Missions and language learning

How well does the average missionary who goes to a foreign country learn his or her mission language? Quite well, as it turns out. In the last few years, I’ve had almost a hundred returned missionaries in my advanced language and literature classes. Based on both typical class work and informal proficiency testing, I’ve gotten a good sense of what I can expect from them. In my experience, returned missionaries fresh off the airplane are, on average, about one full level ahead of the students I’ve worked with at other colleges and universities who are completing undergraduate language degrees (B2 vs. B1; I speak CEFR, so those of you who think in terms of ACTFL will have to do the translation yourself). The average returned missionary’s knowledge of the language is similar to that of an exceptional undergraduate finishing a bachelor’s degree and with significant time abroad, while the exceptional returned missionaries are at a level (I’d put it near C1, for those of you keeping score) that the exceptional undergraduates can’t touch.

The skills are unevenly distributed, however. Speaking and listening tend to be exceptionally strong, reading a little less so, followed by writing. There are in many cases some holes in explicit grammatical knowledge. Even so, the returned missionaries’ writing often has an excellent grasp of how the language flows and how sentences should be connected, and a more diverse vocabulary than found in most undergraduate essays.

This isn’t too surprising, actually. If you strip away all that proselytizing and character-building, a foreign mission is a 16- or 22-month immersion experience coupled with strong motivation to learn the target language. (And for less than $10,000, it’s a fantastic bargain. If you shopped around carefully, you might find a 12-week study abroad program for the same price.) Missionaries also come into regular contact with a much broader spectrum of the foreign culture than most students studying abroad. With that amount of time, that degree of motivation, and that much interaction with native speakers, Mormon missionaries have an opportunity unavailable to most American college students.

Occasionally, people who are about to leave on missions will ask me for suggestions for learning the language. For missionaries who plan to be ready for advanced language courses on their return (rather than what are for them remedial courses, as is sometimes the case), I have some standard recommendations, mostly reiterating and sometimes extending what is found in the seventh chapter of Preach My Gospel (whose formulation of general principles is, overall, excellent).

  1. Speaking: Verbal fluency is the hardest skill to acquire, and the easiest to lose. All those people telling you to speak your language in the MTC aren’t just being uptight. You really do have to speak your language as much as possible, including with American companions. You don’t have to be that guy, the one who won’t speak a word of English to other Americans, but speaking the mission language whenever you’re out of your apartment is a good rule of thumb. If you have a native-speaker companion, go native at home as well. Forcing yourself to say things in a foreign language is the only way you’re going to learn to speak fluently. Preach My Gospel speaks the truth when it comes to speaking. Also, fondness rather than resentment towards the people you’re living among helps, so try to minimize the phase where you hate the people and the country they live in.
  2. Reading: Here, on the other hand, Preach My Gospel doesn’t go far enough. Reading the scriptures and church literature in your language is fine, but it won’t provide enough exposure to different types of written language or varieties of subject matter. Look for opportunities to read as many types of things as possible, including pragmatic texts on specialized topics (like the history of the local railroad tucked into the back of the train schedule, for example). Otherwise your vocabulary will remain too limited to talk about anything except church functions, and with anyone other than church members. The literary language inherited from Romanticism in the national literature I teach was based on religious language to begin with, so church talk can actually be quite helpful as preparation for reading literature, but it doesn’t work nearly as well for talking about the widgets sold by someone’s company or used in their favorite hobby.
  3. Grammar: There’s a good chance that your missionary-specific language textbook won’t be all that useful once you leave the MTC. There’s also a good chance you’ll bring an intermediate review grammar with you to your mission. You need to work your way through every exercise in the entire book—within six months or less, not by the end of your mission. Once you finish the intermediate review grammar, you need to find something more advanced to work on. In my advanced grammar course, returned missionaries often start the semester answering grammar exercises on sight, with no preparation before class. Inevitably, we reach a point where they can no longer do that, but they often don’t realize when that point has come.
  4. Pronunciation: People make snap judgments about others based on their pronunciation. Perfect grammar combined with heavily American pronunciation will lead people to classify you not just as foreign, but also as unintelligent and not worth taking seriously. It’s unfair, but it’s how the world works. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get informed guidance on pronunciation errors and how to fix them. Most native speakers can only tell you that you sound funny, but not how or what to change. There is probably a specialized book on pronunciation that would help you, if you can locate it and if you have the linguistics background to make sense of it. What Preach My Gospel suggests, and what has worked well for some missionaries, is listening intently to native speakers and consciously comparing their pronunciation to that of other missionaries, and trying to imitate the native speaker. This comparative listening may help you make progress significantly faster than you would otherwise.  But you’re still interpreting foreign sounds with American ears, and approximating foreign sounds with your American tongue and lips and teeth. Some approximations will eventually lead to native pronunciation, but others are dead ends that will never get you more than halfway there. You need to talk to someone with enough background in phonetics to tell you what to do, which might not come until after your mission. Come talk to me once you get back. I’ll probably have some suggestions. With those, and a couple years of practice, you should be able to fix the most significant issues.

