Praying in another language

January 6, 2006 | 41 comments
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“How does one pray in French?” one of my BYU students, visiting in my office, asked. The question took me by surprise. She was a junior taking my Introduction to French linguistics. I gave a somewhat confused answer and referred her to the French section of lds.org, where conference talks about prayer can easily be found. The description of the purpose and content of praying, embedded in French terms, would certainly offer ideas and content.

Later I realized that, contrary to most students in my class, she had never been on a French-speaking mission or she would have known how to pray in French. Her question was only meant to translate in French a few key words, like Father in heaven and In the name of Jesus Christ. For it was obvious that as a Mormon this student was familiar with the structure of our four-step-prayer: address yourself to Heavenly Father, thank him for what you are grateful for, ask him what you need, and end in the name of Jesus Christ. And that structure is identical for all languages.

But there are a number of pragmatic aspects to praying in another language (pragmatic in its linguistic sense). For example, how does the old and deferential Thee, Thou, Thy transfer into other languages? In French, one would expect the polite vous and votre to prevail, but tradition uses Tu, Te, Toi, Ton. However, few people know that this is actually an old deferential form, with capital, with the same value as the English Thee, Thou, Thy. It’s interesting to note that modern French Scriptures dropped the capital, thus lowering the form to the colloquial register of tu, te, toi, ton, which was never meant to be. Of course, in oral form, the difference between capital or not is not heard. In English thee, thou, thy keep their deferential value, even with a minuscule.

Thanking and asking are two functions or “speech acts” that can be realized in dozens of lexical structures. The basic structures we thank for and we ask for can no doubt be translated with exactly the same connotation in nearby languages, like most European languages. But what kind of semantic challenges do distant languages pose? To express gratitude or to pose a question may draw from an array of possibilities with differing values in terms of interpersonal relations. For example, in certain cultures an ill-mannered asking must be avoided by using values such as suggesting, proposing, implying or intimating, simply because asking borders a harsh requesting or demanding. Could such intercultural variations make a fundamental change in our ways of approaching God?

Another aspect is the influence our Anglo missionaries have on religious language in remote Mormonia. When investigators and converts hear faulty structures used in prayer by missionaries, there is a chance for contamination. I’ve heard more than once Dutch natives get to the conclusion of their prayer with deze dingen bidden wij voor, the literal transposition of these things we pray for, picked up from the missionaries, but impossible in correct Dutch. Even so, such typical Mormon idioms acquire the charm of an own liturgy.

Finally, can the end formula In the name of be translated with the same value in other languages? What is, after all, the precise semantic and theological value of In the name of? A needed intercession? A powerful order invoking the authority of Christ to get God to respond? A simple recognition of the place of Christ in our relation with God? In other languages those nuances may be significant according to how In the name of is translated – or can be translated at all.

We know, of course, that the language of the Spirit supersedes the limitations of natural languages. Still, when we pray, words are only words. And when one has to pray in a foreign language in public, one often gives more attention to processing the language than to the actual content. Therefore, when I am asked to say a prayer in a meeting in my Provo ward or at BYU, I say it in Dutch, my mother tongue (with the distinct impression that people, surprised, listen more intently, trying to figure out what I’m saying…).

We have among our readers many returned missionaries who have learned to pray in another language, and who taught how to pray across cultures. What are your experiences?

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41 Responses to Praying in another language

  1. Ronan on January 6, 2006 at 9:19 am

    Here’s an interesting example of “missionary contamination”: in England, “Amen” is always pronounced “Ah-men” not “Ay-men” as in America. However, most British LDS say “Ay-men” like Americans because that’s what they heard from missionaries (or what their convert parents heard from missionaries). Even more interestingly I have noticed a rise in the British “Ah-men” at Church, perhaps an example of English resistance to Americanisms! My parents, who for 25 years of my life said Amen like Americans, now say Amen British-style.

  2. enochville on January 6, 2006 at 9:36 am

    Ronan: It has been my experience as an American Saint that many members say “Ah-men� and many say “Ay-men�. I have lived in Georgia, Utah, Maine, Kansas, and Missouri.

    In regards to the original post, I do not have anything to add as I am not fluent in any language other than English. But, I have studied other languages enough to know what you are talking about. I had a roommate while I was at BYU who translated General Conference talks into Estonian. I’d imagine that you could find a few people in Provo who volunteer in this way or teach at the MTC that could help answer your questions at least for the languages they are familiar with. Imagine how difficult it would be to translate scripture. However, I am sure that those translators of scripture, who get to ask questions of the general authorities that work with them, come to understand the intent and importance of the English words better than most of us.

  3. Jonathan Green on January 6, 2006 at 9:44 am

    Wilfried, a minor question: what would be the correct form of deze dingen bidden wij voor? “Voor deze dingen bidden wij”? “Wij bidden voor deze dingen”? (The most unfortunate and widespread missionary loan word in German is traktieren for “tracting,” where the normally viable strategy of germanicizing English verbs by adding -ieren instead produces a word meaning “to maltreat, to abuse.”)

