Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Language Learning at the MTC: A Few Thoughts on Reflecting Back

When I was a missionary many years ago I was sent to Italy Rome Mission.  My grandparents spoke Italian and my family descended from Italy.  I was never required to speak to them in anything but English as a child and I was as baffled when they spoke not really comprehending it.  My father rejected the concept his children would be bilingual like he had been at home saying it didn't do him a bit of good.  I studied Spanish for three years in high school but I could hardly speak the language.  They didn't teach Italian only Spanish, German and French. The only Italian I knew was a bunch of cuss words that my grandmother's second husband would laughingly call me when I would visit him while he worked in his garden.  After high school the best I could speak was a few basic Spanish phrases like "Que Pasa amigo" or "que tal."  I never understood how I got As in high school but I knew I spoke as good as the next American which was limited at best. When I went on a mission the bishop could suggest where you went.  Mine decided that I should go to Italy Rome Mission because I was Italian and he put that down on my form. The missionary committee agreed as I was called there.  All nine young men that he suggested from our ward went to a particular mission where he suggested.  I told him I preferred to go to South America but he didn't listen.

Learning a foreign language is not easy.  It was one of the hardest things that I ever personally did.  From morning until night I was forced to speak in Italian.  My mind was constantly overloaded and I felt extreme pressure to not only master the ability to carry on a basic conversation but also learn complex grammar so that I could read the scriptures in Italian and speak in more tenses than the present.  My teachers told us we would be lucky to speak in the present and past tense but that the other tenses would come as our mission progressed.  We were told that the best thing we could do was to just speak the language.

When I went to learn Italian on my mission I mixed in a few Spanish words which made it hard for me to learn. My teachers would laugh when I inserted a Spanish word in my conversation.  I carried an Italian phrase book in my pocket which I consulted all the time so I wouldn't screw up. I didn't like to be laughed at by fellow missionaries and my teachers.
When I went on a mission you were required to memorize seven rainbow discussions word perfect. The most discussions you might have leaving the MTC were the baptismal challenge and possibly the Joseph Smith Story.  Not to many knew both a few had the first.  Your entire success as a missionary including teaching and conversion and even the ability to even move up in the missionary ranks was tied up in learning the language and mastering the discussions.

We took learning the language very seriously and it consumed our minds.  Many a missionary including myself wondered if they would ever master the language let alone learn it in the three months we were in language training.  Learning a second  language when you don't speak it is a hard uphill battle.  I saw several missionaries who lost heart and wanted to go home just to get away from the hard work.  Many times missionaries expressed frustration or felt that it was a conflict to learn a language.  To me the conflict was internal and I felt that I was just wasn't smart enough to learn.  At that point in my life neither of my parents had finished high school and none of us had a college degree.  In fact to this day I am the only child in my family to complete college.

To other missionaries I served with the conflict was external.  They saw Satan as trying to thwart the work and keep them from fulfilling their mission. This is not an uncommon feeling I read in a missionary's blog this week the following:

This week has been one of the hardest weeks of my life, the days up to Sunday felt like eternity, and Satan began to work on me by feeling down, and discouraged but I was able to overcome that with a lot of prayers. I have received so many answers to my prayers this week it is incredible.
Some missionaries felt that past sins were the reason they couldn't master the language.  A handful of missionaries including my own companion left to clean up their acts.  A few even begged to be sent to other English-speaking missions.  A tiny fraction quit and just went home.  To these missionaries external factors are real barriers.

Today missionaries face the same internal and external challenges but the learning methods are new and improved.  It is not easy to learn a language and whether you have a challenge to master it internally or externally the only way to learn is to continue in the process.  Learning a language is hard work and takes constant mental effort. 

The LDS Church has spent the last fifty years preparing missionaries to speak a second language.  They created the facilities and methods to help missionaries learn the language.  For the most part the training methods work to give missionaries both a basic grasp of how to communicate on a daily basis and how to teach basic gospel principles.  They want you to succeed they have spent millions of dollars and invested tens of thousands of hours developing the language program.  The majority of learners will come out of their experience with a basic grasp of the language. They have perfected the process so that the greatest amount of missionaries will master certain goals and skills. 