Despite their extensive experience, most returned missionaries still have gaps in their language skills and cultural knowledge.  I don’t have any good advice about writing skills, for example, because there’s not really any good solution. Few missionaries get enough opportunities to write in their mission language. Take every opportunity you get, but it won’t be enough. For some language skills, as well as many things relating to the history and culture of the country where you just spent a long time, and the daily lives of the people who live there, you really will have to take some classes once your mission is done. Missions are excellent preparation, but turning a mission language into a professionally useful language will take a bit more work.

20 comments for “Missions and language learning

  1. On my mission, all books and magazines outside the missionary library were banned, so I had to go out of my way to find other things to read. One thing I did was get a hold of a more modern translation of the Bible, and read from that to get some more variety in what I was reading. However, reading the regular, more archaic, translation of the Bible that the Church uses still helped me learn different conjugations, and understand how the grammar works, even if I wouldn’t use much of it in conversation.

  2. All through my mission I had a hard time rolling my R’s. It took a language instructor in my MA program going back to the basics and treating me as if I had a speech impediment (which, duh, I did) to get it sorted out. The fix was simple, since there wasn’t anything physiologically wrong with my mouth or any of the other wetware. I bet missions could get a lot of mileage out of some very rudimentary knowledge of speech pathology. Like, in my case, the exercises that were the solution to my problem were easily condensed onto a single sheet of paper, double-sided. And the problems English-speaking missionaries have are presumably quite similar in each target language. The MTC could even hire a few speech pathologists, since #4 is right on the money. Sure, the “elect” just need you to bear your halting testimony and smile ardently, but normal people who think you must be a little slow (or just can’t understand what you’re trying to say) if you can’t pronounce words properly are God’s children too.

  3. I went on a Spanish speaking mission. I grew up hearing and listening to Spanish speakers but I hard a hard time in the MTC learning the language. Unfortunately my companions were jerks about it (I was the third wheel, a trio companionship). There were other Sister missionaries who worked with me when they could, plus back then I was also trained as a Welfare missionary so I had less time for language compared to others. I was treated like I was dumb. My mission was an awful experience for many reasons. We were not allowed any extra things to help us with the language in the field. The investigators and members helped me out significantly. Many years later I found out I have adult ADD and am slightly dyslexic. I took Spanish in college and became a very good speaker. But I was forced to move to a state where Spanish isn’t spoken and have lost most of it. I am trying to save to by Rosetta Stone to re-learn Spanish and learn other languages for genealogy purposes. I could say many things about the attitudes in the MTC but that is for another time.