    To what extent can we solve the linguistic problems of prayer in a foreign language by offloading the responsibility to those who translate the Bible? I imagine that the Lord’s Prayer will help with many issues, and other scriptural passages should supply most of the other answers.

  4. Wilfried on January 6, 2006 at 9:55 am

    Yes, interesting, Ronan (2). That reminds me of the ambiguity in the pronunciation of “Jesus Christ” in French, either [KRI] or [KRIST]. Catholics, according to official tradition, are to pronounce [KRI] when using the full name Jesus Christ (but not when speaking of “le Christ”). Protestants, since the Reformation, have insisted it has to be [KRIST]. How wide the divide… I am not sure how most French Mormons pronounce it, but I suspect [KRIST], following the protestant tradition. On the other hand I understand that in Creole, adapted from French, it’s Jezikri.

    And so, yes, the pronunciation of such basic words in our prayers, like Amen, can be the affirmation of a religious or cultural or national identity.

  5. Wilfried on January 6, 2006 at 10:02 am

    Indeed, Jonathan (3), the correct Dutch would be Voor deze dingen bidden wij or Wij bidden voor deze dingen. Both are possible. Your suggestion to turn to Scriptural translation as a way to solve linguistic problems is certainly a good one. It will help in many cases. On the other hand, those translations are also a source of numerous ambiguities. For those with a Mormon background, some translations are not in line with our doctrinal understanding. And one need only refer to the heroic discussions in committees dealing with the “improved” retranslations of the Book of Mormon these past 15 years to know what kind of challenges Scriptural translation poses.

  6. cantinflas on January 6, 2006 at 10:23 am

    On my spanish speaking mission I was mildly aware that it was my responsibility to teach some people to pray, and I was at a slight disadvantage not being able to do it in my native English. I felt that it was my responsibility first to not distract listeners with awkward or incorrect Spanish, so I made a great effort to ensure that at least my prayer in Spanish became impeccable. I think any missionary who neglects this aspect, or thinks the spirit will make up the difference should learn a little more about celestial preparation.

    I’m not saying native speakers or investigators will hold it against you or not feel the spirit, I just wanted to bring up the point of minor distractions.

    I still pray in Spanish on occasion, and feel that the Spanish form of prayer is a more personal communication with God, probably because I learned [i]fervent prayer[i] in that language.

  7. Jeremy on January 6, 2006 at 10:44 am

    I don’t know if spanish-speakers hear it this way, but when I learned to pray in Spanish in the MTC using “Tu” and “te” instead of the formal “Usted/Le” (a construction parallel to the “Tu/Te” Wilfried mentions), I felt the act of praying took on a very different timbre. In fact, it was learning to pray that first revealed to me just how much the semantics of one’s thoughts are tied to the construction of one’s language. There are some scriptures that I prefer to recall in spanish rather than in english because the tone strikes me more profoundly. For example, at the end of Enos’s prayer, when the Lord says “Come unto me, ye blessed,” the spanish translation comes across to me as much more personal and familial: “Ven a me, tu, que bendito eres…”

    Again, I’m not sure if native Spanish-reading saints would get the same impression, or would dicern a distinction across the translation; it may just be the defamiliarizing effect the language has on a non-native reader.

    Also, I sometimes wonder if some phrases in translation take on a different tone because we imagine them being spoken and acted out, with beats and pauses and cadences in different places. In the Enos example I mentioned, it’s not only the switch to “tu,” which is normally used in informal language, but also the breaking up “ye blessed” with commas necessitated by the structural inequivalency between the two languages. It essentially must be changed to “you, that are blessed,” and then translated into the Spanish “tu, que bendito eres.” This changes the acoustic contours of the words, emphasizing the personal tone of “tu” by bookending it with commas and (when spoken) pauses. Perhaps this is atypical, though; I tend to be a somewhat slow reader, perhaps because I’m hearing words in my head rather than going straight from text to meaning, bypassing the vocal, as faster readers probably do.

  8. Erica Merrell on January 6, 2006 at 11:30 am

    From a non-Indo-European perspective, I learned to pray in Arabic in my BYU classes and prayed often in Arabic while studying in the Middle East (there are almost no Arabic-speaking missionaries). We learned some simple phrases in the more formal Arabic we rarely used. We stuck with the basics and didn’t try any cliched phrases. We started on this and learning a hymn in Arabic 101. I wonder if this is fairly standard in BYU foreign language classes because my husband learned prayer phrases in Russian 101. Of course, it doesn’t appear to be in the French department.

    There were some interesting issues though because Arabic and Islam are so closely tied. Fortunately there are many Christian Arabs who have worked those things out already. It will be interesting to see what words are used when the Book of Mormon is translated into Kyrgyz because there are religious words in Kyrgyz (and other Turkic languages) that have a Muslim connotation and there may not be a more neutral word.

