Mormons and Language Learning

I remember an experience I had in my High School German class.  There were some recruiters from the Army Language School that came and gave a presentation to the foreign language classes at my high school, trying to encourage us to learn a foreign language and show us the benefit and possible careers we could have if we continued our study of foreign language.  At one point in the presentation the officer mentioned that the Army language school is the second best language school in the country.  I couldn’t help myself, I let out a laugh.  He then looked at me and just said, “You’re Mormon, aren’t you?”

After the presentation he came and spoke with me, explaining that they had sent instructors and advisers to the MTC (Missionary Training Center) in Provo, UT but could not see why the MTC was more successful than the Army language school.  I wanted to tell him about the Holy Ghost and gifts of the spirit and the gift of tongues, but I didn’t think he wanted to hear that.

But even beyond that, missionaries learn a language better, and faster because they have a real reason to learn a language.  They feel a sense of urgency.  I studied German for 7 years before the MTC, but I learned more in two months, mostly because I knew that at the end of those two months I would be leaving for Germany, where I would live for two years, speaking with people everyday.  There was a real need to know German now, more than the mere linguistic curiosity that prompted me to learn in High School.

The Church has also been doing this for a long time, we have been sending missionaries to foreign countries almost from the very beginning.  In the early days they learned the language on the spot, but the Church has had a language training program since at least the 1920s.  And we have gotten good at teaching and learning languages.  The current missionary guidebook, Preach My Gospel is a manual for missionaries helping them know what and how to teach, and it also contains an entire chapter about learning the mission language.

My wife and I have been studying together out of Preach My Gospel as part of our daily scripture study, and so I flipped through chapter 7 – How Can I Better Learn My Mission Language.  This time, though, I am looking as an instructor of a foreign language, and I was looking for what it said about learning a language that I could use as I plan to teach German as a foreign language.  Here is what I found:

Be Dedicated and Diligent — This is the first heading and it is one of the most important.  As it states, learning a language takes time and effort.  It also says, “Do not stop improving your language skills once people begin to understand you” That is another very important point.  A learner of a language needs to be dedicated and diligent in the learning of that language.

Principles of Language Learning —

  • Take Responsibility – create and adjust your language learning goals.  Goals are important and regularly reviewing them helps to track progress and improve faster.
  • Make your study meaningful – I love the first sentence, “Ask yourself: Why am I studying this?”  You should have a reason for learning a language, remember that reason.  “Study those parts of the language that will help you say what you want to say.” Language has a purpose: communication, study language so that you can communicate.
  • Seek to communicate – As I just wrote, we learn languages so that we can communicate.  “There is no substitute for talking with native speakers” – watch TV, movies, internet programs, listen to the radio, etc.  Hear the language spoken by those who natively speak that language.
  • Learn new concepts thoroughly – Review regularly what you have already studied.  It would be terrible to learn new grammar concepts only to forget the basic ones you thought you had already learned.
Create a Language Study Plan — This is one of the most important sections, in my opinion.  Especially for missionaries, whose language learning is primarily self-directed.  But I think every student of a foreign language needs to be primarily self-directed to learn the language, and creating a language study plan keeps you on track to achieve your language learning goals.
  • Set Goals – I’ve covered this already, but goals are important.  This section mentions weekly and daily goals.
  • Select which tools to use – There are a lot of resources for learning a language: dictionaries, grammar books, podcasts, websites, other literature, your own note cards, etc.  Choose which tools work best for you, for your study style and make a plan on how you will use these tools.
  • Memorize vocabulary and phrases – When all is said and done, learning a language requires a certain amount of memorization.  Listen to others and pay attention as you read and find words that are unfamiliar. Look them up, write them down, carry them with you and try to use them correctly in conversation.  That is how you will improve your language – by using your language!
  • Learn Grammar – Grammar is important.  Like vocabulary, you can pay attention to grammatical constructs or sentence structure that is new or different to you.  If you hear or read something that is not the way you would express the same idea, look it u, study it, find out why a native speaker forms the phrase in just that way, and try to emulate it.
  • Actively listen – Listen to native speakers and emulate what you hear.  Listen for vocabulary or grammar principles that you have recently learned, see how others use them.  Listen for new words or phrases; this is often the best way to learn idioms.
  • Improve your ability to read and write – Read; read out loud; read again and again!  Reading is one of the best ways to learn a language, it exposes you to new sentence structures and vocabulary that you may not be familiar with. Also practice writing.  Write notes and letters and emails.  Use your language in any and every way that you can.
  • Ask others to help you. – Let native speakers know you are trying to learn their language, ask for their help.  Ask how to say certain things, ask how to pronounce certain words, ask them to correct your mistakes.  Take correction cheerfully, they are trying to help, not point out all of your flaws.
  • Evaluate and revise your study plan – Preach My Gospel says that you should review your plan each week.  It also mentions, “Do not be afraid of making mistakes”  We only learn a language as we use a language and receive correction when we say something wrong.  That is how we learn.
Learn with your Companion — Missionaries are always assigned a companion, they go forth two by two.  Learning together is a great benefit.  Find someone that you can learn with, teach them what you are learning, you learn a principle better as you explain it to someone else.  Talk with them and give feedback.   Accept feedback from them, they can help you notice errors that you may not be aware of.

Culture and Language Learning –“Culture and Language are closely related. Understanding the culture will help explain why language is used the way it is.”  To understand a language, you need to understand culture as well, but culture can also be used to better teach a language.  Language is used for communication, but you need something to communicate about.  As you learn culture, you have something you can discuss.  I can teach German by talking about Music (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.) or Philosophy (Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc.) or Literature (Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, etc.) or History.  You can discuss these topics in the language and develop vocabulary and practice grammar better than just memorizing phrases and using practice sentences.
Language learning is a very important skill, especially for those who travel to other countries and want to communicate.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has developed a very extensive and comprehensive language learning program with lots of great tips and methods for learning a foreign language.  Preach My Gospel, chapter 7 is an excellent resource for learning a foreign language, even for those who are doing if purely for secular reasons.

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