Missions and language training

November 22, 2012 | 48 comments
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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.

48 Responses to Missions and language training

  1. Ross H on November 22, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    Based on my experience in the MTC, it doesn’t really matter if you have a lot of previous practice with the language or not. If you know the language well but not native speaker, you may enter the field a week or two early. If not, you will be there the normal amount of time.

  2. Cameron on November 22, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    Well said. Completely agree that more MTC time won’t help anything, as someone who learned 2 languages while staying the maximum 11 weeks in the Provo MTC.

    I would say that no program can replace personal dedication, no matter how inspired. It is just incredibly hard to learn a foreign language without complete immersion.

    There was a missionary in the same french wing of the building. He had prior experience (as did I) with french, but he carried the dictionary with him EVERYWHERE. He read the entire thing in the MTC I think. Granted, colloquial phrases and actual conversation must be learned on site but I’m sure his vocabulary advantage served him well.

    I would say that call letters could include specific pre-MTC study guidelines, and this could maybe be coordinated with priesthood leaders and parents, but beyond that I don’t see institutional changes improving things much (which is to say that right now they’re not perfect, but pretty good! This is a compliment!)

  3. whizzbang on November 23, 2012 at 1:19 am

    Certaintly food for thought. I had heard from the local Mission President that most of the 18 yr olds are coming from North America and are staying in North America-now, he could be wrong as whoever told him was misinformed but I have no idea. For what it’s worth the first 18 yr old missionary comes to this mission in January and his 19th birthday is in July.

  4. Niklas on November 23, 2012 at 2:20 am

    So people in the USA won’t start study languages until in college (if even there)? I was 9 when I started my first (of three) foreign language in the school. It was no surprise that I got my call to that country. When it comes to language prep, the lowering of age limit won’t change much in many countries.

  5. Julia Taylor on November 23, 2012 at 4:46 am

    This years 9th graders, in Oregon, will have to have two years of foreign language credit to graduate from high school. Many school districts now have at least one grade school bilingual program as well. That combination means that if parents and students want to pass second language proficiency tests, by the end of high school, it is very doable. Even the two year minimum standardized tests give more than two college terms of a foreign language.

    I don’t know what the graduation requirements in Utah and Idaho are, but my understanding is that California will require 2 years of foreign language for this years fifth graders, (some districts have had this requirement for quite a while) and Washington will require this year’s 7th graders. Commenters from those states may be able to give more details. In Oregon the state education system has been ramping this up for quote some time, and schools needed 70+% of their students to finish the two year requirement to have exceeded expectations for foreign language.

    While there are certainly things that parents and church leaders can do to support students in bilingual education programs, I think the biggest favor we can do are kids is making it the norm to be bilingual, instead of encouraging only primary language instruction (for the US that would be English).

  6. Amira on November 23, 2012 at 9:53 am

    I’m not convinced that there have been many women who studied a language in college for several years before going on a mission at 21. I find that the majority of Mormons who speak a foreign language do so because of a mission. I actually did study a foreign language at BYU before I was 21 and had a minor in it, but since it was Arabic, it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d gone on a mission. Speaking colloquial Palestinian Arabic with relative ease is hardly useful to the missionary department.

    I like your two practical suggestions. Missionaries really do need more encouragement to get past the basic speaking skills they can pick up fairly quickly. I think it’s as important to have time each day for serious language study as it is for serious scripture study.

    I think it would be interesting to see foreign exchange programs become more popular for LDS high school students with the major intent of working on a new language. Even summer language programs that were geared toward high schoolers would be worth encouraging. But the general assumption seems to be that Mormon kids will learn a language on their mission and they don’t really need to worry about it too much till then.

    One other thing- there’s also the point that I alluded to above that a lot of the languages that are getting pushed right now in college aren’t languages that missionaries can use right now. I wouldn’t want to see LDS students not study Arabic and Farsi and Uzbek just because they weren’t mission languages. I don’t think you’re suggesting that at all though.