  9. Sara Steed on January 6, 2006 at 11:55 am

    I have found that I like to pray in French when I feel like my prayers are getting lax. When I pray in French, I don’t use long, convoluted sentences or big words like smoke and mirrors. I feel I am like a little child, praying in the simplest of terms, being the most direct and honest with my Heavenly Father. And like Jeremy (#7), some French words and phrases express what I want to say much more eloquently than the English equivalent. Sometimes I wish I could speak franglais all day long, thus making my ideal language.

    This post–and Prof Decoo’s linguistics class–have really highlighted the difficulties and questions that arise in translating scripture, particularly the Book of Mormon. I feel very fortunate to have the Book of Mormon in English (and that English is my native language), and I pray that the Spirit transcends our linguistic imperfections.

    I used to wonder why the Lord confounded languages as a punishment for the Tower of Babel–what a silly thing! I have seen the light, so to speak.

  10. Andermom on January 6, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    When I was reading the Book of Mormon in French I noticed the informal toi/tu being used for in relation to Heavenly Father. I have limited experience in speaking French so my knowledge of when to use formal/familiar is limited. I thought, however, that the use of the familiar to Heavenly Father didn’t come across as impertinent, but intimate. It made me think how the formal use of English, while denoting respect and propriety, implies distance.

  11. Ronan on January 6, 2006 at 12:41 pm

    I for one am not a big fan of the LDS use of “thee”/”thou” in the context of prayer. As Andermom states, it promotes distance. More importantly — because conjugating with thee etc. is so difficult — it can make for rather tortured (and comical) grammar and syntax. This is a stumbling block for me in my prayers.

    I mean, repeat “thou blessest us” five times quickly.

  12. Drew on January 6, 2006 at 12:53 pm

    I don’t think that “thee” and “thou” have ever been polite or deferential forms in English. They’re the original form of the second-person pronoun. “You” was originally only a plural form; then it started to be used as a polite singular form, and eventually took over (almost) altogether. Maybe “thee” and “thou” sound sort of polite-ish now because they’re archaic, but that was never actually the case; rather, it was a more familiar form, sometimes even rudely so. For ex., in Twelfth Night, Sir Toby tells Sir Andrew to write an insulting letter to Viola (referred to as “him” because she’s dressed up as a man): “…taunt him with the license of Inke: if thou thou’st him some thrice, it shall not be amisse.”

  13. Jim Richins on January 6, 2006 at 1:09 pm

    Of course, Elder Oaks’ talk on the Language of Prayer (April, 1993) comes to mind. In that talk, Elder Oaks specifically acknowledges that although thee, thou, thine are regarded as more formal and denoting greater respect, they originally were used as more familiar, intimate terms.

    My second language is Japanese… as far from the Indo-European languages as any other, I suppose. Fortunately, there are fairly close translations in Japanese for all of the prayer forms we currently use in English. Japanese, in fact, as a bit of an advantage in that honorific forms that denote the relationship between speaker and hearer are already built in.

    However, there is a difference in the way Japanese saints normally end their prayers. They typically do not use a direct translation of “in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen”. In Japanese, one often says “… Iesu Kirisuto yori, O-inorimasu… Ah-men” (note, that is the British Ah-men, not the American Ay-men).

    Iesu Kirisuto is the transliteration of Jesus Christ… nothing unusual there. The word “yori” is an extremely common word with many meanings, but implies “for”, “in the place of”, or even “from” or “out of”. It is used to say, for example, “I went to the store FOR Steve, who could not make it there on his own”. “O-inorimasu” means “I will pray”, with a slight feeling of humility.

    Thus, a literal translation of the Japanese prayer ending could be:

    “in the place of Jesus Christ, I will (humbly) pray, Ah-men”.

    If there are other Japanese students out there, I’m sure they can offer more insight.

  14. Troy Taysom on January 6, 2006 at 1:41 pm

    I still pray in Spanish, 17 years after coming back from my mission. I truly believe praying in one’s mission language allows the Lord to bless us with fluency.

    I can also tell you that the words “Nuestra Padre Celestrial” roll off my lips more easily than “Heavenly Father” and “gracias por estos elementos” means more to me than “thank you for this food”. Perro que se mi va a ser.

  15. Wilfried on January 6, 2006 at 2:11 pm

    Great comments, all. Merci! Dank u!

    Just a comment in connection with the intimate or deferential value of the singular “tu” versus “vous”, and similarly in other languages. Such uses, and their value, differ greatly according to times, places, social class.

    As far as my sources tell me, in the Middle Ages, at least in French, the difference between “tu” and “vous” had no connotation of intimacy or deference. There are numerous textual examples where they are both used to address the same person in the same text, sometimes in the same sentence. One explanation is that it was simply for stylistic variation. The tendency to use “vous” for deference came about in the 17th century at the Royal Court and it became the etiquette between the nobility. But, to make an extra difference between nobility on the one hand, and God and the King on the other, poets addressed God and King with “O Toi…”. Hence the literary tradition of the capital “Tu”.

