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.
- Mormon missions: Door-to-door approach is out; Internet is in (utsalumni.org)
- Website helps future LDS missionaries prepare for the field (abc4.com)
- LDS missionary who survived Spain train crash shares his story (abc4.com)
- Marriott Center hosts devotionals as LDS missionary numbers swell (fox13now.com)