  7. queuno on November 23, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    I have a language degree from BYU, and it was only in the rarest of cases that anyone took a language before missionary service, except the sisters. Most top universities require a couple of years of a foreign language in high school. They may never speak it on their missions but the experience is nice to have.

  8. Jonathan Green on November 23, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Cameron, your last point is important – I wouldn’t say things are being done badly, in fact just the opposite. And it’s true that immersion is essential, but I’d also point out that it’s not sufficient. Most people need some preparation for immersion to be effective, and there are a few things that most people won’t learn despite immersion.

    Julia, those kinds of state programs are great – but only the first step. Figuring out what how much learning you can expect is still not an easy question, and many programs err on the side of low expectations (“let’s decorate the classroom with pinatas”). It’s extremely rare, for example, to see students with two years of high school foreign language who are actually prepared for a third-semester language course. After four years, it’s probably less than half. The high school courses aren’t taken seriously enough, let alone the lower-grade classes.

    Amira, I don’t have any numbers on pre-mission language experience, so I’m relying on personal observations for that part. I don’t think experience in a different language is wasted. I suspect, to the contrary, that it aids in the learning of the mission language (or, as you suggest, Arabic, Uzebek, Farsi, etc.). But I agree with your sense that the general assumption about languages should change. We don’t wait until the leave on a mission for missionaries to develop a testimony of the gospel, so why should we assume it’s OK to wait for the MTC before worrying about foreign language learning?

    Queuno, I don’t think it’s that rare. I see quite a few students in my beginning classes who haven’t served missions yet, although perhaps somewhat fewer men than women. Previously, women were more likely to have time for more than a course or two. What happens now, of course, is anyone’s guess.

  9. Chadwick on November 23, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    As someone who served Cantonese-speaking in Hong Kong, how could I possibly have prepared for that ahead of time? Doubtful that such a niche language would be offered by any high school. Also doubtful out of all the missions in the world I could have ever anticipated this.

    And I personally believe learning Mandarin ahead of time would have confused me rather than help me. It was just something I had to wait and learn. The end.

    So gain a testimony and learn the gospel before I serve? Sure. But trying to anticipate my mission language ahead of time and learn it? Not sure that is practical.

  10. Tim on November 23, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Lots of schools offer immersion programs. I’ve had friends who’ve enrolled their children in Spanish immersion and Cantonese immersion programs in elementary school, when kids have a much easier time picking up languages. If they continue learning the language through high school, and speak that language on their mission, it will be a huge benefit.

    LDS parents should be pushing their local schools to adopt immersion programs. There are a ton of kids in the Mormon Corridor and elsewhere who speak Spanish as a first language–why don’t more schools have a Spanish immersion program? Offer English-speaking kids the opportunity to take ordinary classes in Spanish as well as Spanish-language classes. Elementary-school-age kids pick up languages relatively quickly.

    I experienced total language immersion as a young elementary school student living abroad. I spoke the language pretty fluently after two years of that, but then pretty much stopped speaking it entirely after I moved back to the States. I had to relearn it for my mission–and pretty much all I remembered was how to make the sounds (which made my accent better than other missionaries, but not my grammar or vocabulary). Wish I would’ve kept up on the language skills.

  11. Tim on November 23, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    Also, I think language is taken into consideration when receiving a mission call. The better you speak a specific second language, the more likely you’ll get sent to a country where you’ll speak it. With the drastic drop in European missions over the last 12 years or so, those who learned German or French on their missions may not get sent to Germany or France, but Spanish-speakers are likely (but obviously not guaranteed) to get sent to a Spanish-speaking mission. So language preparation beforehand is certainly useful.

  12. jennifer reuben on November 23, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    must support the thought that anticipating your mission language ahead is not practical. in our family eldest son was an American living in Germany when his call to Japan came and daughter had a minor in Japanese when she was called to a Spanish speaking mission. both notes their language abilities clearly on their mission application. The statement gain a testimony and learn the gospel before serving is so important. While we lived in Germany the nmissionaries taught and baptized a brother from Mainland China. Now that was a language suprise for them I am sure. the lord did provide a return missionary Mandarin speaking servicemen to help them teach this wonderful brother and guide him through his first year of membership in our English speaking branch. ideally missionaries teach in their native language keeping the focus on bring souls to Christ but if necessary the lord provides a way.