    But then an interesting phenomenon developed in the 18th century: using “tu” became the way to address “common people”, with a connotation of dejection to inferiors. At that time it became impossible to use “tu” for God and King. Sacrilegious! But the French Revolution, as could be expected in their desire for upheaval, abolished “vous” by decree in addressing only one person. All had to say “tu” to one another. Of course, Napoleon changed the rules ten years later…

    As to the Scriptures, “vous” had been the usual norm to address God in French. Only in 1964 did a ecumenical committee of Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, decide to make it a universal “tu”, indeed as a move to bring God closer to the praying individual, but not realizing the historical deferential “Tu” of the 17th century.

    The bottom-line, of course, is that everything depends on our personal spirituality and the connotations that our education and environment have given to the words.

  16. Wilfried on January 6, 2006 at 2:34 pm

    Drew (12), extra thanks for your comment and sorry it got delayed in the waiting queue. Yes, indeed, your explanation is corrrect and confirms the historical semantic shifts in the use of those pronouns (see my comment 15). Originally simply singular, next colloquial and even rude (like in French), “thee, thy, thou” took on a distant, deferential connotation today because archaic. But how difficult will it be to change a lingual tradition… When a foreigner prays in English and says: “We thank you, Father in heaven, for all you do for us…”, many listeners will sense it as improper and undeferential… If we want to change that (but do we?), it’s up to the Anglophones to start the tradition…

  17. Ana on January 6, 2006 at 3:17 pm

    I think “thee” and “thou” in prayer have begun to be community markers for LDS prayers. Very few other denominations use them these days, least of all the megachurches that are proliferating in the non-Mormon parts of the U.S. Neither way is bad, of course. Just about any way of praying is great, if you ask me. But if I hear someone pray using the word “thee,” I start to wonder if that person is LDS.

  18. Ana on January 6, 2006 at 3:21 pm

    In a different vein, I am always amazed at the French will to affect social and cultural structures by regulating language. People in the U.S. can’t stand the “word police” or being expected to use politically correct language. Do you think the Academie knows that it doesn’t really work?

  19. Wilfried on January 6, 2006 at 3:32 pm

    Excellent remarks, Ana. Actually, the great Academie francaise lost its power to regulate the language in 1984. Politicians got tired of their authoritarian (and often right wing) influence, plus the fact that many of the Academiciens were not linguists, often extreme traditionalists, and their average age put their lingual connotations back, ahum, many years. In 1984 President Mitterand and his leftist government had the power to overturn that influence… The authority for the language was given to the Conseil superieur de la langue francaise (mainly modern linguists, with input from Belgium, Switzerland, Quebec). Their main guideline: “l’usage decidera” – use will decide. An excellent point of view, for use is stronger than rules. So, nowadays in France, very little official regulation as to new developments. But of course many French are still fiercely engaged in debates about what is correct and what not. Mainly for the fun of the debate.

  20. Mark B. on January 6, 2006 at 3:50 pm

    Without turning this into a discussion of Japanese prayer language, I would suggest that it was certainly more common 30 years ago to pray “Iesu Kirisuto no mina ni yotte” (or “ni yorite”–an older form) literally “through the honored [or revered] name of Jesus Christ”. If I remember anything about Japanese (and it’s doubtful at this remove) I believe that the “ni” before the yori or yotte changes the sense.

    But, I’m like the blind man describing the elephant.

    A fascinating, and much more intelligent, discussion of the difficulty of translating into Japanese (where the cultural concepts of “God” and “spirit,” for example, are substantially different from Western and Christian concepts) is Van Gessel’s article, “Strange Characters & Expressions: Three Japanese Translations of the Book of Mormon” in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2005).

  21. Ryan on January 6, 2006 at 4:06 pm

    The greatest butchering of language by missionaries that I have ever been witness to is that of American Sign Language. Whew! The syntactical and grammatical errors are not only abundant but they are ferocious in their ability to mar the message. The biggest challenge to this problem is that unlike the Brits or the French or the Japanese, The Deaf people are typically unlikely to beget more deaf so there is a perpetual group of 1st generation members (with the occasional 2nd gen.) So there is nobody but the missionaries to teach the typical structure and culture of the church, including proper use of “church signs”

  22. Ana on January 6, 2006 at 5:51 pm

    Ah, the things I learn from blogs! Interesting that I never learned that history of the Academie in seven years of studying French (four in high school, three in college) in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Now I feel good that I’m engaging in lifelong learning, rather than guilty about wasting time on blogs on a Friday afternoon!

