How well does the average missionary who goes to a foreign country learn his or her mission language? Quite well, as it turns out. In the last few years, I’ve had almost a hundred returned missionaries in my advanced language and literature classes. Based on both typical class work and informal proficiency testing, I’ve gotten a good sense of what I can expect from them. In my experience, returned missionaries fresh off the airplane are, on average, about one full level ahead of the students I’ve worked with at other colleges and universities who are completing undergraduate language degrees (B2 vs. B1; I speak CEFR, so those of you who think in terms of ACTFL will have to do the translation yourself). The average returned missionary’s knowledge of the language is similar to that of an exceptional undergraduate finishing a bachelor’s degree and with significant time abroad, while the exceptional returned missionaries are at a level (I’d put it near C1, for those of you keeping score) that the exceptional undergraduates can’t touch.
The skills are unevenly distributed, however. Speaking and listening tend to be exceptionally strong, reading a little less so, followed by writing. There are in many cases some holes in explicit grammatical knowledge. Even so, the returned missionaries’ writing often has an excellent grasp of how the language flows and how sentences should be connected, and a more diverse vocabulary than found in most undergraduate essays.
This isn’t too surprising, actually. If you strip away all that proselytizing and character-building, a foreign mission is a 16- or 22-month immersion experience coupled with strong motivation to learn the target language. (And for less than $10,000, it’s a fantastic bargain. If you shopped around carefully, you might find a 12-week study abroad program for the same price.) Missionaries also come into regular contact with a much broader spectrum of the foreign culture than most students studying abroad. With that amount of time, that degree of motivation, and that much interaction with native speakers, Mormon missionaries have an opportunity unavailable to most American college students.
Occasionally, people who are about to leave on missions will ask me for suggestions for learning the language. For missionaries who plan to be ready for advanced language courses on their return (rather than what are for them remedial courses, as is sometimes the case), I have some standard recommendations, mostly reiterating and sometimes extending what is found in the seventh chapter of Preach My Gospel (whose formulation of general principles is, overall, excellent).
- Speaking: Verbal fluency is the hardest skill to acquire, and the easiest to lose. All those people telling you to speak your language in the MTC aren’t just being uptight. You really do have to speak your language as much as possible, including with American companions. You don’t have to be that guy, the one who won’t speak a word of English to other Americans, but speaking the mission language whenever you’re out of your apartment is a good rule of thumb. If you have a native-speaker companion, go native at home as well. Forcing yourself to say things in a foreign language is the only way you’re going to learn to speak fluently. Preach My Gospel speaks the truth when it comes to speaking. Also, fondness rather than resentment towards the people you’re living among helps, so try to minimize the phase where you hate the people and the country they live in.
- Reading: Here, on the other hand, Preach My Gospel doesn’t go far enough. Reading the scriptures and church literature in your language is fine, but it won’t provide enough exposure to different types of written language or varieties of subject matter. Look for opportunities to read as many types of things as possible, including pragmatic texts on specialized topics (like the history of the local railroad tucked into the back of the train schedule, for example). Otherwise your vocabulary will remain too limited to talk about anything except church functions, and with anyone other than church members. The literary language inherited from Romanticism in the national literature I teach was based on religious language to begin with, so church talk can actually be quite helpful as preparation for reading literature, but it doesn’t work nearly as well for talking about the widgets sold by someone’s company or used in their favorite hobby.
- Grammar: There’s a good chance that your missionary-specific language textbook won’t be all that useful once you leave the MTC. There’s also a good chance you’ll bring an intermediate review grammar with you to your mission. You need to work your way through every exercise in the entire book—within six months or less, not by the end of your mission. Once you finish the intermediate review grammar, you need to find something more advanced to work on. In my advanced grammar course, returned missionaries often start the semester answering grammar exercises on sight, with no preparation before class. Inevitably, we reach a point where they can no longer do that, but they often don’t realize when that point has come.
- Pronunciation: People make snap judgments about others based on their pronunciation. Perfect grammar combined with heavily American pronunciation will lead people to classify you not just as foreign, but also as unintelligent and not worth taking seriously. It’s unfair, but it’s how the world works. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get informed guidance on pronunciation errors and how to fix them. Most native speakers can only tell you that you sound funny, but not how or what to change. There is probably a specialized book on pronunciation that would help you, if you can locate it and if you have the linguistics background to make sense of it. What Preach My Gospel suggests, and what has worked well for some missionaries, is listening intently to native speakers and consciously comparing their pronunciation to that of other missionaries, and trying to imitate the native speaker. This comparative listening may help you make progress significantly faster than you would otherwise. But you’re still interpreting foreign sounds with American ears, and approximating foreign sounds with your American tongue and lips and teeth. Some approximations will eventually lead to native pronunciation, but others are dead ends that will never get you more than halfway there. You need to talk to someone with enough background in phonetics to tell you what to do, which might not come until after your mission. Come talk to me once you get back. I’ll probably have some suggestions. With those, and a couple years of practice, you should be able to fix the most significant issues.
Despite their extensive experience, most returned missionaries still have gaps in their language skills and cultural knowledge. I don’t have any good advice about writing skills, for example, because there’s not really any good solution. Few missionaries get enough opportunities to write in their mission language. Take every opportunity you get, but it won’t be enough. For some language skills, as well as many things relating to the history and culture of the country where you just spent a long time, and the daily lives of the people who live there, you really will have to take some classes once your mission is done. Missions are excellent preparation, but turning a mission language into a professionally useful language will take a bit more work.