No more foreigners

Our worldwide missionary effort is plurilingual. The Church has always been involved in outreach efforts to other tongues, now translating material into 185 languages. There are wards and branches, led in the local idiom, in 165 countries.

The matter, however, is more intricate when we deal with foreigners living in a host society with its own dominant language. A Korean branch in Provo, a Latino stake in California, an American ward in Brussels, a Russian Sunday School in Berlin. The Church has been struggling with two policies in this respect: Assimilation or separation?

In this post I will use foreign generically for persons with a different lingual background, even if such persons have become established citizens. Local applies to the official, dominant language. Unit means a branch or ward.

Assimilation, by having foreigners attend the local unit, is meant to help them with their integration in the host society, not only for the language, but also to acquire new sociocultural skills, expand their knowledge, enjoy the benefits of a broader network. The process should also hasten the full assimilation of the second generation. The locals, moreover, can learn to work with ‘foreigners’, find ways to better integrate them, and through the multicultural experience enrich their own lives.

Separation, by organizing a lingual unit, allows foreign investigators and members to be taught in their own language, ensures better understanding of the Gospel and usually much more participation. People can express themselves with ease – for prayers, testimonies, talks, class discussions. They feel at home and accepted. Retention is high.

However, the disadvantages of both approaches are apparent as well.

Assimilation may leave foreigners feeling isolated in the local unit, struggling with acculturation, sometimes even facing unintended forms of discrimination. Callings which could provide valuable experience are less frequent because of language and cultural barriers. Sometimes the children are not easily accepted in their peer group. For the locals it is not always simple to approach foreigners in the most appropriate way. Some foreigners, usually those who have lived for a long time in the host country, want to be treated as fully integrated and not be reminded of their foreign origin (‘Where are you from? I like your accent!’). Not to speak of questions that assume backwardness (‘Do you have TV in your country?’) or that tend to folklorize the foreigner. A major issue is retention. When the Church decided, in 1972, to discontinue the Spanish-speaking units in the U.S. and integrate these members in local wards, the consequence on retention was catastrophic. The policy was subsequently reversed a few years later. See Jessie Embry’s book for details.

Separation has drawbacks too. The group may be too small to be viable and will struggle along. There may not be enough experienced members for proper leadership. But even if those problems can be overcome, the major concern is that separation can result in segregation and cultural isolation. Perhaps not too important for an older generation of first immigrants, the matter may become problematic for the younger generation as it leads to ghettoization. Many people will never or only partially assimilate in the mainstream. That undermines the opportunities for education and better jobs, also creating a divide that fosters misconceptions about the “other” community. Those Latinos. Those gringos.

Moreover, both in the case of assimilation and separation, the foreigners themselves may have internal tensions. A rift may develop between those still close to their original culture and those who are assimilating. The former are looked upon as backwards, the latter as cultural traitors.

In its organization of lingual units the Church has been struggling with the choice between assimilation or separation. Though assimilation seems to have been the preferred course for some time, the pressure from foreigners to establish or keep own units has been vigorous. Closing a foreign unit and asking people to join the local congregation leads to inactivity. And retention is now a sensitive issue.

In the background, also applicable to Utah, is the heated discussion on “English only“. Some find it an unnecessary discussion because, they claim, overtime the next generations will assimilate anyway and speak only English. In their opinion Spanish will disappear from Utah since the American melt pot has shown this natural assimilation for a few centuries now. I am not so sure. In times past there was no way to escape anglification, but this is not true any more. The media now provide easy access to the home language (Hispanophones have Spanish TV, internet, radio in streaming audio) and people enjoy increasing services in Spanish. The Church itself, through e.g. the organization of Luz de las Naciones for all Hispanic congregations along the Wasatch Front, sends a strong signal of acceptance of the current situation. At the same time consciousness of national and cultural identity is being promoted, diminishing the need to assimilate.

A quick side comparison with Europe. I come from a country where issues between lingual communities have dominated politics for more than a century. Once such communities demand rights on the basis of their lingual and cultural entity – social, educational, economic rights – that have to be negotiated, clashes are unavoidable. But the present main challenge is the immigrants. All over Europe millions of newcomers (esp. from Islamic countries) now form expanding lingual and cultural communities with their own schools, churches, satellite TV channels, internet… outside of the mainstream. State and local authorities are now realizing that the former politics of ‘multicultural respect’ finally lead to dangerous ghettoization – with radicalization in the fringes. Authorities now deploy vast efforts to integrate foreigners. Intense language and cultural assimilation courses are offered. Laws are enacted that make citizenship dependent on the measure of integration. People do not need to give up their language and culture, but they must acquire a serious functional acclimatization within the host society and the second and third generation must get full chances for better education and better jobs. Critics say it is too late: it should have started thirty years ago.

So, coming back to the Church and to Mormon foreigners in the host society, should we promote assimilation or separation? Or is it possible to combine both?

No more foreigners? Paul told the Ephesians, “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God.”

Did he mean assimilation?

48 comments for “No more foreigners

  1. Great post. It’s not an easy problem.

    It seems to me, though, that there are differences between permanent and visiting citizens. If I’m temporarily in another country because of the military or a short-term job, an English speaking unit would be great. But if I have moved to another country with goals of citizenship and permanence, I would expect that I also ought to participate in a local unit. Perhaps the church ought to encourage church-attendance by residential intentions.

  2. Wilfried,

    There are so many questions being asked here.

    One quick comment. The BOM speaks of people hearing the gospel in their native tongue. This is a true principle. I am not sure how this relates to large groups of foriegn language speakers in the US in what are language segregated wards. I would like to think that the church is inspired on this issue and that the spanish speaking wards and stakes are the inspired solution for a difficult question. I do know that I have been impressed by the spanish speaking saints here in TX. I would say that eventually there will be assimilation.