  23. Mel on January 6, 2006 at 6:31 pm

    I never served a mission, but I did study abroad in Paris and went out with the missionaries a couple of times. The very first time we were heading to an appointment, one of the elders asked me if I knew how to pray in French and I realized that I had very little vocabulary for that. He said that I wouldn’t have to pray, but taught me some basic words and phrases on the metro ride. We got to our appointment, had a discussion and then one of the elders said that we were ALL going to take turns offering a prayer. I was nervous, but didn’t want to be rude by declining, so I knelt in the circle with the others and when it was my turn I prayed. Since I’ve always been horrible at memorizing vocabulary lists, I was absolutely stunned that everything the elder had taught me on the way over came into my mind. It was definitely a simple prayer and it was definitely full of grammatical errors, but it was also definitely in French! And even more unbelievably, I was asked to pray in Relief Society the following Sunday, and I still remembered words I could use! There is no question in my mind that the spirit reminds us of what we’ve learned when we need it!

  24. Wilfried on January 6, 2006 at 6:44 pm

    Interesting that you mention your study of French, Ana, and lack of info as to new developments (22). Yes, I notice also, from time to time, how some lingual myths or obsolete rules are being taught in classrooms and passed on from generation to generation. We do our best to inform students…

    Another interesting item in French is that we have a “new spelling” since 1991, from the Conseil superieur. They did away with a few aberrant things and made writing easier, but, without imposing it: “L’usage decidera”. And what do we see? The more right-wing French papers have kept the old spelling jealously, while the left-wing French papers use the new spelling aggressively. Ah, zoos Vrench…

    The new French translation of the Book of Mormon uses the old spelling…

  25. Ivan Wolfe on January 6, 2006 at 6:58 pm

    In Lao, the pronunciation of Christ was a big issue.

    The problem has to do with Lao spelling and grammar. There is no “r” sound in Lao, except occasionally in borrowed words from Thai. Even then, the “r” sound usually becomes an “L” sound. Also, in Lao, words do not end with an “s” sound – at the end of a word, an “s” becomes a “t” or “d” sound.

    So some pronounce it “Krit”. Some will say “Kris.” Others say “Klit” even though in consonant clusters with “L” the “L” is usually silent. The most common pronunciation is “Kit.”

    And then the young missionaries (I was one of them) who don’t quite understand all this, lookat the spelling and say “Kliss.”

  26. Jason Vest on January 6, 2006 at 6:58 pm

    We wouldn’t have to worry about linguistic differences in the construct of prayer if everyone followed the course of two Sikhs which I met while a missionary in Montreal. Here goes the story: after teaching the first discussion, my companion and I taught the two gentleman how Mormons pray. The standard missionary flip chart was used as a visual aid showing the four steps of prayer in English. To see how well the instruction was received, I asked one of the men if he would like to pray and said he could pray in his native Punjab. His prayer went as follows:

    Dear Heavenly Father,
    I thank thee ìÂÆ ÇòÚ ê¹Çñà ò¼ñ¯º ñôÕð-¶-å¯ÇÂìÅ ç¶ Ç×ÌëåÅð C ô¼ÕÆ
    I ask thee êàéÅ ÇòÚ ÇÂÕ òêÅðÆ ç¶ ê¹¼åð êÌô»å ÜËé å¶ ÃÕȱñÆ ÇòÇç�ÅðæÆ
    In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

  27. Ivan Wolfe on January 6, 2006 at 11:10 pm

    In Lao, we had the problem that the phrases “I thank thee” and “I ask thee” (which in English sound incomplete) were translated into something more like “We thank you” and “We call out to you” – which in Lao were just fine as complete sentences. It was hard to get them to realize they could say a bit more. A Lao investigators first prayer always went (translated): “Our Father in heaven: we call out to you and we thank you. Amen.”

  28. sarebear on January 6, 2006 at 11:29 pm

    I haven’t read through the entire thread yet, but what a shame about the French scriptures removing the capitalization.

    I have a LOVE for the French language. I learned it so well in New York in Junior High, that I would dream ALL the time in it! I’ve heard if you dream in a language, that means you really know it. I absolutley LOVE the language.

    I have forgotten most of it, of course, but it is one of my great loves, in life (obviously on a lower level than God, the Gospel, my family, etc.). And I WILL learn it again.

    I hadn’t even thought about a linguistics course in it (which I assume is different than just learning to speak and write the language?). I used to be really interested in words, and the nuances of them, and a bit of etymology of them. The elegant, yet precise, use of them, in any language, was so pleasing and beautiful to me.

    This thread has reminded me of my interest and goal. I’m not sure where to start in relearning the thing, though, and once I have, where to go in further study of the language.

    Thanks!

  29. sarebear on January 6, 2006 at 11:32 pm

    I know Junior High, sounds so, well, Junior High, but when you have a MARVELOUS teacher . . . that makes all the difference (and then moving out to Utah at the end of 9th grade, and I knew so much more than the teacher, she didn’t even use “y” properly, and she had us cutting out and pasting construction paper scenes and labeling them, which I refused to do and so she gradee me badly, because she also didn’t like that I knew more than her, lol!)

