Will lowering the age of missionaries to 18/19 from 19/21 hurt the language preparation of missionaries serving foreign-language missions? Perhaps, although there are some possible steps one could take to counteract that. Which steps to take, or whether to take any steps at all, depends on how much language skills are affected, and on how much you think foreign language preparation matters for missionaries.
Lowering the missionary age will have little effect in and of itself. Whatever you might think of the critical period hypothesis—the idea that learning a second language becomes more difficult after a certain age—18/19 is still so far past any proposed critical period that lowering the age by one or two years won’t make any positive difference.
What will have an impact—and what’s still not known—is how much the reduced age of service affects the stage of life when people choose to serve. Many American young men have until now started their missionary service after two semesters of college, giving some of them access to college-level foreign language instruction. The quality of high school-level foreign language instruction in the United States is uneven; there are some excellent programs, but also many spotty ones. Foreign-language instruction is much more consistent at the college level. A semester or two isn’t a lot, but it’s enough to provide a solid foundation in a language’s basic structure and vocabulary, and to get a sense of how differently other languages work and what it means to learn a foreign language. Those are helpful even if the mission language ends up being different than the classroom language. If most young men start leaving before college, that preparation will be lost. How much will that matter? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it won’t matter all that much.
The most significant impact, however, affects young women. At 21, many have had time to complete much or even all of a bachelor’s degree, sometimes including significant foreign language coursework. In a mission composed largely of young men, these women can provide an important core of more mature and motivated missionaries who provide examples of high-level language proficiency and, often, foreign-language instruction for other missionaries. Reducing the number of these highly proficient missionaries might have a substantial effect.
If this is a concern, there are some possible steps to consider.
- Extending the time spent in the MTC. I mention this only to point out that it’s not a good idea, and not the direction the church is moving in any case. There’s a limit to how proficient most people can become through classroom instruction alone. The amount of instruction that missionaries get in the MTC is similar to the point where many students really need to go abroad to continue progressing in the language. While spending more time in the MTC isn’t the right solution, it might be appropriate for missionaries in the MTC to approach learning their language with a greater sense of urgency.
- Factoring foreign language preparation into mission assignments. In choosing where to send someone, the missionary department could put more weight on the prospective missionary’s foreign language preparation, perhaps by sending the most proficient speakers to the corresponding missions, or by sending abroad primarily those missionaries who have demonstrated an ability to learn a language. I do not know to what extent this is already done. Another possibility is that 18/19-year old missionaries will mostly stay in their home countries, while most missionaries assigned to foreign missions will be drawn from those who leave a year or two later, at ages closer to the previous ages of service.
But what I’d really like to see are two different options.
- Families and communities more strongly supporting, and expecting more of, the foreign-language instruction of their school-age children. Just as the announcement of the missionary age reduction was met with the realization that the church’s youth programs would have to step up their work, I’d like to see aspiring missionaries, their parents, and their schools take foreign language learning more seriously by supporting more effective classes, more qualified teachers, more diverse language offerings, and more significant exchange experiences. Missionaries who can function in the foreign language from day one are often those who have had more than the MTC as preparation.
- More sustained commitment to systematic foreign language learning by missionaries in the field. The listening and speaking skills of the returned missionaries I work with are very strong, but many never bothered to look at the intermediate review grammar they brought with them from the MTC, and almost none went beyond it. I’d like to see the idea take hold that missionaries should work their way through every page of the intermediate grammar within, say, six months, and then move on to more advanced material. Throwing a good cultural history textbook into the mix at some point would probably be a good idea as well.
Whether any of these ideas are worth pursuing depends on a lot of things, including how important you think language proficiency is to missionary service. Personally, I suspect it’s more important than we sometimes think. The approach to teaching in Preach My Gospel relies much more than the older discussions on adapting and personalizing the material to be taught, which requires very high level language skills. Proselytizing methods are shifting as well. Convincing church members to open their social networks requires an extraordinary degree of confidence in the missionaries, and people form judgments about other people, including foreign missionaries, based on their command of the language. Missionaries whose grammar or accent or vocabulary or usage or cultural skills are off-key will have a harder time gaining that trust. Given the changes that the missionary program is undergoing, I assume there’s someone in the missionary department right now who’s anxiously looking for ways to raise missionaries’ language proficiency at the same time their ages are dropping.