Church whisperers

The buzz pervades the chapel. The whispers assemble to an insistent setting escorting the speaker’s voice over the sound system. The multiple murmurs from all corners of the audience spawn a hum that any outsider would consider disturbing. But we are used to it – our own relentless liturgical sound.

Sometimes a louder, fast whisper:
– Sarah… Sarah! What’s mercy in French?
– Dominique! The Comforter in Spanish?

The whisperers are seated next to and behind members and investigators of all colors and ethnic types. Our ward, in Dutch-speaking Belgium, serves members from thirty-four nations. Six or seven Latin American countries, seven or eight new independent republics with names that only evoke vague images – Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan. Then, markedly visible in their rows, our African sisters and brothers, from Angola to Zimbabwe. Converts from Iran and Israel are seated next to each other, as well as from India and Pakistan. Of course, also our West-European neighbors, British, French, German, Spanish, Italian …

The prime translation goes from Dutch, our local native language, to English, French and Spanish. Then, here and there, others retranslate to fellow citizens and related groups. The whispers diverge into Russian, Polish, African dialects …

With about one hundred fifty people in our Sacrament meeting, here is, in microcosm, the International Church. Here is immense service in action, helping hands and lips, conveying in subdued tones the messages from the pulpit and the lessons given in classrooms. No one who has ever done it, knows what it means to interpret simultaneously for three hours in a row. Each Sunday again.

Homage to those thousands of whisperers in so many parts of the world, in tiny branches and solid wards, who materialize the Spirit of Pentecost – And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and the province of Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!


However, I wouldn’t be an applied linguist, working on language learning strategies, without adding some advice to our whisperers. If we translate for immigrants, for people likely to stay longer than a few weeks, let’s use those hours, at least partly, to teach them the local language.

One technique is easy. Instead of trying to translate every word from a speaker or teacher, grab an essential sentence, repeat it slowly, translate it, and repeat it again in the native tongue.
– Ik weet dat de kerk hersteld werd in onze tijd.
– I know the church was restored in our time.
– Ik weet dat de kerk hersteld werd in onze tijd.

And, if the listener is willing to, let him or her whisper the sentence back in the native tongue, with your whispering help.

Another technique is to write down, as translation proceeds, a dozen frequent words in a little bilingual list. Develop it into a lexical mini-course. Or compare a verse in the Scriptures in two languages. It’s no problem to miss, meanwhile, a few sentences from the speaker or the teacher.

Perhaps our readers have other hints to add? We serve our foreign newcomers by integrating them in our community. Language is a key to integration.

23 comments for “Church whisperers

  1. What a perspective you have! Gift of tongues indeed. Thanks for giving us a taste of what it is like.

    I agree that teaching the local language is important. We have so many people from Mexico in our town that are living there now who don’t speak English well if at all. Translating for them is only a temporary service. I think the commitment on the newcomers part to speak the local language as much as possible day-to-day is probably very important.

  2. A great post! I assume you are in Antwerp? I was a missionary in Kortrijk and Leuven.

    I live in Finland, and I am slowly learning Finnish. Because I work in an English-speaking environment, church is the only place I hear Finnish spoken on a regular basis (aside from my wife speaking to our two year-olds and hockey games). I am thankful nearly to tears to those who translate for me and the two or three other non-Finns in our little ward, plus the visitors in the summer. I am in the bishopric, oddly enough, and I conduct from a script which I am learning better and better, and I am slowly becoming less dependant on the headphones during sacrament meeting.

    Your techniques are good advice. I would add the following:

    The full time missionaries often have church-related vocabulary lists, with phrases they can learn for understanding prayers and testimonies while they get started. This is a good place to start.

    Language learners can focus on specific aspects of church and learn the vocabulary related to that context. I can follow the announcements pretty well now, and I can get through a prayer more or less. Testimony meetings are very tricky because the context is hard to establish, but its getting easier.

