Learning a Language: Foreign or English


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Randy Bott

What a thrill it was when you opened your mission call and saw you were expected to learn a new language. What a frightening experience it was when the thrill wore off and you realized it was entirely up to you whether you learned to speak this language well or not. Despite the many doubts the adversary plants in your mind about your ability to learn a new language, remember that the Lord did not call you to fail. If you do all you can, he will make up for any lack of ability and preparation on your part.

Your MTC experience may have even convinced you that while learning the rudiments of a language is one thing, achieving a comfortable level of proficiency is perhaps too difficult for you. Or you may mistakenly believe that what you learned at the MTC made you an expert in your new language. Neither view is correct. One of those unmistakable revelations happens the day you arrive to your mission area. You may think you know the language well enough, but when the local people speak it, it may be entirely different from what your instructors spoke at the MTC.

So here you are in your mission, perhaps doubting your ability to master the language. Where do you go from here! Be assured: Learning another language really isn't as difficult as it may appear. Take it a little at a time. Be confident that the Lord will help you learn the language well enough to fulfill his divine purposes.

Set a language-study schedule that is reasonable and achievable. It would be wonderful if you could study all day long, every day until you have mastered the language. Realistically, you will never have enough time to feel completely comfortable in your studies for the gospel still must be preached and people need to be contacted, helped, and loved.

If you are blessed with a native missionary as a trainer, your enunciation of the language will be helped, but your knowledge of grammatical structure will suffer. Many natives do not know why they speak as they do any more than you know why you speak English as you do. On the other hand, if you have an English-speaking companion, your questions about grammar will be answered, but your ability to speak like a native will develop more slowly.

The first reaction to learning a language is generally enthusiasm and energy—you can hardly wait to get into the language. The second reaction, which generally comes within a couple of weeks, is one of frustration and discouragement. At this point too many missionaries resign themselves to mediocrity in speaking the language. For example, they may find it too difficult to learn all the rules concerning masculine and feminine articles and verb tenses. It may not seem worth the effort to learn the "respect language" and all the flowery, poetic ways people say things. Rationalizing may go on and on, a sign that the missionary is unwilling to strive for excellence in the language.

The choice is up to you. You can tell yourself how hard you've got it and how nobody understands your trials. You may feel you have earned the right to become depressed. You may even mistakenly believe that the Lord has called you to the wrong mission. But at that very point of frustration, you can also choose to roll up your sleeves and master the language.

Break the task down into small, bite-sized pieces. Don't try to learn everything at once. Many missionaries have successfully learned languages by setting a realistic goal of learning ten words a day for the first year of their mission. That would give you a working vocabulary nearly as large as you normally use in English. You may find that you can handle more than ten words a day, or maybe you will have to settle for seven or eight words. Whatever the goal, write down the words on index cards and go over and over them every day until you can use them confidently. Say them to members, to little kids on the street, to your companion, and to your investigators. If they laugh at you, don't be offended—a little sense of humor on your part goes a long way in keeping things in proper perspective.

Learn how to say common phrases you need to use every day. You can easily do this by thinking of the phrase in English and then having your companion (or preferably a native speaker) translate it into the language. If you learn five phrases each day, in a month you will have fair mastery of the "chitchat" language. By the end of the second month, you could develop more advanced speaking skills. By the end of the third month, you should be able to say just about anything you need to say. By the end of the sixth month, the natives will marvel at your ability to express yourself.

Many missionaries and members gained their testimony by reading the Book of Mormon. A great many missionaries found that reading the Book of Mormon out loud in the new language was also a key to increasing their vocabulary and their general fluency. There seems to be something magical about the Book of Mormon. It blesses whoever embraces it, spiritually and intellectually. Use the power of that great book to learn to speak well. Have your companion, a member, or an investigator listen to you read. Not only will it help you in your conversational skills, but it will also help strengthen that person's testimony. I know of missionaries who practiced this technique with their investigators until the day they finished their missions. Remember, when the Spirit comes, your mind will be enlightened, your soul will be filled with joy, and you can know all things by the power of the Spirit (see D&C 11:13-14).

Don't overlook the power of testimony. As our daughter learned French, she wanted more than anything to share her testimony with the people. Her vocabulary was a limiting factor. As she struggled to express herself, in the spirit of helpfulness the people would supply the words she was searching for. The Spirit, the true converter, bore testimony to the people that the words they were helping her with were true. Her sincerity and willingness to try to share her testimony only added to the spirituality of the experience. Even after learning the language, she would ask them to help correct her structure and pronunciation because their involvement opened them up to the testimony of the Spirit.