  4. My bro in law served in Hong Kong around 1983-85 and to this day still speaks and writes the Chinese language (forget which one) I bet though he learned more since he got home. I have always been impressed by that

  5. I learned a language via on the job missionary work. I didn’t worry about grammar or rules or verb conjugations until well after I was speaking and understanding the language. Then I bought a book and began to study the language and it all made sense. I learned the language the same way children learn their own language, in other words, the best way ever invented. Sadly, the language I learned had no value once I left that country and came home,, but it did help me learn at least one language that was closely related.

  6. Your suggestions about reading make sense in the context of a language written with the Roman alphabet (and, I would suspect, other languages written with phonetic scripts). But in Japanese, where there are 2,146 “Joyo Kanji”–characters in common use–it’s impossible for a missionary to learn enough to be able to read non-religious texts. In our mission we were specifically counseled not to spend too much time attempting to learn Kanji, since it would have detracted from time spent either studying the gospel or developing fluency in the spoken language.

    Of course, some level of knowledge of Kanji was required–to read names and addresses, and to explain to people peculiar Mormon terms. Japanese is full of homophones, and unfamiliar words are most readily explained by describing the characters used to write them. For example, we would explain “shinken,” the word used for “priesthood,” for example, as being made up of the “shin” meaning “God” and “ken” from “kenno,” a word meaning “authority.”

    Beyond that, it’s just not worth it. Besides, how long can you remember the difference between ? and ?.

  7. Interesting thoughts, Jonathan. I’ll add the following remarks:

    – A foreign mission is indeed a unique opportunity to learn a language, but in order to profit to the maximum, missionaries should also master a number of personalized strategies and have a framework to work in in order to have all related facets interact.

    – Much depends on the attention Mission presidents give to language improvement. I’ve worked with a dozen MP’s and only one took it to heart.

    – Advanced language skills and big-C Culture go hand in hand. As long as missionaries and MP’s limit the “cultural” experiences to (very) small c-culture (food & tourist folklore), they miss out on most important aspects of their stay. Missionaries’ and MP-blogs quickly reveal the “cultural” level attained…

    – Determining a language level with valid precision is one of the hardest things to do because of too many variables. Some approximation, yes (see my book on Systemization and references there). We have an international conference on CEFR and testing next May.

  8. Owen, the comparison between teaching pronunciation and speech pathology seems quite correct to me. When I had a child bringing home worksheets of words to repeat, I was struck by the similarity to what I do when I teach pronunciation. In my experience, the pronunciation problems English speakers have learning a particular foreign language are quite similar, just as you say, so some targeted work might go a long way. But pronunciation is rarely given the attention it deserves in language teaching of any kind.

    Wilfried, which aspects of Culture do you mean? I’d disagree with the idea that one does not truly know English, for example, if one has not read Shakespeare or Milton. Where I do see some deficiencies are in missionaries’ knowledge of a country’s history, including recent history, how its society is put together, and in their understanding of typical life and career arcs in the local culture: which schools and what educational choices lead to particular outcomes, and so on. I’m not sure if any of that would fit within your definition of Big-C culture. (It does end up being quite important when students read literary works, on the other hand, because they miss a lot of the significance without it.)

    Which variables do you think I’m overlooking in determining the language level of the students I see?

  9. On pronunciation, I’ve seen a kludge that will get missionaries by, which is to tell them to speak like they are making fun of native accents. But this isn’t really for the advanced level you’re talking about, this is for American missionaries who sound hopelessly American when they speak.

  10. Which aspects of Culture? No, indeed, not old literature. But Culture tied to the essence of language, like the origin of frequent idiomatic expressions (in Dutch many are tied to agriculture, crafts, art — once you see the connections, other idioms and words become clearer); then, as you mentioned, history, especially in the connections to many visual clues in buildings and statues missionaries see daily (missionaries also develop a better feel for the people if they are aware of these clues); next some knowledge of the artistic, architectural, academic, economic… achievements of the country in order to develop more respect and minimize U.S.-arrogance (if they are American); then, of course, what you mention: the social & political structure, education, and especially religion. The “negative” outcome may be that a missionary might ask himself: what am I doing here? How did I come to believe I have something better to offer? That can be a moment of deep assessment and from that point on a missionary can start making real friends with investigators and “add” to the good they already have. Sure, simplistic, but I have seen it work, but not frequently.