    In addition, while learning the local language is incredibly important, so is the need to have gospel conversations in your own language and express your testimony right from the heart. I conduct in Finnish, but testify in English. Because of babies being born and people moving, my English Sunday School has dried up, and I miss it more than I thought I would. I’ve realized I need it.

  3. Thanks, Eric. Yes, there must also be a willingness from the newcomers to work on the language. Not always easy for some of them if there is no apparent need. But in the long run much depends on the degree of lingual integration.

    Yes, Norbert, I’m in Antwerp (at least for now). Great to get an echo from Finland. Is it true that you are on a two-hour block on Sunday? Also, thank you for the additional hints. Learning to pray and giving a simple testimony in the local language are also great ways to help people integrate. They can even have it written out the first times and just try to read it. It builds confidence and the local people appreciate the efforts being made.

  4. I loved this. One of my favorite experiences as a Spanish-speaking missionary in southern California was discovering and practicing the art of simultaneous translation. I liked being a vehicle to enable understanding. (And it was much easier than actually teaching English as a second language, which we also did as missionaries.)

  5. The international ward in Vienna likely has as many nationalities but not much simultaneous interpretation going on, for it follows a “colonizer’s model” where an English-speaking diplomat arrives, never learns German, yearns to have church in his native tongue, takes the initiative and organizes an English-speaking branch that grows into a ward. Seems to work out ok.

  6. Thank you, greenfrog (4). Always nice to see you comment! “Being a vehicle to enable understanding” is a great way to put it.

    Yes, Peter (5), we know these situations. Not always easy to decide what is best for the individual Saints. A strong English-speaking ward in a European city will usually thrive on experienced US-leadership and be able to serve immigrants who know a little English. But some of the local saints, often pioneers of many years, who do not know English, may either end up in a little struggling branch on the side, or turn inactive, or just undergo the “colonization” and keep coming without really being involved. It requires a lot of sensitivity to find the balance. Not an easy matter. Do you also have German-speaking unit(s) in Vienna? How are they doing? I had a post on this problem of assimilation or separation.

  7. Wilfried, there are four German-speaking wards in Vienna. ‘What’s a little sad about the English ward is that the majority of the participants speak German, but choose to worship with the other immigrants.

  8. You have members from Uzbekistan? There aren’t a lot. And it’s convenient that the members from Central Asia generally speak Russian which cuts down on the obsure languages your meetings might need to be translated into. Do the people speaking and conducting leave breaks between their sentences to allow for all the translating going on? Do people who can’t speak Dutch have much change to speak and teach?

    The “colonizer’s mode” bothers me a bit, even though it can work. When we’ve lived overseas we’ve never seen a reason to expect someone to accomdate our less-than-fluent Arabic or Russian. And despite the stress of learning another language, we’ve always been able to learn enough that we don’t have to rely on English speakers.

  9. Wilfried, are there even church materials available in all the languages your ward uses? If I were in your ward as an English speaker, I’d make more of an effort than I do here in Salt Lake to be thoroughly familiar with the assigned scriptural chapters for Sunday School, or the talk the Relief Society lesson was based on. Even if I couldn’t follow everything I would have a general idea of what was being discussed, and perhaps I could begin to make sense out of the unfamiliar sounds.

    That would take a real effort on the part of your non-Dutch speakers, with help from somebody familiar enough with the church website to find the right materials — and maybe, as tends to happen with large, mixed immigrant populations, you have members who don’t read fluently enough to tackle the preparation in any case. What a challenge!

  10. Ronan (7), thanks for the input from Vienna ! We’ve seen a similar situation in Brussels where immigrants choose to attend the English-speaking ward (some perhaps for contact with Americans, hoping for relations to get to the U.S). However, the stake decided that non-English-natives should attend the French-speaking ward.

    Erica (8), many immigrants from new republics are illegal here. That creates an extra challenge for the local members. “Do the people speaking and conducting leave breaks between their sentences to allow for all the translating going on?” No, very few do, but it’s a good suggestion (they would need to shorten talks though!) “Do people who can’t speak Dutch have much chance to speak and teach?” If they want to, plenty of chance. But quite a few do not go into that trouble. There is a tendency among some immigrants to be “served”.