  13. Jonathan Green on November 23, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    No, anticipating the mission language is not practical. But learning some language – any language – to a significant level will be useful so that missionaries understand what the process of learning a language entails. The difference in approach between learning as much as you need to get an A in a high school class, and learning because you’ll be in the country in a couple months, is pretty drastic. But there’s no reason a sense of urgency has to wait for the MTC.

    There’s also the time between receiving a mission call and entering the MTC. I’ve never sensed any expectation that this period should be used for seriously studying the mission language and culture. That could change pretty easily if the idea took hold that learning a language is challenging and should be undertaken right away, especially if people were given some guidance on when and how to begin.

  14. MC on November 23, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    The Spanish grammar book we received for use in the field (Spanish for Missionaries) was absolute gobbedygook. I say this as someone who received a minor in Spanish with straight A’s and still speaks fleuntly. I suspect that the terrible textbook was one reason missionaries didn’t study as much in the field as they should have. I hope and suspect that they’ve updated the materials, but I’m not sure.

  15. MC on November 23, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    Oh, and they need to make any elder or sister who refuses to “Speak Your Language” at the MTC a pariah. Such an important rule, and so widely disregarded.

  16. Mark B. on November 23, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    Anticipating mission language worked for me. After four years of high school and college German, a year of college Japanese worked in landing a call to a Japanese mission. But I know other cases that didn’t work at all–the German teacher’s son whose five years of study and a household immersion program led to the Philippines, for example.

    As to the older sisters and language–at least in Japan in the early 70s, the greater maturity/pre-mission study did not seem to have a positive effect on the sisters’ ability to learn Japanese. I rarely heard sister missionaries who had the same proficiency as elders. I’ll admit to a small sample size. And the difficulty of Japanese meant that significant progress continued to be made during the 19th through the 24th month–when the sisters had already returned home.

    I agree about immersion–if we want to foster serious language learning among our children/grandchildren, they’d better start young.

  17. Mark on November 23, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    I recently returned from a mission to Brazil, and I had taken two semesters of French at BYU, plus some immersion experience before the mission. I saw in the MTC that having learned French before put me miles ahead of everyone else in learning Portuguese. Just the fact that I knew how grammar should work was very helpful. I don’t know if the French would have been useful had I not been learning a Latin language, but it probably would have helped a little (I wouldn’t have been trying to translate things word-for-word from English to some other language). Anyway, I think any language experience is better than nothing, even if one isn’t going to be speaking that same language. I was able to understand the natives and teach (with plenty of errors) within 2-3 weeks of getting to the field, whereas most missionaries spend a couple months totally ineffective.

  18. Bruce Crow on November 23, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Anticipating a mission language sort of worked for me. I studied Mandarin and was sent to Hong Kong, Cantonese speaking. But I finished my BA before going on my mission, and a lower minimum age would not have changed that.

  19. Tim on November 23, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    My siblings were 3 out of 4 for anticipating languages based on what we took in High School (German, Spanish, Spanish, and then the 4th got sent English speaking). Not that high school language courses are much help, but…

  20. Kent Larsen on November 24, 2012 at 8:45 am

    I think MC (14) is right. Ideally the grammar book used by missionaries should be something they can use to continue learning in the field. And I don’t think textbooks designed for classroom learning cut it. The texts that missionaries take into the field should be oriented to helping missionaries understand the details of what they hear people say.

    It would also help if missions emphasized language learning more for those in the field. While my experience is 30 years old at this point, I didn’t see much effort by missionaries in the field to improve their language skills.

  21. Jonathan Green on November 24, 2012 at 9:38 am

    Kent, it depends on the textbook. I agree that most beginning-level textbooks wouldn’t work well, but an intermediate review grammar looks pretty much the same however you’re using it. The larger problem is that intermediate review grammars aren’t enough. Really you need about three different books after that: an advanced grammar, a cultural history reader, and a linguistic overview. Once you’re able to figure out what words you’re hearing, you still need more cultural and linguistic knowledge to put the words in context.