I spent most of my life trying to master other languages but none beyond the basic level.  Even during my language training as a missionary I was probably considered mediocre in my language ability. If push came to shove I could probably still carry on a conversation.  I have taken Biblical Hebrew on three different occasions and can barely read it.  The fun is in the trying for me.  I may never master any language other than English in my lifetime but that doesn't really matter.  It took me twenty years to complete a bachelor degree, master's degree, and doctorate.  The reason I was able to do it was persistence.  You can never give up if you want to master a language.  I will probably mess around with Italian and Hebrew till the day I die.

Speaking a language and comprehending it are two totally different animals.  After about five months in the mission field I could carry on a basic gospel conversation as well as conversations on other subjects.  In fact Italians would compliment me saying "You are a German.  Since Americans can't speak our language as well as you." They insulted other missionaries calling them dog crap but we all took it in stride.  You knew you had moved beyond the elementary language level when the Italians no longer referred to you as dog doodoo but as European from some other country.

You can't learn everything you need to know in the MTC but you can pick up skills that will help you.  There will be a few missionaries that do extremely well who either have had years of language training or just are naturals at learning.  The majority of missionaries were like me, we had some basic skills and worked hard to even get that far.  Most of us felt inadequate and that we could do better.  A few will be challenged and may not pick up too much even when they struggle and come close to quitting.

Whatever your language skills after the three months in the MTC, you need to remember a mission lasts for eighteen months to two years.  People learn at differing rates. You might master the language at different points during a mission or you might never master it.  The most important thing to remember is to plug along and never quit.  You were sent to your particular mission to touch the people there.  The Lord will find a way to use you.  I found that people gave me a break if I gave speaking to them my best effort.  I can't remember more than five or ten times people making fun of me because I used a wrong verb or noun.

My ability to think in the language didn't come until I was out about seven months.  I began to understand what I was teaching by memory and it began to process in my mind.  One night I went to bed and began dreaming in Italian.  The oddest thing was that the next day when I woke up I could actually talk without translating from English.  I learned a valuable key to language learning.

Even on my mission I referred back to what I had learned from my two teachers.  I can still to this day remember my language training experiences.  In fact I constantly followed the methods they taught me including memorizing Italian verbs.  You can't spend your whole mission speaking in the present tense if you want to be an effective missionary.  The pressure that missionaries feel in the MTC to learn the language never really leaves you.  It is more intensive when you are surrounded by others struggling with the language.

Even in my post-mission life I remember talking with one of my bishop's who was called to a ward that had a large number of Hispanics on the border of California and Mexico.  He had served a Spanish-speaking mission in South America thirty years before.  He questioned his conversational ability saying that he lost his Spanish because he hadn't used it in all those years other than to order at a Mexican restaurant or to exchange some greetings now and then.  You never know you might have been called to be a missionary in a certain place so later you can serve in a different capacity.

We all have insecurities and barriers to learning.  My wife likes to refer to my children's swimming as individually competitive.  You should strive to always improve your personal time.  Most of my kids when compared to team mates are in the middle of the pack but when you compare where they were when the started and where they are now they have come a long way.

The same is true of learning a language at the MTC.  When you start out in swimming you just try to master the strokes. As you get faster you learn tricks for pushing off the wall or streamlining.  In language learning you just try to carry on a basic gospel discussion.  As you refine your language skills you gradually are able to carry on more complex conversations so you can have philosophical discussions like I did on the four horseman of the Apocalypse, which may or may not matter. I had as many baptisms at the beginning of my mission as I did at the end.  It is hard to measure the quality of those conversions based on my language ability.

The intelligensia will say but they weren't well prepared and you could have done a better job.  I don't question that.  I don't know if I totally agree that is the only reason I was assigned to teach them.  I remember when I was transferred to Canada Toronto Mission.  I was put with a Greek speaking companion in an Italian enclave of Toronto.  We were given a Spanish investigator since being an Italian missionary was close as they could get to a foreign speaker.  No matter what language an investigator spoke other than English we were assigned them.  This lady only spoke Spanish not any English at all since she was from Chile.   Immigrants to Canada could find enough people that they never learned English or French.  I got a set of the Spanish rainbow discussions. I used a principle I learned in language training to pronounce the Spanish letters and vowels like Italian.  I literally opened them and read her all seven discussions.  We carried on a strange conversation at best for a few weeks before her baptism.  I have little clue what I said since I spoke in Italian mixed with high school Spanish.  She still understood me enough to join the Church.  I hope on my next mission as a senior companion I get another crack at Italian or Spanish.  I might speak better plus I will have the chance to go to the MTC again.

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