    Your European comments are in a different direction. Europe is faced with an explosive situation in regards to its immigrant Muslim communities. Ask citizens of London or Madrid. I forsee no solution to this issue and a looming small scale civil war seems to be breaking out.

  3. I think you can have both, Wilfried, but that separation should be temporary where possible.. My biggest experiences with this issue were in Miami, where I attended the English-speaking ward in our building. What a rich congregation, with members from all over the world, many with Hispanic heritage who had chosen to attend our ward because they could understand English fine. The Spanish-speaking units are filled to the brim with people just like them. They can speak English perfectly, yet have chosen to attend the Spanish-speaking units. Often, they would cite “culture” as the reason. I found this somewhat problematic. First, is it the duty of the church to preserve “culture”? Second, which culture. It isn’t as if there is one overarching Hispanic culture. Who gets to decide whether the Cuban, Mexican, Venzuelan, Spanish, Nicaraguan, Dominican, etc., etc., etc., members are the ones who get their culture pushed in the ward? Third, assuming that the church does want some role in preserving culture, why can’t that be done by the dominant language unit in the area? I feel that I was unmeasurably enriched by my exposure to the multitude of cultures shared in the ward I attended in Miami. I fondly recall a Thanksgiving dinner held to introduce some of the new immigrants to our American holiday. We had people and food from five continents represented. Until you’ve had Sushi for Thanksgiving, you haven’t lived. Fourth, we need to consider the effect this has on youth. In Miami, the LDS population was small enough that even having a few active LDS friends at school was a treasure. I remmeber youth and parents expressing frustration that sometimes they didn’t even know who the other LDS kids at school were because they might be from the Spanish ward and there wasn’t opportunity to get to know them. This is even a problem in my Utah neighborhood, where we recently had a family join the church in the Spanish unit, only to switch to ours so the teenage daughter could have some LDS friends to associate with. There is strength in numbers and we shouldn’t artificially shrink our circle of LDS acquaintances. Anyway, I didn’t mean to get too anecdotal. My basic view is this:

    If you are somewhat conversant in the language of the dominant-language unit, you should attend it. Foreign language units are there to allow those who truly don’t understand the dmonant language the opportunity to be taught in a language they can understand. When they become artificial barriers to a unified Zion, they are not accomplishing the mission of the church. Efforts should be made in those units to teach the dominant language and transition those who learn it into the dominant language ward.

  4. Our stake just started a Hispanic Ward. Spanish speaking members were told they _could_ attend there, rather than their geographical unit. I asked our Bishop, and his unsurprising advice, was for us to stay. I now teach Spanish Sunday School to those Hispanics that stay in the “assimilation” ward.

    Is this an example of how both can work Wilfried? Or failure of both? We still have sunday school in a foreign language; yet there is a separatist ward option also.

  5. Perhaps the problem is worst when there is a great disparity between the majority and the minority. If the populations were more equal — say half one group and half another — then perhaps instead of assimilation or separation there could be a more equal and mutual accomodation. I saw a dynamic like this in a branch in Jordan where everything was translated out loud from Arabic to English and vice versa. The way I remember it, the populations were about half native and half foreign (the foreigners being the Anglos in this case). [Maybe my demographic estimate is inaccurate. I was only there a few Sundays in a row.] But it felt like a healthy dynamic where people of both groups were fully respected and allowed to participate. I liked how the language differences were handled. I don’t recall any headphones. Each language had an equal place in the worship and communication used.

  6. Danithew, I think the European examples show that equality really doesn’t resolve things. There will always be scape goating and anger. Seriously, from everything I’ve read about Europe prior to the Islamic confrontations there was tons of Conflicts. Switzerland, for instance, had conflicts between those more French and those more German. Austrians often hate Germans and vice versa. Spanish were looked down upon by British. French and British were at each other (and have been for centuries)

    There is a rising cosmopolitan class in Europe that tend to think of themselves as more European than any particular nationality. But that’s because the EU moves, transportation and communication have allowed a more melting pot opportunity that the US has had for a long time. Further most Europeans speak two or even three languages. So the linguistic thing isn’t that big a deal.

    For an other example look to Canada where conflict between French and English has been longstanding. As in Europe past issues even when forgotton lay underneath issues. And Canada overall has been one of the more successful multicultural attempts.

  7. As a child my family was called to go to the “Asian Branch.” It was a melting pot of Thai’s, Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Chinese refuges. What the leadership might not have realized is that beyond being refuges these people were not compatriots. In fact, many had just been on opposite sides of some serious and violent antipathy. Miraculously, the branch persisted for some years and there are many wonderful stories of spirituality and service.

    I think that this was sort of an interventionist policy. There needed to be significant resources allocated to help a segment of the population. Many local families were called to the ward to act as shadow leaders and to coordinate concerted service. After a certain period, the branch was no longer needed.

    Military wards and branches also serve an acute need, specifically because they are transitory by nature and the members are cannot become “local.”

    I am less sympathetic to long-term separation. Is the point of the Spanish ward to meet needs and prepare the members for the next step, or is it an institutional, long term, mirror ward. If it is the latter, I don’t see how that could benefit the saints as a whole. It only separates and builds walls.

    That said, I think geographically contiguous wards are important. Anything to get us to be better neighbors is a good thing. And many neighborhoods are quite homogeneous, so there is a possibility of having “ethnic” wards by geography.

  8. Of course the assimilation versus separation issue applies not just to language units, but to age and marital status units (i.e., units for singles younger that 31). And it is a delicate balancing act.