  22. Amira on November 24, 2012 at 10:14 am

    Mission homes/offices should have a large library of language-oriented books on a variety of levels for missionaries to use. It makes such a huge difference in your personal study of a language if you have decent resources and there is no reason why a mission cannot provide that.

  23. jennifer reuben on November 24, 2012 at 11:48 am

    best use of time between call and MTC for language training -get the Rosetta stone language series and find a recently returned missionary in your language and spend serious time with both.

  24. Jonathan Green on November 24, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Amira, that’s a fantastic idea. A mission library in every mission office.

    Jennifer, I don’t think the Rosetta Stone approach is the right one for most people. It works for some people, but for the specific case of preparing people who are about to have a lengthy immersion experience, I’m not sure their approach is the best one. Definitely better than nothing, and certainly something that works for some people, but there are probably better options out there for most people.

    I’d probably approach the problem like this. If you have 1-3 months left before you spend 4-8 weeks of intensive language training, followed by 16-22 months of immersion, there are some things that are much easier now, pre-MTC, than later, either in the MTC or in the target country, while other things will be much easier in the MTC or afterwards. Doing anything at all is definitely better than doing nothing, but you’d want to focus as much as possible on things that are easy to do before the MTC. So “Hungarian for Missionaries” can probably wait, but one might want to prioritize finding a good book in English on the history and culture of Hungary, as it might be hard to find later, while starting to study the basic concepts of Hungarian however works best.

  25. Cary Crawford on November 24, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    First, let me point out that Utah has one of the best dual immersion programs in the U.S. (thanks largely to Gregg Roberts who works with the governor and with the Utah State Office of Education). There are dual immersion programs in Spanish, French, and Chinese all over the state. The children begin in first grade: half the day in English, half the day in a foreign language. Within a short time the children are fluent (in French, at least) and the plan is for the program to be expanded into Jr. High and High schools around the state so their vocabulary and fluency continues to grow.

    Second, I completely agree that calls should include an expectation to work on the language before going to the MTC. BYU has purchased a license to a very good online language learning program called Tell Me More and a good deal of material is available free through a portal on this page: http://hlrc.byu.edu (this was set up by Mel Smith in BYU’s Humanities Learning Resources center).

    Finally, I would concur that more time in the MTC will not do much to improve language skills. Having visited MTC language courses recently I was shocked to see that their language methodology dates from the 1950s: repetition and memorization. It’s very unfortunate.

    Speaking with people who work at the Provo MTC who deal with language instruction, I am further convinced that they are going in the wrong direction… alas. They insist on using materials that focus nearly exclusively on gospel related vocabulary. In my opinion, this is a huge mistake. Obviously missionaries will learn this vocabulary, even without materials that focus on it. In order to fully implement Preach My Gospel, missionaries need to tailor the message and need to be able to relate to people of different backgrounds. They need need to be able to talk about work, sports, food, travel, culture, etc. Narrowing their linguistic focus to the gospel means narrowing the number of people they will be able to reach. It also means more rote memorization and less effective teaching.

  26. Jonathan Green on November 24, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Cary, thanks for that information about Utah schools and BYU. I wouldn’t say that the MTC is moving in the wrong direction, as it sounds like it’s simply doing what it’s done for a long time. And it’s a reasonable choice for the MTC to focus on the core areas of discourse that missionaries will need (as long as it’s understood as the beginning, not the end). But then, I also think that limited amounts of repetition and memorization have their place. What changes in methodology would you like to see?

  27. Chadwick on November 24, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    I had another thought on this while ruminating about my own MTC experience. One challenge to taking the initiative and studying once a call letter is received is that, if the rest of your start class does not do so, it could lead to discord and/or boredom on the part of the missionary who prepared. He or she may come across as setting themselves apart from the group, which seemed to be against MTC rules when I was there.