    Ardis (9), yes, materials are available in other languages. The Church has been very good in providing material in many tongues. Of course, the local librarian must take initiative to order those, and probably some are not aware of that possibility. Good suggestion to pass along! But then again, you are right, we do have immigrants unable to read and who are being helped to read… Really, it’s sometimes amazing to see how much our local members in the international church carry on their shoulders and how many social and intercultural challenges and needs local leaders face. Then some discussions in the bloggernacle seem a little trivial… (ahum).

  11. It can be surprisingly difficult to get church materials overseas in any language (especially since there are a lot of languages that don’t have any church materials at all- but there is a songbook in Kazakh now) when there isn’t a branch at all. Ordering church materials usually requires long distance phone calls that are cost-prohibitve for many members and difficult to coordinate even for those who have the money to make the calls and pay for the books. When we visited the branch in Kazakhstan, the members there were kind enough to let us ransack their library to take Russian books back to Kyrgyzstan for the members there. We’d also have expats bring Russian books any time they flew in and now we mail conference DVDs in Russian to Kyrgyzstan (after one friend supplied the members there with a DVD player). It’s hard to feast on the word of Christ when you can’t even hold it in your hands.

  12. Good to remind us of those challenges in certain parts of the world, Erica. In Western Europe, the Church distribution centers are close by and I think they carry languages for a large area. So we have access to them. But, indeed, getting material to places such as Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan … That’s another idea to pursue: how to get American or European members who travel to such places aware of the things they could bring with them for the local saints ? We would need a site where needs are identified and Mormon travellers informed, e.g. through e-mail alert.

  13. How I wish there were a resource like that, Wilfried. That would be such a help. Many people who go to Central Asia assume there are no members there at all (a BYU student lived in Kyrgyzstan for 4 months while we were there whom we never met) and don’t find out what they could do to help there. But one BYU student did contact some people before he went to Kyrgyzstan and brought a DVD player and books and many other things. We’d brought Russian books for our own study, but they were immediately snatched up by the members there who obviously had a much greater need for them than we did. We always, always needed more books.

    There are very few countries in the world with literally no members living in them, whether local, immigrants, or expats. At least you can contact the area presidency before you go!

  14. Yes, Erica, agreed! Now there could be a service project for the LDS International Society … Set up a system of travellers’ alert: “I’m going to … what Mormon material can I bring for you?” Or any of our bloggernacle computer specialists to set up a ?

  15. I’m looking forward to going to Eastern Europe to study Russian in 2008 or 2009 (likely Kiev, St. Petersburg, or Moscow, but with travel to Poland and Lithuania if at all possible) and seeing as I intend to raid the bookstores in-country for every intermediate/low-advanced Russian book I can find, I wouldn’t mind filling my luggage to the airline’s weight limits with Russian or other-language texts and materials on the way in. I’m sure many other language students would feel similarly — otherwise, we’d be bringing empty bags. I wonder, though: are scriptures (which are heavy and expensive, but more easily shared) more valuable, or would they rather get lesson manuals and other “curriculum” stuff (which takes a long time to get released even in the US, and which gets changed every year) instead. The stuff I enjoy most in Russian are things like “For the Strength of Youth” and the CES manuals, but I can get anything I want in English, so I have a rather different perspective than your average member in Belarus. On the other hand, anyone with an internet connection can read this year’s “Teachings of the Presidents” manual in Russian, and I understand the Book of Mormon will be online sometime this year…

    Also, as far as developing vocabulary: Gospel Principles, True to the Faith, and Preach My Gospel are all good language resources, as they’re pretty literal translations, and the first two have what amounts to vocabulary lists (True to the Faith IS a vocabulary list.) Same goes with the Bible dictionary. And the children’s scripture stories books all have vocabulary/dictionary sections in the back; I use them for practice translating the short definitions, but a very introductory-level student could just learn to match the entry words. I also got the Dictionary of Sign Language Terms (31121), because it has a list that was designed for interpretation. I’m not sure why they haven’t produced little booklets for all the different languages: just because you know Spanish doesn’t mean you know the church-standard words for “priesthood” or “conducting.”