    “Which variables do you think I’m overlooking in determining the language level of the students I see?” Darn, I should not have triggered that question. Too complex to start here, but, if you don’t know them, I would refer to Jan Hulstijn’s studies on defining proficiency. CEFR also describes extra competences beyond the basic ones.

    One more item you mentioned for which nuance could be helpful: “heavily American pronunciation will lead people to classify you not just as foreign, but also as unintelligent and not worth taking seriously” I am not sure that is mostly the case. Usually people will appreciate it that an American is trying to speak their language, and then they will often also adapt theirs (slower speech, better articulation) to help in communication. Foreign pronunciation can be a cultural marker to get proper help too!

  11. About a year or so ago, I started writing my journal in Japanese as a way to practice writing. It also, incidentally, helped my reading immensely because I started to pay more attention to small differences in how similar characters are written when writing them, that I used to miss when just reading. This is probably more of an issue for character-based languages than phonetic languages as #6 Mark B. mentioned above. The only problem with practicing a language by writing in a journal (as opposed to speaking) is that there is virtually no opportunity to receive feedback. One Japanese professor at BYU (Masakazu Watabe) expressed mixed feelings about the effectiveness of the the “Speak Your Language” program at the MTC, because, in his words, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent.” If the only people we practice our language with are equally ignorant Americans, he finds we reinforce common American mistakes in grammar and pronunciation until they’re almost impossible to correct.

  12. I listened and talked with children, and kept looking for books on colloquialisms and reading both Church materials and any of the free newspapers that postmen dropped in our mailbox. It was also implied that we had forgiveness for seeking out natural language sources, like Asterix comics or Michael Ende’s books, “for language study.” (Wasn’t true, but youth blinds one, n’est ce pas?)

    I also had the advantage of three years of mediocre high school language instruction and an upbringing by a man who loved languages so generally and so completely that he constantly studied them.

    In my experience since the mission, I found that if you’re discovered trying to speak the language at all, and speaking it badly anyway, most people will be flattered, recognizing the time you took to try and identify with them. If you speak it at all well they stand in wonder at you and try to accommodate. Maybe that’s not true in France, where my boss was mocked openly for his American/Quebecois accent, but it has been true everywhere else I’ve been.

  13. Wilfried, I think we’re on agreement regarding culture, then. Regarding the proficiency of returned missionaries, I’m fairly conversant with the CEFR guidelines and the extra competencies you mention. You’ve also worked with returned missionaries; do you think my estimation is off? In what areas do you see the returned missionaries you’ve known as falling short from, say, the B2 level?

    MLewis82, I guess I regard practicing with other beginners as preferable to the alternative, which is not practicing at all. I don’t think practicing leads to permanency, because all beginners make frequent mistakes; it’s what makes them beginners. I could imagine the beginning of speaking one’s language in the MTC handled somewhat differently, though, as a series of steps rather than a one-time event that comes too early for most people to say much.

  14. Rob and Wilfried, I agree that most people are admiring and supportive of foreigners who make the effort to learn and speak the local language. But there’s sometimes a short slope from accommodation to condescension to derision. For Europeans, the stereotypical American is friendly, loud, naive, and stupid. American missionaries are going to have two strikes against them to start off with, so doing everything they can not to confirm that stereotype can help. Not actually being loud and stupid is probably more important, but avoiding typical Americanisms in speaking can also help. I’ve seen educated, globally aware, and Mormon-friendly Europeans decide that an American missionary didn’t know the language well, even though he could correctly use past subjunctive modal verbs in a dependent clause using a double infinitive construction, because his front rounded vowels were off and he used an American retroflex r.