    If that isn’t a run on sentence, I don’t know what is. But I learned a passion for the language, and it is the best kind of teacher that fosters and encourages this.

    Woops, sorry for the aside. Anyway, thanks.

  30. Dustin on January 6, 2006 at 11:34 pm

    Let me start by saying I only speak English. I went to South Africa (Cape Town) on my mission. It is an English speaking mission. I bought a tape from the mission office that had some basic Afrikaans terms. Among them was a simple prayer. It was really simple. It was your basic “Our Heavenly Father, we thank Thee for our many blessings. We ask Thee to bless us with thy Spirit. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

    On the a couple of occassions when Afrikaans families would ask me to say a prayer, I would use that prayer. Sometimes they I would add a few words in English, but that prayer was normally sufficient and the family would be surprised and delighted that I took the effort to learn to pray in Afrikaans.

    One of my fondest memories was about 2 – 3 months into my mission. I baptized a 17 year old young Afrikaans speaking girl. I shocked everybody (except my companion and the witnesses) when I said the baptismal prayer in Afrikaans. A member suggested about a couple hours before hand that I learn it. I was sure nervous but I was told I sounded fluent the way I spoke it. :)

  31. Bookslinger on January 7, 2006 at 8:32 pm

    I think every mission has experiences of investigators reciting the prayer outline verbatim. Reciting set prayers in other religions is very ingrained, so it can be difficult for missionaries to teach and difficult for investigators to comprehend a “free form” prayer that is merely following an outline.

    Back in the day, when most missionaries were organic tape-players reciting lessons, and at a point where they perhaps were proficient, but not fluent in the local language, I was in situations where my companions wouldn’t stop to actually converse to see if the investigators actually understood the point being taught. An elder might say the sentences from the lesson, only stopping when there was a programmed question in the lesson.

    I think it takes quite a while for a young missionary to conceptualize that even though an investigator may have understood every word spoken by the elder, that cultural conditioning can cause the investigator to not grasp the meaning, or to misunderstand the meaning. Young people often don’t understand how people learn, and that many people don’t grasp something until they understand how it fits in with other things they know.

    Young americans can usually take new data and “throw it into the bit bucket” of the brain, uncategorized and unlinked. But many people don’t accept something until they categorize it, and then link it in or fit it into the jigsaw puzzle of other information, and it doesn’t register otherwise.

    I used to be the former, but as I got older, I turned into the latter. Things just don’t register until I fit them in and link them in somewhere and somehow.

    And it’s not just foreign cultures that can throw young missionaries for a loop. Sometimes it seems that the many non-LDS American cultures we have within our own country are “big news” to many misisonaries.

    I think “cultural contamination” of pronunciation or the inclusion of “stock phrases” is usually more or less benign. But sometimes it’s not so benign, and can be a bit humorous.

    In my South American mission, some local priesthood holders, even some leaders, thought certain “stock phrases” were mandatory in confirmations. In most cases probably because the missionaries thought they were mandatory and taught them as such. Joining the church in the midwest as an adult, I was not programmed with the same stock phrases common out west.

    Another factor is that I did not learn the rules and the traditions of ordinances, prayers, and blessings by years of example, so much as I did by learning from the official church material (usually the priesthood manuals) describing them, and as presented in the elders quorum. .

    I’m sure some of the problem of false traditions passed on by missionaries was their assumption that because everyone else in their ward used the “stock phrases” that they were therefore mandatory.

    Twice in my mission, I was literally interrupted during a confirmation by a priesthood holder in attendance who thought the phrase “we lay our hands upon your head” was mandatory. In one case it was the branch president who literally shoved me aside and prevented me from finishing the ordinance, and did it himself.

    The other case was a local member of the elders quorum, and we merely referred him to his bishop.

  32. Troy Taysom on January 7, 2006 at 9:09 pm

    Bookslinger:

    It sounds like you and me was in the same mission. I had stuff like that happen to me. The first couple times I ended up in heated arguments where I had to basically “pull rank” on them by showing I’d been ordained before them and thus was correct. That was a mistake, and in the end I just let locals do all the ordinances themselves, not really caring what they said, figuring Father would see the intent and honor that rather than some rote phrases.

  33. Wilfried on January 7, 2006 at 10:21 pm

    Sorry I have been away a while. Thank you all for sharing foreign language experiences.

    Mel (23) and Dustin (30), those are sweet stories you shared with us. Indeed, the Spirit will remind us those precious words when we need them.

    Mark B (20), Ivan (25, 27) and Jason (26), thank you for that interesting linguistic input. I guess a book could be written filled with such interlingual experiences by missionaries. Would throw a lot of light on aspects of second language acquisition.

