KUDOS! — and I’ve shared it on every social media platform I have access to.

    As a multi-linguist and LDS (and former full time-missionary in Austria and former teacher of full-time LDS missionaries), I find your distillation of the motivation issue right on target. There is enormous love fueling the efforts to learn the 55+ languages at the Missionary Training Center – love for strangers in some foreign setting, love for God, love for light and truth, love for the message shared – and I’ve watched up close as that deep motivation works.

    No one directly explains this magic to missionaries. They begin feeling that love (as I’ve heard over and over again) when they receive their assignment to. . .who-knows-where-in-the-world. So many speak of sensing love for “their people” (be they Peruvians, as you mention here, or Russians or Mongolians or Haitians or. . .), and that interest in others (over self-interest, as you note) is a motivator of the highest sort.

    Does it mean every last missionary learns her/his language perfectly? Certainly not. But the perfection issue is beside the point. Imperfect yet sincere attempts at connection can be more disarming — and communicative — than polished declensions and perfectly placed tones.

    As Ben Lenhardt, an MTC teacher of Italian told me recently, “There is so much more to communication that mere language. We want to teach language, yes, of course. But we want the missionaries to see that in trying to connect with the Italian people there’s much more coming out of us then just words. So much more. And it’s all about love.”

    As you say, Richard, learning language is an act of loving service.

    Wonderful post!!

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    1. Thank you for your endorsement! I’m glad it connected with the community. This post inspired today’s post, comparing love as a language-learning motivator compared to others. I think the more you learn to love through your language, the deeper your ultimate skill in the language will be. The more you learn how to love, the more intoxicating loving is. When language is an essential part of the mix, love, language, and relationships become all-consuming.

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    2. I had a question for you. LDSers put tons of money and effort into learning languages and keeping the MTCs running. But this is exclusively for missionaries. Why don’t they teach languages at seminaries for kids, or in churches for life at home? Shouldn’t speaking languages of, say, local refugees be for everyone, not just for the local missionaries?

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  2. Ashley Mattson

    Thank you for your insightful post! Like Melissa, I am also a former missionary (in France) and teacher of missionaries at the MTC. I would add that a key to the motivation is not simply a love for God and love for the people but a knowledge that God loves those people and the missionary. A missionary develops the faith that God will help him communicate His (God’s) love to the people, often one at a time, and through that experience the missionary is able to feel and develop that powerful love himself. This is why my ability to speak French is, to me, much more than a résumé booster. Every time I speak it those feelings of deep love and faith come back to me.

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    1. Thanks, Ashley. I met some LDS missionaries in France many years ago. We saw them struggle with their French, and their perseverance and motivation were clear.

      The idea that God’s love shows through the language that one learns, that the missionary’s newly-acquired language is a tool for God, is intriguing. God, of course, can show everyone his love with or without this or that missionary, but the missionary has to imagine that the language he or she acquires is a tool for someone besides the missionary. I strongly identify with the feeling of love towards a people, more concretely towards my friends back then. when I speak a language.

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    2. I’m going to ask you a similar question as I asked Melissa. Wouldn’t this idea encourage churches to teach languages to everyone, all the time? God loves the local refugee who comes to the church, so shouldn’t the parishioners be able to teach him or her, too? Why should only “official” missionaries be taught languages?

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  3. It just goes to show how effective motivation can be. Being driven by a strong desire to communicate whether to share a faith as in this case, or like many others to communicate with a loved one… Many people have strong cause not just to learn a language but to truly communicate in it, and usually they succeed impressively. Hopefully the rest of us can follow suit!

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I looked into these aspects of motivation for the new post I just published. Those who become really fluent in a language possess certain qualities and attitudes towards the language that others don’t. When I was learning three languages in high school (plus the ones I was learning outside of school), I didn’t have the same motivation as my classmates limping through French class. But why? Where did that come from? What makes us hunker down and close everything off, just to learn a language? It’s a mystery that I’m trying to get to the bottom of.

      What sorts of causes have you seen that make people successful?

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  7. I am from Costa Rica and even though I was called to serve to a spanish speaking mission , It was the perfect place to practice my english and improve it , Most of my companions during my time in Guatemala were English native speakers.

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      1. Guatemala doesn’t have English as its main language but serving the mission with native speakers presented a good opportunity to learn .

        Q’eqchi’ is spoken in some areas of the Guatemala City North mission.

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      2. Q’eqchi’! Cool!

        I think it’s interesting how you made use of your little English-speaking enclave. I recently heard a story of a Dutch businessman who knew Chinese. When a client came to Amsterdam from China, he spent most of his time with him, so he was able to speak a lot of Chinese throughout the day, even in Amsterdam.

        I would love to figure out how to create an enclave like that here where I live…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. When I returned from my mission , the only thing I could do to keep practicing and surrounding myself with English was watching movies , listening to music, enjoying television and reading books.

        When people start seeing a language as a mean of communication and not as a subject is when they start seeing better results.

        I have been thinking about other languages but I haven’t found uses for any of them where I live.

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  9. Nate

    I found your blog while searching for LDS-specific language references. Very cool!

    I’m LDS, and I first want to thank you for the very good way you have portrayed our motivation for sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and linking our language learning to love for those who speak those languages.

    I saw that nobody has answered your question about why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn’t offer language instruction for its membership who are not full-time missionaries. I can’t say that I have a great answer, much less The Answer, but I’ll offer a few thoughts.

    First, there are no formal language-instruction programs in the Church that I’m aware of apart from what’s happening at the Missionary Training Centers. However, that wouldn’t prevent any of the men’s or women’s groups or even the youth groups from forming their own language classes.

    Second, LDS congregations can be organized on the basis of language as needed. For example, I used to live in Hawaii and there were Samoan and Tongan language congregations there for, you guessed it, the large number of local Samoans and Tongans (though, technically anyone could attend those congregations, so long as they wanted to hear much of the speaking and teaching in those languages).

    Third, if there is a population of language speakers large enough to warrant it, missionaries will be called to serve that population, presumably helping that group understand what’s being taught at their local congregation. For example, in Arkansas there is a sizable Marshallese population and while many will likely understand English I believe there are missionaries serving there that are assigned to learn Marshallese.

    Fourth, in the case of refugees, I think it is more or less assumed, if not expected, that they will learn the language of their host country. Nothing prevents a congregation with a large number of refugees from setting up a language class to assist them. And wise congregational leaders are likely doing just that or helping those refugees connect with other local language classes.

    I also found this article from the Church’s periodical the Ensign, which covers some of these ideas and more: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2009/06/breaking-the-language-barrier?lang=eng

    I hope this helps!

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