    A few years ago there was a directive in California to disband language and singles units. Many, but not all, were disbanded before the directive was reversed. (I was told of the directives and reversals by my brothers who were serving in leadership positions in a language unit and in a singles unit at the time.)
    Many of the dissolved units were reopened when the directive was reversed. As happened in the 1970s, many in the dissolved
    stopped coming to church, and did not return even after the units were reopened.

    I agree that there are advantages of geographic contiguity, but I do not believe that those institutional advantages always trump the needs of individuals. In those instances where an individual has a choice between a geographical and a language unit or a singles unit, I think the choice should be prayerfully made–I do not think there is any hard and fast rule that should be applied.

    I know that geography boundaries in singles units are loosely and only periodically enforced. The implicit judgment seems to be that it is better that young single members attend a unit to which they do not technically belong than that they not attend at all. For what it is worth, and as a parent of three single adult children, I agree with that implicit judgment.

  9. Various aspects and questions already. I’ll try to comment on all, but not all at the same time in this one comment.

    Some comments suggest criteria to decide if a foreigner should attend a lingual unit or the local one, provided both are offered. Eric (# 1) mentioned “Perhaps the church ought to encourage church-attendance by residential intentions”, making the difference with a temporary stay. True, but experience shows that even most of those with residential intentions prefer by far the lingual unit, where they can enjoy the advantages mentioned in my post. The step towards the local unit is a big one to take, so simple encouragement may not be enough. Compelling people to take it is not a wise move, as history shows. We face the same challenge with the excellent suggestion by MDS (#3): “If you are somewhat conversant in the language of the dominant-language unit, you should attend it.” It appears people would not follow that counsel. So, a basic question arises: if assimilation is indeed the best road for major advantages in the long run, what can the Church do to foster assimilation within the foreign unit?

    A discussion of this topic must also take into account many variables that make situations very different from each other. E.g.
    – The number of people involved can go from a family and a few singles from Kazakhstan to Latino communities of thousands.
    – The situation of the host society: do the foreigners already form a large and thriving community, also outside the Church?

  10. A great topic!

    I am a Korean who came to US more than 20 years ago. When I was in Utah attending BYU, first I attended a student ward, then an asian ward, finally Korean branch in SLC. At the student ward, I felt like going inactive although I was a returned missionary understanding most things in English. I had no friends in the ward. Same with the Asian ward.

    Now I live in a small city where there are no Korean members other my family in the church. I still feel like a foreigner because most people call me Brother C. even if I always call them by their first names. They have known me for a long time, but still choose to call me that way.

    I still have difficulty participating in the gospel discussion because my English is not as good as native English speakers. If I had an option to attend a Korean speaking branch, I wouldn’t hesitate to go there. Whenever I had a chance to visit places where there is a Korean speaking branch, I attend the church and feel at home.

    I don’t have close friends in my current ward even though I attended here several years. And I have no close friends outside of the church because I am a Mormon. That is the most difficult aspect in my church life.

    I wish I have a few close friends in the church, but I was not able to do that for the last 20 years. Without my wife, I know I would have gone inactive.

    Maybe when I get older, I should move to where there is a Korean speaking ward/branch.

    So, in my opinion, separation is better than assimilation because the retention is much higher for older generation. Assimilation is impossible without fluent English and they just go inactive.

  11. Clark: Canada seems to be good at being multi-cultural with respect to “foreigners” from far away; but as to regards to their nearest neighboors (the U.S.); don’t you think they are a tad exclusionary/hostile socio-culturally? :)

  12. Lyle (#4), your example seems an excellent one to evaluate:

    “I now teach Spanish Sunday School to those Hispanics that stay in the ‘assimilation’ ward. Is this an example of how both can work Wilfried? Or failure of both? We still have Sunday school in a foreign language; yet there is a separatist ward option also.”

    Yes, both are at work. But is this situation not peculiar because of the options offered, including a “separatist ward”? Also interesting is the dynamics in interpersonal relations it creates. Intercultural friendships must have developed before the option of the Hispanic ward was offered. Is it sometimes not painful when people have to choose themselves between both staying with friends and losing some? In the case of a ward being split and boundaries drawn, the choice is made for us.

    But the idea to offer a lingual class within a local unit is indeed a compromise solution, practiced in many places in the world. However, from a lingual-pedagogical point of view, I wonder if the contrary would not be better (provided there are enough people): sacrament meeting in the own language (where foreigners can give talks and testimonies in their own language), and the class in the dominant language because the teacher can adapt the language to the level of the foreigners, help foreigners to participate on their level, and thus work more actively on their assimilation.

  13. My wife is a fully assimilated bilingual Spanish-English speaking Hispanic. And even though she speaks and writes excellent English, she would still rather speak Spanish if she has a choice. All of my inlaws likewise are US citizens from a Spanish speaking background. They too are bilingual and do very well in either language. But, as in the case with my wife, they would rather speak Spanish.

    The English speaking people of the New World and Europe are not multiplying. In every nation, they are being bred out of existence by the Third World. The huge influx of Hispanics from south of the US-Mexican border has little to do with immigration policies, and much to do with population pressures. If the English speaking people in the Americas don’t want to reproduce, I think they should learn Spanish, and make sure their children learn Spanish. Over the next century this is going to be primarily a Spanish speaking continent, and the Church in the Americas will be primarily a Spanish speaking church.

    I think that assimilation is the way to go. English speaking people had better assimilate into the Spanish speaking culture. If they don’t, their posterity doesn’t have much of a future.

  14. To avoid this thread to become a discussion on how countries and regions behave between each other and what they have done to each other (interesting, but it will quickly lead to… ), let’s keep focusing on the Church! Of course, relevant external comparisons to Church policies and experiences are most welcome.