    Sarebear (28, 29) quel plaisir de vous lire! Vous avez parfaitement raison, la langue francaise a un charme et une musicalite incomparables. Il nous faudrait seulement un systeme absolument fiable pour mettre les accents ici…

    Ryan (21), Bookslinger (31) and Troy (32), thanks for broadening the topic to intercultural (mis)understandings and even clashes. No doubt those are the source of numerous anecdotes. But you rightfully draw the attention to the problem of maturity and experience in local Church leadership. When such a problem is next compounded by lingual challenges, there is a lot of room to learn to grow together…

  34. Bookslinger on January 8, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    Having correlated material handy always helps when there is misunderstanding of the details of ordinances. As far as I know, Lesson 5 in “Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood, Part B” has the official requirements for priesthood ordinances. I have the two books, Part A and Part B on my PDA (Palm Pilot equivalent).

    As a missionary, I tried (not always successfully) to remind myself that I was the _guest_ in their country, and let the locals do it their way. After all, they were going to be fellowshipping, living with and working with the converts and members. And I think it’s better to be discreet, and discuss problems in private afterwards instead of confusing the poor convert and any others who are in attendance. An ordinance can be redone in private later if need be.

    I like the idea of “teaching opportunities”, and if I’m ever called upon in the future to perform ordinances or conduct meetings where ordinances take place, I may just whip out DABOTP/B and read the appropriate section to the audience. And perhaps remind the audience and the baptismal candidate that if a foot comes out of the water, that the ordinance will need to be done again.

    I like the idea of rehearsals. When I was first asked to bless the sacrament shortly after joining the church as a young adult, no one told me that they were reading the prayers from a card. I thought they had it memorized, and so I worked for hours that weekend trying to memorize the two prayers. I only had one memorized by Sunday morning, and as we sat at the sacrament table, I told the other guy that he’d have to do the one, because I only memorized the other. Then I was finally informed you’re allowed to read the prayer instead of recite it from memory.

    I was still pretty nervous my first time. Looking back, it would have been nice to have a private rehearsal in an empty chapel with the sacrament supervisor. Administering the sacrament the first time can be a bit intimidating no matter how many times you’ve seen it done.

    Seeing how nervous 16 year olds get when they administer the first time at the sacrament table, I thought again how a private rehearsal under the direction of the sacrament supervisor or a member of the bishopric might have helped them too. Even without the deacons there, I think it helps the new priest to practice in advance the motions of uncovering and recovering the bread and water, and learning how far to hold the microphone from his mouth, so that when it comes time to do it for real, he can focus on the meaning of the ordinance, and not be overly worried about the mechanics.

  35. Floyd the Wonderdog on January 9, 2006 at 2:57 pm

    The only time I stepped in to correct a Korean was when a Korean Elder wanted to dedicate a grave by the laying on of hands. He didn’t want to believe it was just a prayer until I told him that my father was dead and that was how it was done then.

    The Korean language has special verb forms depending on the level of the speaker and the recipient. I found the language forms used when speaking with God to be particularly beautiful. Prayers are concluded through the name of Jesus Christ.

  36. sarebear on January 9, 2006 at 7:47 pm

    “Sarebear (28, 29) quel plaisir de vous lire! Vous avez parfaitement raison, la langue francaise a un charme et une musicalite incomparables. Il nous faudrait seulement un systeme absolument fiable pour mettre les accents ici…”

    Tres belle est(?) la langue francaise. Elle est la musique de ma couer(?). Merci pour votre parlement(? probably wrong) avec moi. Moi aussi, je t’aime la francais. Vous ette tres um shoot, I forget the word for KIND, to speak to me. DANG, english seems clunky after that. I am pleased I remember a bit.

    That last sentence of yours, is more fuzzy to me, but it’s something about you (me) only a good system for my learning? practice? of acccents here. Faudrait completely escapes me, but it sounds familiar. And direct translations don’t always capture the meaning. I understand the intention of absolument, anyway. I’m not trying to put English down, but for me, French can just say so many things that may not translate well but are beautiful, expressive.

    Somewhat unrelated, I’ve read that things one has learned before, are much more easily regained than new things. So that’s encouraging, anyway. I hope!

    I can understand more than I can compose, at the moment, although I suppose that’s natural. I’m 33, and I was 15-16 when I last took French.

    I’d love to find whatever method for learning or perfecting my accent that you were mentioning in that last sentence, as well as any recommendations you might have for me to pick up the language again, books, etc.

    Tres bien! Merci beaucoup. A bientot.