    (there’s also a thesis someone at BYU did on language learning at the MTC, that includes short and long key mission vocabulary lists in English. I used the lists for my own vocabulary work; the thesis is on the BYU website. There’s also a list, translated into French, that’s similar to the thesis list, on the unofficial Paris mission website)

  16. Thanks for your contribution, Sarah, and your willingness to help. We hope this will catch on, even among those who think international matters are foreign to them by definition.

  17. Wilfried,

    Just out of curiousity, what prevents the people from getting the materials through “normal” channels? Are traditional shipping methods unavailable? Is it just naive of me to believe that the presiding authority of each unit should be responsible for getting basic materials to the members within the units boundries, whether that unit’s area is a few blocks in Utah, or a small country in Europe? Is the workaround more important, or fixing the problem?

  18. The trouble comes when there is no presiding authority in a country. There is no one to get the materials to the members in places without a formal church organization, like Kyrgyzstan. There is no one there to get the materials to the members.

  19. Thanks for the memories!

    At one time our Florida ward had four translations at every meeting. We had English lessons and sermons, translated into Spanish, Portuguese, French-Creole, and the non-whispering ASL translators.

    It made for an interesting meeting…particularly when the translator (often one of the ten full-time missionaries assigned just to our ward) was one of those guys who just can’t whisper. Then we had the Church Murmurers. (We should have called them Elder Laman and Elder Lemuel.)

  20. Coming to Kiev, Ukraine for Russian study is a good choice.
    Ukraine is more friendly, open-minded and treats foreigners better than Russia where you will start to have problems even with visa…
    Come! :)
    We are a good people.

    Kiev, Ukraine

  21. KyleM (17), I see Erica answered already. Indeed, sometimes very difficult to get materials to members in such countries, though I wonder if there is no central “all the rest of the world”-president in SLC or somewhere. When I lived in Central Africa in the 1970s the Swiss mission president was president over “all the rest of the world” (meaning where there was no organized church). He sent us material when we requested. I can’t imagine that Church HQ would not be sensitive to the needs of these people, even if there are only one or two. And sending material through special delivery would be possible, not? Well, maybe not always, I know of situations in Congo today. The more reason to get a selfhelp-system to work.

    (19) LOL about Elder Laman and Elder Lemuel, Alison! Thanks!

    Welcome to the thread and the site, Handy (20)! Tell us more about yourself (but don’t tease the Russians or we’ll have endless comments… Ever seen a thread where Americans and Canadians get going? ha! ) By the way, how is the Church doing in Ukraine?

  22. We had an interesting situation during the temple dedication here in Helsinki. The different sessions were broadcast in the languages of the temple district (5 in all) and English, and you could go to the English broadcast or, say the Finnish one. Of course, the actual dedication was bilingual — as most of the speakers spoke English and there was a translator there for the people in the celestial room, and the other way around. But for our English broadcast, they didn’t broadcast what came over the Finnish mike, and I imagine the same was true for the Finnish (although I don’t know). I needed to go to the English session, of course, and my wife (who is Finnish and fluent in English) came with me. But her sister also came, and her English isn’t stellar, and so it was a bit messy. My wife whispered what she needed, and all was well. But it was quite odd that they went with a monolingual presentation of an event that was already bilingual. Will everyone be angry if I say the lack of awareness of bilingual families and communities is typically American?

  23. 2006 Association for Mormon Letters Award for Essay

    Winner: John Bennion, “Like the Lilies of the Field,” in Dialogue 39:4 (Winter 2006).

    Honorable Mention: Wilfried Decoo, “The Unspeakable,” Times and Seasons, March 28, 2006.

    Honorable Mention: Patricia Karamesines, “The Birds of Summer,” A Motley Vision, September 19, 2006.

Comments are closed.