  15. By the way, in my comment #5, I didn’t mean to give off the idea that I support the disassembling of unique ethnic or cultural wards. They provide a strength and comfort to people that is greatly needed — and my impression is that many of the non-anglo wards have unique strengths and opportunities in missionary work. I saw this in the Salt Lake City Chinese ward — where English classes are offered for mostly Chinese immigrants and where fantastic activities (usually involving tons of food) bring in astounding numbers of non-LDS participants. The Anglo wards in the same stake simply don’t have anything to compare in these areas.

    As a caveat to the above, I simply want to say that I think the Church loses something when wards are utterly homogeneous. But maybe in today’s world it is difficult or impossible to have a ward that really consists of people who are of one ethnicity, political persuasion and economic status.

  16. Brian, your comment (#10) has been the most valuable up to now because you speak from the experience of the ‘foreigner’ in the U.S., and moreover with much experience in varied units. Good to have you with us! You raise important emotional aspects and I invite our readers to read your comments attentively.

    What would be most interesting to know are your suggestions how a local unit could better serve the needs and providing of opportunities to ‘foreigners’ in American Mormon wards.

  17. Brian: Reading your comments is very poignant to me. I served my mission in Korea, and my current ward has a dwindling population of Korean members. In times past there was a Korean speaking branch in my stake that has since been dissolved. Many of the members of that old branch are in my ward boundaries. Because of language barriers, the Korean members of our ward get marginalized. It is sad to see people of immense experience pushed to the side lines by language.

    For myself, I am a big fan of the seperation model where there are sufficiently large linguistic communities of Latter-day Saints to support them. The role of the Church is to teach the gospel and provide a place for the Saints to gather and take strength from one another. It should not allow this mission to become subordinated to nationalistic concerns about the role of linguistic minorities. I don’t support wards based on ethnic or racial lines, but I think that language is a different issue. As much as possible, we should create units where members can fully participate, and however much we may love the metaphors of assimilation, the inability to fully understand a congregation’s dominant language or to speak it, creates barriers to participatoin.

  18. I concur with Wilfried about your post, Brian (#10). It is the most valuable contribution so far to this thread. The difficulty you are having is almost certainly also a difficulty for others whose first language is not English: isolated from your own language group because you are LDS, and isolated from “big-nosed” saints because you are Korean.

    I am glad to hear that your wife is able to help you, but I wish I or others also had advice or help that we could give.

  19. Nate, the other reason to favor units for linguistic minorities, where possible, is the fact that white members of the Church are not good at making friends of non-whites. Even if we treat them with respect, we tend not to call them to leadership roles–not even to think of them for those roles.

    It may be that this isn’t an issue of skin color, though it has seemed to me, unfortunately, that it is. Perhaps Wilfried and other white members whose first language isn’t English can tell us: is it, instead, perhaps a matter of hearing an accent and assuming unconsciously that the person one hears is not smart?

    I think that these kinds of attitudes are more or less natural, that we have to consciously work to subvert them or we fall into them.

  20. “is the fact that white members of the Church are not good at making friends of non-whites”

    Where does this come from? Not in my experience.

  21. Bro. Decoo, thanks for bringing up this subject.

    Up until a year or so ago, our ward was one where there was a parallel Spanish-speaking unit. The Spanish-speakers held Sacrament meeting in the RS room while the rest of the ward was in the Chapel. We met combined monthly. All other meetings met combined. As a member of the Bishopric, I often attended that meeting even though my Spanish is limited to words-on-the-Taco-Bell-menu.

    When the Stake Presidency informed us that a Spanish-speaking branch was being formed, I had many of the same concerns that have been raised here. Though I couldn’t converse with many of these good brothers and sisters, I had felt the Spirit in their presence many times and loved them dearly.

    What a difference the split made. Those brothers and sisters really stepped up to the plate and hit it out of the park. They often lead the stake in referrals, in retention, and in temple attendance. They made a concerted effort to reach out into the sizable hispanic community here and their service is admirable. They’ve adopted our school district’s two dual-immersion Spanish/English elementary schools and provide supplies to students and teachers as well as the occasional landscape project. I’ve personally attended the sealing of eight families from that branch who have progressed in the Gospel to where they were ready to take their families to the Temple. Yes, we laid the groundwork for this as a blended ward, but as far as after the split goes… wowsers.

    I’ve also gone on youth conference where the Spanish-speaking youth blended in perfectly with the other kids. No distinctions.

    Another thing to consider here is growth. Yes, there may be people who over time could learn to speak English well enough to move back to a English-only geographical ward, but the Spanish-only convert family baptized into the Spanish Branch still needs a friend, a job, and the good word of God as they start their journey. And they’ll need it is Spanish.

    Color it anecdotal, but my experience in working with my Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters has been a win-win, but even more so once they had the chance to bloom on their own.

  22. >white members of the Church are not good at making friends of non-whites.

    This does not reflect in any way my experience in the church.

    >Even if we treat them with respect, we tend not to call them to leadership roles–not even to >think of them for those roles.

    Nor does this.

  23. MDS:

    A couple of years ago in my largely white ward we had an Asian bishop who sometimes struggled with English. After his release he was in the HC. He is well loved as well as his mixed race kids. Man could that guy lay down some serious Vietnamese cooking. He moved last month and I miss him.

  24. Jim: There may be some truth to what you say with regard to racial issues. I tend to think that language is more important. I think that an accent has a much bigger effect than skin color does. I have been in wards where members of racial minorities occupied substantial leadership positions. I have not been in a ward where someone who was not completely fluent in the dominant language occupied a leadership position.

    An interesting test case are two wards I have attended that had black members. In one ward the black members tended to be francophone West Indian immigrants, and there seemed to be barriers. In another ward the black members were African-American and there seemed to be far fewer barriers. What barriers there were broke down on educational lines. Hence, our high-priest group leader was a black former bishopric member. He was also a college graduate who spoke using proper grammar. I can think of one new member that I worked a little with who lacked any post-secondary education and whose speech was “uneducated” who I thought was marginalized not because of race or new member status but because of language.