    That being said, If very specific instructions and materials were included in the mission letter, that could solve the part about unduly setting yourself apart, though if some students do not do the pre-work, you are still stuck with moving at the pace of the slowest elder, which can also damage group morale.

    I remember on day 1, before class began, we all admitted to trying to learn Cantonese but we all ultimately came up short. And I think it’s a good thing, because we were all in it
    together. The MTC for me was not about learning the language anyway, although it was a start, but it was about the beginnings of learning how to love all people. Because sometimes the hardest person to love was your companion.

  28. Cary Crawford on November 25, 2012 at 10:03 am

    Hi Jonathan. You ask about methodology… and I can only hint at changes here. But I would suggest that a more updated methodology (comprehensible input followed by some drills followed by speaking practice) using contextualized language, story telling, etc. building functional ability in the order recommended by the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language and regularly increasing vocabulary in the proper sequence. These changes would help missionaries progress more quickly than the do currently. But others who publish regularly on this blog are more qualified to answer the methodology question that I. (And by others, I mean Wilfried.)

    Correction of above comment: the Tell Me More portal was set up by Harold Hendricks.

  29. Jonathan Green on November 25, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Sure, Cary, implementing ACTFL guidelines across the board sounds nice, but it’s not a satisfying answer in itself. You’d have to think about how to adapt the guidelines to the specific context of pre-immersion training where the missionaries need to be prepared for some highly specific language use, including the need to work with difficult written texts, and with relatively inexperienced teachers providing the instruction. I’ll take your word for it that you can’t say more, but the problem is a bit more complex than just doing whatever ACTFL recommends.

  30. Alan Lambson on November 26, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    Just a few passing thoughts from a language professional:

    At least some senior missionaries are already being asked to carry out their own language study before entering the field. I met a couple last week who are to learn Albanian without the benefit of the MTC. They are following a Church-prescribed language study program. Our youthful missionaries could also benefit from such a model, not necessarily skipping the MTC, but having materials suggested or prescribed for previous preparation.

    There will be a period of at least a year or two where new missionaries will enter the field at a rate 2 or 3 times higher that in the recent past. During this time, of necessity MTC experiences will actually be shorter, cut by a third or more. This highlights even more the need pre- and post-MTC training.

    The Church may (or may not, it’s not my call) want to re-implement language learning aptitude tests. I took one before receiving my call in 1971.

    Guided in-the-field language learning is crucial. The immersion environment is where you can really try out what you are learning. Most mission fields have such programs, but I suspect many do not take them seriously.

    Be far the biggest obstacle to overcome is the general attitude prevalent in the USA that one can be considered educated without having seriously studied a foreign language. Most young people who take languages as elective courses take them at the worst possible age (7th and 8th grade, what we used to call the “lost years” when our kids were in school), and they emerge from the school system with little usable knowledge. And students’, teachers’, and parents’ expectations tend to be low. I was blessed with a teacher who took on the mission of actually teaching us how to converse, read, and write in Spanish, and who was not resigned to mediocrity (thanks, Delia Ybarra of Cupertino H.S., wherever you are!)

    LDS parents should be seeking out dual immersion programs in the elementary schools wherever they are offered. They are excellent for most students (not all) and achieve multi-lingual “wiring” of the brain at a much better stage (starting in first grade). The specific language does not really matter, as language learning ability will be enhanced.

  31. Sam Brunson on November 26, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    We wanted an immersion program for our daughter; unfortunately, there was only one public elementary school on the north side of Chicago that offered it (and the waiting list is off the charts). At the school she goes to, she has Spanish three times a week, which is far better than what I had.

    As to methodology: when I taught at the MTC, I (like most teachers I knew) was a full-time college student studying something that was not language teaching; I don’t know the learning curve to teach using ACTFL methodology, but the MTC does have to deal with teachers who, while committed and generally good speakers, don’t have any background in formal pedagogy. I’m not sure if or how to overcome such a problem.

