Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Learning Languages for LDS Missionaries Not for the Weak in Spirit

On Sunday night I went to a priesthood meeting where a member of the stake presidency told a missionary experience he had in Japan on his mission. He arrived on Tuesday and his companion who was a district leader assigned him to baptize a man. The area consisted of six members and the missionaries. They held their first baptism in a public bath which they rented. There was only two feet of water in the bath. He said that he did not know the baptismal prayer in Japanese. He had to read the prayer from a card his companion held for him. He had to rebaptize the man five times until he could completely immerse him in the water. The fact the stake presidency member can tell the story shows either he was traumatized or that the Lord uses us no matter what our level or both.

I laughed hard having experienced similar things as a missionary in Italy where I helped to open Ragusa. I didn't have to read from a card but I did have a limited amount of Italian when I baptized my first convert Salvatore Capelli after three months on my mission. We had a a portable font and the water was ice cold. The font sat on a cold marble floor and had possibly three feet of water which took about six or seven hours to fill as we had to carry pots of water from the kitchen to the foyer where we held the service. At that point in my mission I could say the baptismal challenge and one discussion. My Italian was a minimal conservation level.

Learning languages for LDS missionaries is challenging. Some people pick it up quicker than others but truthfully it is a rare missionary that comes in speaking beyond the basic level. Learning a language for most missionaries is a mentally challenging process. It can be mentally debilitating and is just downright hard work. Missionaries can master the language with constant practice and study. It is difficult to pursue studying the language to learn complex verb and subject agreement when you are expected from day one to converse with people about religion which requires complex language skills.

Language teachers in the MTC work with you for twelve weeks to give you a basic grasp of the verbs and vocabulary you will need to master the basic concepts and help you to be able to teach people upon arrival. I wish I could say that when I got there that my mental ability to speak and teach would have resulted in a meaningful conversation even at a basic level but truthful the best I could do was to say short prayers and bear my testimony. In that I was successful having learned them in the MTC.

When I talked to literally hundreds of people on the street they would laugh at my attempts to speak to them in Italian. Some missionaries become discouraged that people don't quite understand them. In some ways we are like children in that we speak incorrectly but little by little they begin to better understand what we are saying. In addition we speak about very specialized topics so are conversation is limited to certain subjects and so we develop routines of what we say and variations on the same themes.

There are a few things you need to realize when speaking a foreign language. The first one is that you need to speak. You must say something to people and not be afraid they will laugh at you. Italians were very gracious people as are people everywhere including the U.S. If a person tries to speak English we tend to correct them in an effort to help them communicate better with us. I have many friends who are afraid to speak including my wife who went on a French speaking mission. On her mission she could converse very competently and effectively but she came home and stopped speaking. Now she is fearful to speak the language because she might humilate herself. I on the other hand take every opportunity to speak Italian even if I mingle Spanish words in. I was assigned to be in the high priest group leadership on the border between Mexico and California in a Spanish-speaking ward where half the men had been members of stake presidencies and bishoprics in their twenties. Instead of ignoring me they considered it a positive thing that I would talk to them in a combination Italian/Spanish.

Eventually the Spanish ward was dissolved and and English ward took its place these same men were forced to speak English. The bishop from El Centro had to relearn Spanish since honestly some members could not grasp English fluently even after twenty years. In speaking a language you have to do the best you can because the hearer and the speaker will try to make meaning out of what is communicated.

You really have to depend on the spirit when you know that what you are saying may not be fully comprehended due to your small vocabulary. When you converse about different things you develop a larger vocabulary. After a period of time and use of the language you gain a confidence in your ability to master a language.

I remember the point in my mission when I was able to speak with an ease and correctly. Although I had been speaking totally in Italian for four months I struggled with my confidence. I feel that missionaries hold themselves back in mastering the language by their attitude. My problem was attitude. A lot of them give themselves self-messages of I will never learn this or no one will every understand me so why even try. My companion didn't know one word of English other than hi or yes or no. He had been instructed by our mission president to only speak to me in Italian and stuck to that. He could not speak in English so I was forced to speak Italian to survive. It didn't matter to me that whatever I said was slightly off after weeks of speaking people started to understand me. I even got used to them calling me an Americani which meant dog poop.

As a child growing up my Italian grandparents used to speak to me in Italian and I never understood what they were saying and was embarrassed they would only talk to me in Italian. I never even mastered a few greeting words. It was all Greek to me. One night on my mission I went to sleep and I dreamt in Italian. It was a very vivid dream in full color. The next morning when I woke up I was able to speak in complete sentences. The Italians including my companion noticed a difference in my ability to speak Italian. After that I spoke fast and pretty accurately within a couple of months I was able to conjugate verbs not only in the present tense but in the past and future tense something I had struggled with in the MTC. Italians would say you must be a Todeschi or German because Americans can't speak Italian this well.

One thing that helped in learning the language was that I began to depend on the Spirit. Italians were a well-educated people. We would go for an evening walk where hundreds of people would come out and walk with their arms linked in groups of four to six on the main downtown street. For two hours every night people would just go up and down talking. On some of those nights I would be asked by a philosophy professor to discuss the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. My companion instead of answering for me would egg them on saying I would answer them. You sure need to depend on the spirit when you go beyond the normal plan of salvation. I would give them a short response and then cover the first principles of the gospel. Most of the time they didn't have any more clue about complex subjects than I did but they would test you to see if you would have an honest discussion with them.

A few things I find in learning languages is that you have to be persistent and you have to get over your fear of speaking. It is amazing what the Spirit will put in to your mind and bring to your mouth when you seek the help of the Lord. Speaking a language that requires mental exertion. Most missionaries have to be mentally nimble to translate from English to their new language. As time passes you will begin to process in the new language. Speaking a language requires you to use it constantly. Even slacking off and companions reverting back to English in the apartment or with English members can set you back. One thing you need to do is minimize thinking in English and try constantly thinking in your new language.

One of the best things I did after my mission was to take a few advanced Italian courses. Because one of the skills lacking in missionaries is the ability to write in their new language. I encourage missionaries to keep in touch with investigators and converts by writing to them in their new language. Another thing that separates the men from the boys or the girls from the women is the ability to read your scriptures in your new language. Many missionaries are mentally lazy and don't master the King James Bible or the Book of Mormon in their mission languages. You begin to feel the Spirit when you can read the word of the Lord in another language. You gain insights you might have missed since it becomes a more focused endeavor.

I have to say that learning a language is definitely not for the weak in Spirit. You learn humility and dependence on the Lord to make up for your deficiencies. People seem to understand you even when you misuse a word or two. You understand that the only thing between you and another person's salvation is the ability to express something that will touch their hearts. The Lord will make up the difference a lot of times. It is not necessarily the complexity of the words but the simpleness to share basic concepts and your ability to testify that can touch someone's spirit to spirit. Even when I could only say simple prayers and a short testimony I know that investigators felt the spirit and were converted to the gospel. I could feel the Spirit and it would testify that they felt the spirit also. The Lord can use us even if we don't speak fluently or eloquently. He truly does use the simple to convey his message. I saw three people baptized when I was in Italy and I was only there for five months before being transferred to the Toronto Canada Mission. 3 baptisms in Italy was not typical in the 1970s. A missionary was lucky to have one or two. It doesn't matter if you even baptize as long as you did the best you could. Much of what I did back then was lay the seeds as we talked to everyone including dozens of nuns and priests. I feel that we were ambassadors to the Lord and the Church when we make the effort to converse with our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

1 comment:

Raymond Teodo a.k.a. was_bedeutet_jemanden said...

Great article! It helped to remind me of the things I learned whilst struggling to learn German on my mission.....