  25. This side topic of ‘having a foreign accent’ may seem trivial, but is indeed an important factor in our discussion. When foreigners communicate, their accent is what people listen to first, less to the content. One must get used to the accent before full attention can be given to the message. Foreigners are often very conscious of the fact that they have an accent and that this hinders straightforward communication. Add to that the lack of proper vocabulary and grammar errors, leading to misunderstandings and frustration. The main question is: does this affect perception of the ‘other person’ in negative ways? In most cases, no doubt. The person with the foreign accent may be consciously or unconsciously perceived as somehow inferior. Marginalization may be subtle and non-intended, even by well-meant remarks such as: ‘Where are you from’ or ‘I like your accent’ or ‘You really speak good English’. It seems trivial, but foreigners, in particular if they have lived for years in the U.S. and are American citizens, will often find such remarks irritating. It hampers their feeling of full acceptance. Then it is easy to understand they will feel more at ease in an own lingual unit because the sphere of the Gospel requires this full integration into the community. Of course, this will not be the case for all foreigners.

  26. I can only pit my anecdotal experience against that of b bell and MDS. Most of my friends who do not speak English as their first language are Koreans, so I can’t easily decide whether the phenomenon is color or accent, but (as I suggested in my first post) Nate may be right: it may be a matter of accent and grammar rather than skin color. In any case, it seems to me like a real phenomenon.

    For example, my Korean friends report the same kind of experience that Brian does: people are kind to them, but seldom become good friends, and they are seldom called to positions of responsibility. There are exceptions, of course, but that seems to be the norm. From what I see in my ward, I think that the same thing is often true for those whose native language is Spanish: people are friendly to them, but rarely good friends with them, and whatever their experience in the Church before coming to the US, they are usually not called to positions of responsibility. For example, former stake president and member of the temple presidency in Mexico had no calling at all for the first five or six years that he lived in the U.S. Eventually, he was asked to be the bishops’ executive secretary, but when he was released from that, he went once again to having no calling.

    I certainly don’t think this is intentional. It has as much to do with the fact that we associate more easily with those we feel more comfortable with than with anything else. But I still think that it is a problem for us.

    What does this mean with regard to Wilfried’s quiestion about assimilation vs. separation? I don’t know. That is a very real question, and I can see advantages and disadvantages either way, though I lean in the direction of separation by languages since that seems to me to allow more activity by some of those who otherwise may be left out. It is only a stop gap measure, but I think that separation by language is more likely to help people continue to be active and to grow than assimilation is.

  27. I like danithew’s suggestion of accomodation. I also attended the branch in Jordan that he mentioned, and their bilingual system seemed to work well. Arabic and English were used equally. Of course, it was helpful that the branch president and many members spoke both languages.

    In the US, it would probably work best with English and Spanish. I’d be interested to see it tried.

  28. Thank you all for your kind remarks on my comment.

    Jim F. commented:

    Nate, the other reason to favor units for linguistic minorities, where possible, is the fact that white members of the Church are not good at making friends of non-whites. Even if we treat them with respect, we tend not to call them to leadership roles–not even to think of them for those roles.


    I feel that some of the white folks I see at church don’t know how to interact with foreigners. I don’t think they are not intentionally alienating us, but they don’t bother to make efforts to be friends with foreigners.

    As for callings with leadership or teaching position(other than Primary teachers), I wouldn’t be comfortable to accept the calls even though I could manage to do it. Partly language problem, partly interaction with some members who do not feel comfortable with foreigners.

    I had a lot more friendly members when I lived in downtown area. We even had a few black members at church and most white members were a lot more open to minority members. We shared dinner frequently and knew their familes well.

    Since I moved to a surbuban area several years ago, I have known only a few familes well. I serve in the bishopric and I interact with many members on a regular basis. But, friendshipping is not easy. We hardly do anything together other than seeing each other at church.

    I guess this may be not the problem with the church, but with the white folks living in suburban areas in general.

  29. Thanks for this excellent post, Wilfried, and thank you, Brian, for your contribution.

    “I can see advantages and disadvantages either way, though I lean in the direction of separation by languages since that seems to me to allow more activity by some of those who otherwise may be left out. It is only a stop gap measure, but I think that separation by language is more likely to help people continue to be active and to grow than assimilation is.”

    The issue of language is a rich and perplexing one, because identity is (in my view) fundamentally communicative and dialogic; without the opporunity to participate with others as part of a linguistic community, we fail to realize our own selves. Consequently, I think the question of language needs to be treated differently and more circumspectly than most other possible markers (and potential dividing points) in identity and community. Like Jim, I lean in the direction of separation. Unlike Jim, I don’t understand why it needs to be a “stop gap” measure.

    Church membership isn’t the same as citizenship; there are different obligations and privileges involved. Bringing matters of state into a situation of linguistic pluralism is especially complicated, and generally speaking demands, I think, a fairly high level of assimilation. Sometimes this can be around a single language; sometimes it may be around two or more–but unless there is some way to clearly demark in a political sense the boundaries of each dominant linguistic community, even that is tricky. Sometimes the direction of the assimilation can or must even change. (John’s comment that much of English-speaking America may have no other choice remaining to but to assimilate themselves to the new “Spanglish” reality is on point here.) But in any case, all this assimilation is driven by civic priorities.