  37. Wilfried on January 9, 2006 at 10:45 pm

    Merci, Sarebear! The last sentence in French meant: “We would only need an absolutely trustworthy system to place accents here”, meaning French accents on letters. Our WordPress has problems with accents, even if you enter them with their ascii-value. They may appear correctly on one computer, but not on another…

    Anyway, you’re right about remembering language learned earlier in life. It is never lost, though it can be pretty deep asleep in the brain. The phenomenon is called attrition in second language acquisition research, and the studies indicate how much the elements of language learned previously remain stored in the brain, even with children who learned a language up to e.g. age three, and then shifted to another mother tongue (like in the case of foreign adoption). Even after 50 years, the original language is still stored somewhere in the brain, waiting to be reactivated… We know: whatever we learn, it will be with us in the resurrection. And since Elder Didier once said that French is the language spoken in heaven…

  38. Jim F. on January 9, 2006 at 11:18 pm

    I can still pray reasonably well in Korean. When I was a missionary, I knew the expressions to use and how to use them, but I am not sure whether the semantic values of those expressions are really the same in English that they are in Korean.

    For example, Koreans use a “high form” of language in prayer–different conjugations for the verbs (as Floyd the Wonder Dog noted), and some of the words are words only used for that particular level of social relation. In ordinary discourse between equals, the verb “to ask” is “yoguhada.” (My apologies that I don’t transliterate correctly–that I haven’t learned.) However if I am speaking to someone superior to me, I have to inflect the verb differently by inserting the honorific syllable “shi” after “yogu” and then conjugating the verb with the conjugation appropriate to our relation. In prayer, however, I do not use “yoguhada.” Instead, I use “pilda” with the honorific syllable and the appropriate conjugation. And I usually combine that word, translated “beg” with the verb “to give”: pilyojushida (beg to give).

    So, I’m not sure how to understand “pilda” in prayer, whether “beg” is a better translation or whether its use represents a formality that cannot be translated into English.

    I recognize your reasons for praying in Dutch. Were it not for the political implications of doing so, I would probably have prayed in English when we lived in France. Instead, because I was concentrating on praying “properly,” my prayers were seldom genuine.

    And I had quite a surprise a few weeks ago. I haven’t spoken German in many, many years. I went to a German elementary school for a while in the 50s, so at one point I could speak at an acceptable level. I could get by in ordinary conversation. Since then, however, I’ve done nothing but read German, and philosopical German at that. Just before Christmas I was in Salzburg for a few days and was very pleased to discover that I could still converse in German. It wasn’t good German, but it was understandable German. And I could understand a great deal more of spoken German than I expected. It made me want to stay in Austria longer so that more of my German would come back.

  39. jp in lv nv on January 10, 2006 at 12:08 am

    I hope the language spoken in heaven is French…I have recently begun re-learning French at UNLV since a 17 year hiatius from high school and BYU, and I have realized that it is still in a compartment, waiting for water and food. I have met two wonderful french profs. who have nothing but encouragement for a returning mom type student. I have started reading the Book of Mormon in French and memorizing the articles of faith in french too. merci pour votre histoire, Wilfried!

  40. sarebear on January 10, 2006 at 1:52 am

    French is like the best chocolate on the tongue, compared to a harsh and cheaply packaged generic chocolate bar. To ME, anyway! YUM. (Gotta go have me some chocolat!)

    Thanks JP, that gives me hope too! I actually TRIED a French college class, I audited it, but (and I had no clue I had anxiety disorders at the time) it took so much fear, the 2-3 times I went, it took so much out of me, that I just couldn’t. So for now, it is other methods for me, but eventually I would like to formalize my education in it. I would have pursued these other methods long before now, if it weren’t for mental illness plaguing me for so long (did not even know I was bipolar/anxiety disorder until a year ago; getting access to help w/no insurance has long been impossible).

    Anyway, I know as I continue in therapy that having interests and things to work on and improve myself, and to jump into, will be good for me. PLUS, with the ways the illnesses have kind of sapped my memory in some ways, yet I hope with medication and therapy to win some or most of normality back in that function, and have read that knowing more than your native tongue is one way of keeping your mind sharp as the years progress; it can help mitigate memory loss as one ages. At least, in some cases.

    About 20 mins after my post a few comments up, I realized, “DOH! Nous is “we”, not “you”. I misread it as vous. And then worried overmuch about it. C’est la vie. C’est MA vie. Too much anxiety over little things; much ado about nothing.

    I hope that my interest in French will be something that I follow up on; so much falls by the wayside in my daily struggles with bipolar et. al. I KNOW, though, that it is a goal I will NEVER give up on, though I may pass through periods where I am just surviving.

    Thank you for helping re-visit this subject to my attention! I guess I need to figure out if there’s anyone whom I can find to speak this with, to practice. That, I think, may make a big difference in my success.

    Give me some chocolat and good French conversation in Heaven, and I’ll BE in heaven. Oh, and some beads, too. Lol!

  41. Keith on January 10, 2006 at 2:00 am

    In my student ward of 100, we have members from 20 different countries. For 2/3 of these student members, English is a foreign language, though they all have some degree of ability. Almost all will pray in English, and though they may stumble here and there, or not be able to say things as clearly as they might like, we have found there is a greater degree of edification for all if the prayer can be understood by the everyone. Folks know what they are saying “Amen” to and there is a greater sense of it being a voice/prayer for all.

WELCOME

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