  32. Jonathan Green on November 26, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Alan, thanks, that’s very interesting information. I’m glad the church is encouraging preparatory self-study for some missionaries at least. I recently met a senior missionary about to leave for a small country with an obscure language, and I encouraged starting on the language now, but I don’t think my message really got across. I do agree that the prevailing attitude towards language learning is probably the biggest obstacle – it’s hard to do something well if people don’t think it’s worth doing (and I’m glad to hear, via Cary Crawfer’s comment above, that Utah is something of an exception).

    Have there been follow-up studies of language aptitude exams? I wonder if their effectiveness could be demonstrated.

    Sam, the experience of MTC teachers is actually not all that different from that of graduate teaching assistants at major research universities, many of whom will start teaching Italian 101 the same time they start a graduate course on language pedagogy. It’s a problem, but a known problem, and one that should be addressable by continued teacher training. I have no knowledge of how the MTC works these days, but I’d think that the people directing the language program would have strong backgrounds in language pedagogy and continued professional involvement with the field, since they’re running one of the largest foreign-language training programs in the country. A lot depends on what the MTC language leaders do.

  33. Kent Larsen on November 26, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    Let me reinforce the praise of dual language/dual immersion programs. All three of my children have been in Spanish dual language classes from very early (generally kindergarten), and the programs worked fairly well. My youngest (now age 9 and in 4th grade) speaks better than the average missionary leaving the MTC and has lost much of her fear of speaking in Spanish. In addition, she somehow manages to understand the extremely difficult Caribbean accent prevalent in our area of the city (i.e., the version of Spanish where the final sound is regularly dropped from many words). Dual language immersion programs are wonderful, and I agree that LDS parents should seek them out.

  34. John Mansfield on November 26, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    The comment above being “considered educated,” brings to mind Katharine Wright, sister of Wilbur and Orville. Unlike her brothers, she was a college graduate, and she taught high school Latin. Given her classical education, of which mathematics was also properly a part, Europeans figured she must be the secret genius behind her brothers’ success. (She was very supportive of her brothers, but not in any mathematical, scientific, or technical matter.) Poor Americans. Too many uneducated, monoglot, over-achieving Wright brothers in our past. Don’t worry, though; that’s the past, not the present or future.

  35. Raymond Takashi Swenson on November 26, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Offering a wider variety of language instruction in schools would be enabled if people who have experience in speaking and teaching those languages are able to teach it on a part-time basis, so there does not need to be demand by a large number of students at the same time in order to justify a full time instructor in that language. I would think that in Utah, at least, there are a large number of people with qualifications in teaching other subjects who also have foreign language skills and could teach their language one hour a day. There should also be openness to an adjunct instructor program that lets someone who has a BA and who is a working at home, working part time, in graduate school, or in some other flexible schedule, to be hired to teach one or two classes.

    The language skills pool at the BYU campuses, and in Utah colleges, is a resource that is not tapped at nearly the rate it could be. Why shouldn’t every elementary school teacher who speaks Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Japanese, or Mongolian be encouraged to teach the language and culture they know to their students? Learning any language stimulates the ability to learn other languages, as Europeans know.

    It is not important that every effort at language learning be part of a 12 step program to create total reading and speaking fluency in Mandarin or another specific language. But one way to provide multi-year instruction in elementary school is to have teachers track with their class, moving up a grade each year. The randomness of such a process is no different than the randomness of how we are born into one language culture and emigrate to another one, or are selected to serve a mission (while there may be a hidden reason the Lord has to influence your assignment, unless you figure that reason out, it looks random). There may be some parents who want a particular language experience for their child, but many others will not know enough to care. The experience is not wasted. Better to have a lot of turbulent language instruction going on than very little. The important thinig is not to grow UN interpreters, but to stimulate language skills, and create a milieu in which the most skillful teachers of language and the students with the highest language aptitude can find themselves. We invest a huge amount of educational time and effort in athletics, with very little lifetime application for many students. The potential for engendering useful language skills and language learning skills is much greater, I think, than the potential for generating professional or even college level athletes.

  36. Jonathan Green on November 26, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    Except, John, missionaries in foreign countries really can’t make up in engineering skill what they lack in language ability. “I can’t tell them in Japanese, so I will instead demonstrate my point using propellers” doesn’t work well in practice.