    Church membership has different priorities; the community of believers has some relationship to civic matters (indeed, I wish it would more often have more so), but for the most part what is happening when people worship is not directly comparable to what has to happen in a functioning civic space. Consequently, I see no reason to think that the doctrine of separation, of creating various monolingual units where a sufficient minority language population exists, and assuming that such units will exist in perpetuity, even going so far as perhaps developing their own stakes if necessary, is a problem. So what if Utah or Virginia or Washington has essentially permanent Spanish-speaking, Korean-speaking, or Vietnamese-speaking wards? So long as there are Spanish and Korean and Vietnamese speakers who need to be served, who need the opportunity to serve, who need callings and blessings and the opportunity to hear the sacrament prayer in their own tongue, then it seems to me the need and justification exists for such units.

    I suppose, if it ever got to the point that minority language LDS units were providing “cover” for people in the U.S. to not assimilate in a civic manner–never learning enough English to vote or hold down a job or contribute to the country in other ways–then we’d have to ask the question again. But I suspect that we ever did get to such a tipping point, there’d be so many other indicators of the breakdown or alteration of America’s dominant language culture that Mormon wards and branches would hardly stand out in the crowd.

  30. Danithew (#5) and Amira (#28), your comments focus on the presence of (pluri)lingual units outside of the U.S. Those present peculiar aspects. I am happy to read about your good experiences with accommodation abroad. I agree it is possible and I have seen it too.

    Still, to provide material for discussion let me nuance with two remarks:

    1 – The multicultural unit, where various languages are spoken, is not always easy to manage. E.g. Church units in West-European capitals have been attracting foreigners from various nations, esp. from Africa and from East-European countries, often economic and political refugees. Some units count more such foreigners than locals, speaking a variety of languages. Many are still very inexperienced in Church life. Constant translation needs to be provided, a burden on always the same people (ever translated three hours in a row, each Sunday, for years, as your main Church activity?). Sometimes no translation is possible. All this presents new challenges to the Church. Assimilation seems to be the best answer in such case, but how to do that most efficiently does not seem to have been studied yet.

    2 – Some foreign units are much stronger and more experienced that local units. Such is the case with American wards (now rather called International wards for obvious safety reasons) in many countries. They often count very experienced and able Church members, from the military, diplomatic services, business. Their status of separate unit is maintained, while they could render so much service to the local unit (if there is one). Americans have different takes on this issue. Some (a small minority) send their children to a local school to quickly learn the language and they attend the small, struggling local unit to support it. Most send their children to a (very expensive) American or international school and attend the well-organized English-speaking unit. It seems opportunities for cross-cultural enrichment and building up the Church locally are lost that way.

  31. “I guess this may be not the problem with the church, but with the white folks living in suburban areas in general.”

    White flight. Not a new phenomenon, and still no less problem.

  32. Wilfried,

    “The multicultural unit, where various languages are spoken, is not always easy to manage….Assimilation seems to be the best answer in such case, but how to do that most efficiently does not seem to have been studied yet.”

    I agree that, in my experience, truly multicultural (or, more specifically, multilingual) organizations are rare and difficult to manage except at a very high level, where the resources exist to do a lot of simultaneous translation and repetition. Locally, when you’re dealing with small groups, the presence of a language barrier requires tremendous trust and patience to overcome. (Having a long history with a lot of experience, as is the case in many Middle Eastern branches of the church, is a big help.) My feelings are, as I expressed above, that church units provide a unique enough role in people’s lives that we ought to push for the rapid formation of distinct language units wherever possible. Of course, when the minority language in question is below some hypothetical sustainability level–when you’re dealing, for example, purely with an entirely refugee population–then your choices are more limited. J. Stapley mentioned above attending an “Asian branch.” They were pretty common along the West Coast of the U.S. all through the 70s and 80s, the result of so many Southeast Asian refugees that had flooded the U.S. following the Vietnam War. None of those groups were strong enough in members to sustain a language unit on their own, so they were thrown together. (In Spokane, while growing up, we had a branch that consisted of Cambodian, Vietnamese, Hmong, Thai, and Chinese saints.) Not an ideal solution, perhaps, but for a lot of those folks, it was probably better than assimilate or die.

  33. “I suppose, if it ever got to the point that minority language LDS units were providing “cover” for people in the U.S. to not assimilate in a civic manner–never learning enough English to vote or hold down a job or contribute to the country in other ways–then we’d have to ask the question again.”

    Why? While I am heartened to see that you are in favor of units for linguistic minorities (I was half expecting a repudiation based on maintaining the integrity of the polity, etc.), I don’t understand why you have this proviso. Are you suggesting that the Church might have some duty to disband minority language units that were acting as cover? That the state has some legitimate interest in banning them (or at least disfavoring them) as a matter of law? If we think that units for linguistic minorities are the best way in which they can preach and learn the gospel and participate in the building of Zion, why on earth should we subordinate that to the civic concerns of the state?

  34. Thank you, Russell, for that sharp analysis (#30) and drawing the attention to the difference between religious and civic functions. Thank you also, Brian, for your extra comments (#29).

    Most commenters seem to favor separation because of the primary ecclesiastical function to provide a more efficient spiritual and social haven for our members. I tend to agree if indeed such a lingual unit is strong enough to measure up to the expectation.

    It still leaves another fundamental question: to what extent should the lingual unit then also take responsibility to make sure members assimilate well in the mainstream? I presume that in some cases the lingual unit is part of a larger cultural community, usually of less privileged people, with a risk of ghettoization. If the dominant language is not sufficiently learned, education and job opportunities suffer. What kind of programs and activities can the lingual unit present to sustain the overall development of its members in relation to the host society? Are there examples of such? Does the Church give guidelines or make recommendations in this respect when allowing a lingual unit to be organized?

  35. “Are you suggesting that the Church might have some duty to disband minority language units that were acting as cover? That the state has some legitimate interest in banning them (or at least disfavoring them) as a matter of law? If we think that units for linguistic minorities are the best way in which they can preach and learn the gospel and participate in the building of Zion, why on earth should we subordinate that to the civic concerns of the state?”