  15. Oh, I agree that practicing is better than not practicing at all, and so does Professor Watabe. That’s why I wrote that he had “mixed feelings.” It’s the nature of a good teacher. You teach using the methods that work, recognizing their weaknesses, while always looking for something that works better.

  16. An article I read in Scientific American reported that the human brain recognizes well only those speech sounds that it hears in the first couple of years of life. Being able to HEAR those sounds is essential to pronouncing them, so this can be a significant and long term disability for someone who is trying to learn a language that is very different from the ones he or she heard in his environment as an infant.

    One of the most obvious examples of this is efforts by Japanese to learn to speak English. There are several English sounds that are simply not part of Japanese speech, including F, V, TH, and the “a” in Act and the “e” in “the” (“thu”). The combinations “See” and “Dee” are also not part of Japanese; they usually sound more like “She” and “Jee”. Additionally, other than N, every consonant in Japanese is followed by a vowell. It is hard for Japanese to pronounce two consonants together without unconsciously inserting a vowel between them.

    For Americans learning Japanese, there are some Japanese sounds that are absent from English, but the harder part is learning to LIMIT one’s pronunciation, so you only use 5 vowels, and no “a” or “uh”.

    Nevertheless, I remember several times hearing first or second hand of statements by Protestant missionaries who were amazed at the typical proficiency of many Mormon missionaries. Some Protestant missionary organizations refused to let their people actively proselyte for the first two or three years in Japan because their language proficiency was assumed to be deficient. I hears a Lutheran pastor speak on the radio, and was not impressed.

    I had the benefit of letters in Japanese to and from my mother (a native speaker). Surely in any country where there is a cadre of solid members, they could call several of them, especially those with their own English language skills, to evaluate the language skills of missionaries periodically and provide feedback and encouragement. Once you have a basic proficiency, you can learn a lot on your own, so long as you have guidance on selecting study aids like flashcards and grammar and vocabulary books.

  17. As an adult convert?I am constantly amazed at the language level some missionaries attain. The only thing I have noticed is that (of course) they are stronger with “church” language – the translation on Fast and Testimony Sunday (when you have no idea of what is going to be said) is always …. interesting! Overall, they do better the other weeks, and I do better the first Sunday because my language training was secular.

  18. “In what areas do you see the returned missionaries you’ve known as falling short from, say, the B2 level?”

    Great question, but impossible to answer, Jonathan, because CEFR levels are unidentifiable without quantitative norms we agree on. E.g. lexicon. In the U.K. B2 requires 2,000 lexical items for French L2 (GCSE norms); in France 6,800 items for French L2 (Beacco norms); in Spain 14,000 items for Spanish L2 (Instituto Cervantes). Every country or author has different norms in the implementation of Reference Level Descriptions (RLD). For C2 sources go from 3,300 lexical items to 30,000. Indeed, most CEFR descriptors can be realized with very different levels of content. Then there is the problem of receptive versus productive mastery – Profile Deutsch is the only RLD that makes that difference, so its figures add another dimension of incompatibility. Just as problematic is the assessment of quantity versus quality. Lots of literature on these major problems.

    I do not want to sound derisive, and I agree we can assign a kind of approximate level to language proficiency, from the most primitive A.1.1. to “almost native” C2, and then spread levels in between. But an objective measurement that compares learners between countries and pinpoint differences (which is the main aim of the CEFR) is not yet possible. Internationally coordinated RLD’s were supposed to do it, but everyone can make one on his/her own.

  19. Ah, I think I understand now. Your objection is primarily to the CEFR framework itself, which you don’t think has lived up to its promise to make proficiencies between languages comparable. In my particular case that’s not as acute a problem, since I’m using one RLD to compare returned missionaries to college students learning the same language. But maybe even there you see pitfalls that I’m not seeing.

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