  37. Sree on November 27, 2012 at 1:22 am

    There are lot of schools offers training programs.My school provided training program for practical sciences.From beginning i had a great interest in learning english.I am learning english with videos like this one http://youtu.be/maYZsq–55U

  38. John Mansfield on November 27, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Sure they can, Jonathan. Consider two pairs of missionaries. One pair between them have mastered French, Russian, Chinese, and Latin. (They’ve been called to either Finland or Kentucky.) The other two are the sons of a building contractor and an auto mechanic and have spent every summer and most Saturdays since they were 13 working for their fathers. Which pair when it asks the people they meet if they can help them out with anything is asking a more meaningful question? Do you think missionary work is all talk, talk, talk? Well, OK, it mostly is, but perhaps by default from missionaries not possessing any useful skills. When one does come along with skilled work experience, not only can he make himself useful, but he has more interesting things to say in his broken language.

    A couple years of high school Spanish gave me a solid grounding in the grammatical structure and made my weeks in the MTC productive and allowed me to start off in Argentina pretty well. (Deciphering the sounds into sentences took a couple weeks, but I understood those setences if they were repeated slowly five times.) Very valuable. So was my time on roofs when later visiting the homes of people who lived by physical labor. Did you never touch a hammer or a saw on your mission?

  39. Kent Larsen on November 27, 2012 at 10:02 am

    John, I think your point is at least overstated. Rarely in the U.S. today is this an either/or proposition. There is no reason that today’s high school student (or even before) can’t take foreign language classes (in OR out of school) AND still work at meaningful jobs learning real-world skills. To be honest your example of the Wright Brothers is particularly bad because, as far as I can tell, potential missionaries, as well as high school and college students and Americans in general, ARE NOT spending the kind of time educating themselves that the Wright Brothers spent. They worked both to school themselves (by reading technical books) and by experimenting. I wonder how often even those high school students who are spending summers working for their fathers are learning the way the Wright Brothers did.

    No one here is arguing that language learning has to be at the expense of other activities. Nor are we arguing that language learning must be in a school setting — if you can learn a language on your own, great. Learning a language most of the time is simply NOT a threat to other education.

    What the “considered educated” comment is about is that we in the U.S. seem to believe that learning other languages is somehow not necessary. As I understand it, most developed or developing countries around the world REQUIRE a second language by high school graduation, but such a requirement is woefully absent in most of the U.S.

    We, in the U.S., have been coddled by the size and strength of our economy. Before the past few decades and perhaps even now, it has been possible to get good jobs without needed to speak other languages. The majority of our economy is about communicating with others who speak our language. In contrast, in Europe the majority of any one country’s economic activity involves communicating with those in other languages. For the U.S. economic activity is shifting rapidly toward communicating with those who speak other languages. As a result, yes, “considered educated” has to mean able to speak other languages.

    The bottom line is that language education is important. It is needed for missionary work, and increasingly it is needed to succeed in today’s economy while the kind of physical labor you talk about—learned working for fathers during the summer—is increasingly less useful in today’s economy.

  40. Sam Brunson on November 27, 2012 at 10:09 am

    Did you never touch a hammer or a saw on your mission?

    I didn’t. In the Sao Paulo areas I served in, homes weren’t made of wood; they were cinderblock and cement (unless, of course, those are the same thing). Nothing I could have possibly learned about construction in San Diego would have prepared me in any meaningful way to help build. Like other missionaries, when we did help reroof somebody, we learned how to do it as we did it.

    My two years of high school Spanish provided an invaluable background in picking up Portuguese. My jobs and schooling and music helped me know how to work; like Kent, I don’t see it as either-or. I wouldn’t say the language-educated missionary has the ability to provide more meaningful service as a missionary, but I’d also say that the mechanic’s son can’t inherently provide more meaningful service. Both (if they have to be separate people) have skills they can use to serve people, and both can be of service in different ways. In terms of preparing and teaching lessons, though, language facility is essential. FWIW.