    Good questions, Nate. As I said above, I suspect that if we, as a polity, ever got to that point, there probably will have been so many other venues of social interaction that similarly provided “cover,” intentionally or unintentionally (schools providing bilingual education, courts operating in a de facto bilingual manner, etc.), that it’d be hard for me to believe that our separate units would be a very large factor. But, say that is the case–say that some study determines, in some hypothetical future, that the population of Arizona is approaching 51% monolingual Spanish-speaking, and the primary reason for such is all the Spanish-speaking wards and stakes scattered across the state, each providing a handy Spanish-speaking network (a base for home schooling, social interaction, and so forth) strong enough that their members aren’t learning a word of English. I think it’d be very difficult to prove that was the case, but say you could. What then?

    Well, then at that point, the church as an institution (or, at least, the stakes of the church in Arizona) would have to ask itself the following question: “Are we a polity?” Everyone belongs to a polity; there always has to be some sort of boundedness to one’s place in the world which relates to the legitimate holders of sovereign power. The church aspired to that once; should we again? Maybe by that time, in that hypothetical future, notions of sovereignty will have sufficiently broken down that we’ll be back to the medieval world, and the U.S. wouldn’t mind having a quasi-sovereign entity sharing its space out there in Arizona. But if that isn’t the case, and the church wasn’t willing to make itself a sovereign unit on its own terms, then it would be rightly obliged, I think, to take the concerns of the state into consideration. For example, say the state of Arizona is trying to provide a public education wherein all may be assimilated to a single democratic body. If that process is breaking down specifically because our church is making it possible for people to be born and raised to adulthood and still function while disregarding that effort, then the church’s efforts are no longer “neutral” in regards to the public square; they are, on the contrary, undermining public goods that the citizenship of the Saints of Arizona depends upon.

    I honestly don’t think there’s a handy formula or list of priorities here. History plays a huge role in deciding exactly what the trade-offs between linguistic accommodation and civic needs are. (Speaking French in Quebec has a different significance than speaking Arabic in France.) You probably won’t ever be able to hold both in perfect balance. But I think that, for the foreseeable future anyway, it probably wouldn’t be hard to much more aggressively create separate linguistic units for church members in the U.S. without running up against any of these challenges.

  36. Personally, I think it’s a relief to be in a culturally diverse ward – I generally find myself trying as much as possible to understand and befriend those from different backgrounds. We even have neighbors who are Chinese that I keep trying to “bump into” outside to have an opportunity to see what made them choose Nebraska of all places to settle. I guess I’m for assimilation, there’s much more to be offered in a ward with varying cultural backgrounds – I’ve been to many Spanish speaking wards not understanding a whit of what was said but still felt the spirit and had fun speaking what little I knew to the members there. This is not to be offensive, but I’m kindof tired of wards where everyone is the same – culturally, socioeconomically etc.

  37. I once had a High Priest Group leader from Brazil. He was called to this position by Stake Presidency that was nothing but caucasian Utah natives. The bishop of the ward, also caucasian, supported him fully in this calling. His English was far, far, far from perfect, but he tried his best. It took great effort on my part, and on the part of most of the members of the ward to understand him. He worked his tail off. Once a month he had Home Teaching interviews and we struggled to communicate what was going on with the families I was assigned. We worked. We did it. His lessons suffered from the same language flaws, but we managed to be spiritually uplifted anyway. There were a few snide remarks from others about the communication difficulty, but the bishop spoke to these individuals in public, told them that this brother was their priesthood leader, and they better get the gift of tongues rather than gripe.

    Brian, I am very sorry to hear about your experiences. If you are ever anywhere near North Salt Lake, you and yours have a standing dinner invite at my house. Of course, I know several T&S posters that would love to have some authentic Korean at your place, too.

  38. Wilfried:

    You ask for programs and such to help minority language speakers in a majority language civic situation (say that five times fast)…. I can start with talking about my experience in a Spanish/ French-speaking unit in Geneva. First, the unit had free French lessons for anyone interested, once a week. This was an amazing way to reach out to the local immigrant community; the missionaries even did some teaching based on that class. Second, the unit made sure to celebrate all major Swiss holidays in a big way, partly for the native Swiss, but also to help acclimate the newly arrived. And that’s about it.

    Membership in that ward was challenging. The ward was 60% Spanish-speaking, yet could not split into a Spanish-speaking unit because the Spanish speakers were almost completely women (except for their Aaronic priesthood-bearing sons). So, the French speakers in the ward felt isolated because speakers and sacrament prayers would occasionally be in Spanish, but the Spanish speakers felt isolated because leadership spoke mainly French.

    Language classes are a great place to start. Units could also work with people on job search skills—what’s needed to get a job changes from country to country. My stake in Texas has employment specialists, but they are not prepared to work with members from the Spanish language wards. I think every ward should have some sort of local directory/ recommendations manual for new members to the area, this seems doubly important for those not speaking the dominant language.

  39. Thank you, Chad (#22), Emily (#37) Heather (#39), for your contributions from personal experiences. They shed light on the positive aspects of multilingual interactions as well as on the challenges.

    Heather, your remark “I think every ward should have some sort of local directory/ recommendations manual for new members to the area, this seems doubly important for those not speaking the dominant language” is very valuable. I have seen such a need in many cases as it pertains to practical issues (for refugees) such as immigrant paper work, housing, health care, language learning, schools, employment. Of course the Church cannot provide for all of these services, certainly not in small units in the mission field, but some minimal, concrete guidelines could be developed according to needs and discussed in leadership meetings. Now much time and energy in such meetings goes to repetitive general instructions, while local leaders could use guidelines and hints how to better serve the ‘foreigners in need’ in their unit. E.g. practical information on how to channel people to existing social and administrative services would already help much. Also information on how to protect themselves and the Church in connection with illegal situations is necessary.