There seems to be something necessary about hearing your own voice speak in a foreign language. As I learned to speak Samoan on my first mission, I got so I could read perfectly to myself. It wasn't until I tried to read out loud to my companion that my tongue got all tied in knots and I sounded like a baby making strange, nonsensical sounds.

As quickly as you are able, say all of your prayers in your new language; the Lord understands, even if your companion doesn't. Force yourself to speak exclusively in your new language around the apartment and as you proselyte—it will greatly increase your linguistic ability If youslip back into English whenever you want to, you just postpone the time when you can effectively communicate in your new language.

Above all, don't get uptight! The more you tell yourself you "can't," the more of a self- fulfilling prophecy you become. When your mind feels "fried," take a break. It is much easier to learn when you are fresh and not quite so frustrated. Don't make any snap judgments. You may decide after just a couple of weeks that you are not cut out to serve in a foreign land and that you need to be reassigned to an English-speaking mission. However, if you quit trying, you will miss some of the sweetest experiences of your life.


Foreign language missions are exciting and challenging, and English-speaking missions are equally enjoyable. The most important factor is not whether you learn a new language but how effectively you can present the gospel to your investigators. Speaking by the power of the Spirit in any language is one of the most thrilling experiences a missionary can have.

If you are a native English speaker and are assigned to an English-speaking mission, you may feel like you don't have a language to learn. That isn't exactly correct. Too many people grow up using slang, trendy, ungrammatical, imprecise, or otherwise unclear language. Your friends may understand you well enough, but the people you are teaching may not. Language is like a car. It is the vehicle used to transport your thoughts and ideas. Although an old clunker car may (or may not!) get you to your destination, the people who observe you may be turned off by your mode of transportation. You may feel that they are being judgmental and that they need to correct their attitude. You may even be right—but you are there to teach them the gospel so they can correct their attitudes according to divinely revealed principles. If you cannot gain their trust and respect so that you can communicate effectively with them, they will never be able to adjust their attitudes or, much more important, gain a testimony of the gospel.

Ask someone who speaks English well to critique your language. It may be a surprise to discover how many inappropriate words and phrases you use. Working with your companion, determine to overcome the "language barrier." Language usage varies from country to country and from one area to another. Words and gestures that are meaningless or clever in one country may have vulgar or otherwise negative connotations in another country. Be sensitive to language usage wherever you go. Avoid learning slang and swear words. A representative of the Savior should shun such "telestial" language.

Learning "gospel English" is no easy task. The words and phrases used in religious discussions may be new and (at first) uncomfortable. Practice until you can explain gospel principles in language your investigators can understand. You will discover, like the thousands who have gone before you, that teaching concepts familiar to you but brand-new to investigators is extremely demanding. Any distractions caused by your language, unfamiliarity with the proper words, inappropriate gestures, or mispronunciations may increase the effort needed to bring investigators to understanding. Deliberately showing off by using words that investigators may not understand is childish at best. With his perfect intellect, the Savior could have used words and concepts that even the most intelligent would not have understood. However, he often chose to teach in simple terms so that humble people of all stations could understand (see D&C 1:24; 133:57-58).

Practice using language that is interesting and precise. Learn to say exactly what you mean. There will always be people who are waiting to make you an "offender for a word" (Isaiah 29:21). Being aware of "politically correct" and tactful language is challenging even for the professional. Until investigators and members are convinced that you have their best interests at heart, they are more critical of the language you use. Listening closely to the language people use will direct alert missionaries on how cautious they must be in the words they choose.

Be teachable. If someone corrects you because you use, for example, a sexist term, thank the person and make the change. Only in rare cases will a person be so demanding regarding "political correctness" that you cannot present your message. Perhaps that person's time to hear the gospel is yet in the future and your time could be more productively used with people who are more interested in the message than in the language.

Language is fun and exciting whether you speak English or use a foreign language on your mission. By giving attention to the words you use, you can provide a fertile environment where the Holy Ghost can carry your message to the hearts of the listener in a way that shifts the responsibility for the burden of the message from your shoulders to theirs. Nephi taught, "When a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men" (2 Nephi 33:1; emphasis added).

As you progress towards godliness during your mission in so many attributes and characteristics, make sure you include language. Remember the Lord s pattern on how to tell whether a person is from God or Satan: "He that speaketh, whose spirit is contrite, whose language is meek and edifieth, the same is of God if he obey mine ordinances" (D&C 52:16).

From the book: Serve with Honor, by Randy Bott