  41. John Mansfield on November 27, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Well, as I wrote, the time when useful skills meant more than talking pretty is in the past. However, how many multilingual communicators does it take to do a billion dollars worth of international business? Five? Twenty?

    As for the vaunted European excellence in biligualism, what I’ve seen of it suggests a lot of exaggeration. While I was a graduate student in an engineering department at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, most the students were foreigners. The two Germans spoke excellent English just like in the stereotypes, but they were the only ones. Three of the four Italians were as helpless as new missionaries when they arrived, but acquired fluency during ours years together. One complained to me once of a visit he made to Tirol on the other side of the Alps where no one spoke Italian and he didn’t speak German. The fourth Italian was a true internationalist with a British accent educated at Cambridge. The two Russians never became competent in English.

    Language study is great. I did three college semesters of Latin myself. Regarding it as the sine qua non of all proper living is a bit much, though.

  42. Kent Larsen on November 27, 2012 at 11:37 am

    How many? Depends on the size of the deals. These days a billion dollars can (rarely) be a single deal.

    You’re still missing the point, John. Language learning doesn’t take away from other learning in general. And I never suggested that the European system was always successful, just that it was required, and required for good reason.

    Are you suggesting that language learning shouldn’t be at least emphasized, if not required? Why not? Because it doesn’t take many people? Because its not always successful? Because its never useful?

    I’m afraid I don’t understand your point, I guess. Who is claiming that it is the sine qua non of all proper living and where do they say that? I think its important, yes, and possibly something that should be required of all students, just like English, math, PE and (IMO) economics. But I don’t think that means it is the “sine qua non of all proper living.”

  43. Alan Lambson on November 28, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Raymond’s wish for part-time professional language teachers in our schools is a good one, but hard to meet in most states because full certification in Elementary or Secondary education is required to teach in the schools. So what often happens is that to teach a language specialty, elementary schools in particular will hire a parent or para-professional at a low hourly rate to come in a teach all the kids how to count to ten, names the colors, and sing “Cielito Lindo” or “Frere Jacques”. Not even a masters degree in a language can qualify you to teach that language in an elementary school on a professional basis unless you are certified to teach all grades K-6, all subjects.

    I agree that the universally required foreign language teaching imparted in the European system can be very spotty. In general, the Dutch and Scandinavians learn English the best, followed by the Germans, with southern Europe bringing up the rear. More than anything I think it has to do with need. The Norwegians can’t count on anyone else learning Norwegian, so they master the lingua franca of commerce and science, which is clearly English.

  44. John Mansfield on November 28, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    I wonder how American study of second languages that aren’t English compares with the study in other countries of second languages that aren’t English. There was some item a few years ago about the German-speaking Swiss wanting to eliminate French requirements from the schools in their cantons to allow more attention to English. I don’t know how that turned out.

  45. Adair on December 3, 2012 at 1:45 am

    One thing I noted in Belgium (French speaking) was that the Dutch generally spoke French and English fairly well, though they often weren’t keen to admit they could speak French. I remember hearing a number of times that it was difficult to find a job in an office unless you spoke 4 languages (French and Dutch for Benelux but also German and English).

    As for immersion programs, living in Canada I wasn’t aware that they were a novel idea. I did 7-12 in French, our little guy (turns 4 in January) is in French immersion at half day early entry (pre-kindergarten).

  46. jennifer reuben on December 3, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    immersion programs are not a novel idea in many state of the US. Some are not labeled immersion because only some subjects or time period are taught in another language. It seems to be that they are more unusual were several individuals commenting live(western US?) there is some lose of these programs lately because of budget cuts.

  47. E on December 4, 2012 at 12:22 am

    There was a story on KSL news just now re Utah’s immersion programs. Language immersion programs have not been common in US public schools in the past but they have become very popular in Utah in just the last few years, thanks to the efforts of individuals in state government here. I believe immersion programs will also become more common in other states.

  48. Kent Larsen on December 4, 2012 at 7:25 am

    Great news, E.

    I hope that you are right about immersion programs spreading in popularity.