  40. In my experience, the ‘foreigner’ is pretty much present in the Church. When my wife and I arrived to our ward in England, the bishop assigned a sister to show us the way to the Stake centre for General Conference. In our case the stake centre was in another town about 15 miles away (which can be so long if you do not know where it is). This sister did not approach us because she thought that we could not ‘understand’ English. MAN!! I came here to do a doctoral study, something she knew. Because we came from a Latin American country, having been taught American English, most members thought that we did not understand them. There were also many that were intrigued by us and we found some very good friends. I guess it just all boils down to individuals, not Church policy.

    There is also another aspect of the assimilation and separation is the Church’s ‘Americaness’. I think that the greatest challenge that the Church faces is the integration of several cultures. Most of the way we worship and plan our activities are based in an ‘American Anglo saxon’ way (Boy Scout comes to mind, but the ‘reverence’, singing, etc.) There is a need of examining the underlying concepts of worshipping, activities, dressing, etc. We need to acknowledge the cultural differences, without loosing the common bond of the Church. We worship God the Father and Christ, in that we are assimilated, yet the way that we worship Him can vary.


  41. Interesting contribution, Alex. Your observation “There is also another aspect of the assimilation and separation, i.e. the Church?s ?Americaness?” also opens an avenue for much discussion. Previous comments already hinted at the cultural differences between white-Americans and others and the challenges it may present. Though it is obvious the Gospel requires us to accept cultural differences (and I guess we all do or try to do), the fact remains that some traditions will be difficult for people in the case of an ‘assimilation unit’. E.g. Americans may socialize less after meetings, while in some cultures that part is the most pleasant of the Sunday, extending the 3-hour block to 4 or 5… If foreigners, because they are single or just of one family, cannot enjoy this socialization, it may leave them with a seirous void. Any other significant examples of such cultural differences that make assimilation in a ward or branch difficult and what can be done about it?

  42. I attended a Spanish-language sacrament meeting in Maryland once and found that the Spanish language ability of a couple of the youth speakers was quite poor; Spanish was obviously not their primary language or even one that they had studied much. It made me wonder how well such a ward served such youth and showed that such a unit can have a reciprocal problem dealing with members within it who aren’t fluent in the minority language.

  43. This sort of situation is a good argument for making sure that the bulk of missionaries serve in an area with a different culture and language than the one they were raised with. That sort of mixing in itself is an antidote that I think probably does a lot toward alleviating stresses that might be more pronounced than they are.

  44. I live in a part of Wales where the majority of the community speak Welsh, a language that is seeing some revival for political/historic/cultural reasons. Most school kids are taught in Welsh. But the church in its current guise is a new phenomena in the area (historically most members emigrated for Zion with Dan Jones and others).

    So most of the members here are ‘incomers’ – English speakers, and all services are carried out in English, in spite most the children speaking Welsh, a few native speakers, and several ‘dysgur’ learners.

    I’m a poor linguist, but I’m trying – and have encouraged the Ward to sing one Welsh hymn and to have classes for Welsh learners to pick up church phrases. If we followed the assimilation route should we have a “Welsh only” policy and attempt to assimilate us incomers into the wider Welsh culture with it’s attendant Bards. Eisteddfods, and poetry? Or would assimilation mean requiring native welsh speakers to turn their back on their language in their own country when they attend church? Currently the second option is predominating – meaning that missionary work is stagnant (for Welsh speakers at least), with few interested in invitations from proselyting missionaries who do not learn the language (Why not!?)

    Separation is not an option (and the term is laden with negative connotations – how about “Coalescence” Wilfred?) the Ward is just about working with its current numbers.

    How about a ‘third way’ – multi-lingual units. We have a bilingual Welsh parliament, the Church of Wales run all their service with both Welsh & English combined – and all of our letters and notice and road signs are bilingual. Why not LDS meetings? The only thing stopping it is a lack of imagination and a pinch of linguistic bigotry.

    (My first post)

  45. John & Jesse, a belated thanks for your contribution!

    Welcome, Vince! Great to have you on board! You raise interesting questions, at the heart of the debate. From the items you describe this is indeed a typical case where the Church should evaluate assimilation or separation or “combination” (the term coalescence = the union of diverse things into one body or form or group, would rather be a synonym for assimilation or combination wouldn’t it?). Combination would be the multilingual unit.

    The major criterion for the Church is now retention and thus member happiness. So I would imagine there must be sensitivity to the issue. Vince, have local leaders already discussed possible changes? Does the Church publish current material in Welsh? Please enlighten us outsiders on the overall situation of Welsh versus English in your area and how the Church is doing there.

  46. The Salt Lake Tribune is just running a seven part series on the lingual situation in Utah. Beyond English gives an overview of the situation. Here “A little bit of Mexico” in Salt Lake is presented. This one talks about the challenges of foreigners with insufficient command of English and the obvious need for faster assimilation when it comes to social survival within the broader community.

  47. Perhaps I missed this in the many, many comments on this post, but it seems to me that everyone is looking at the difficulties that having language units present. Aren’t there advantages also?

    At least among the wards I see here in NYC, the members (at least the legal ones) travel a lot back and forth between their home countries and the US. I believe that this actually strengthens the Church in those countries. Cultural knowledge not available in foreign languages gets transferred this way. And, as many of these members learn English (in this case), the Church benefits by having that many more bilingual members.

    Am I right? While these units do have difficulties and create some problems, isn’t this a net gain for the Church as well as for many individual members?

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