It is always a thrilling experience for me to visit the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Besides being a center of spiritual preparation for missionary service, it is, in my opinion, the largest school of languages in the world that has the seal of approval of our Heavenly Father. At present, approximately 40 percent of our thirty thousand full-time missionaries in the field speak languages other than English. And we now teach twenty-nine languages in the Missionary Training Center. We may truly say that in this day and age a revelation given through the Prophet Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio, in March 1833, is really being fulfilled: We are now setting in order the churches, and we are studying and learning and becoming acquainted “with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and People.”
Coming from a small country myself, and having been involved in international trade for many years, I know from experience the great value of speaking foreign languages. We live in a rapidly shrinking world; we now travel distances in a day that in the past would have taken us weeks or even months. Mobility is the key word in international travel. And young people now go on trips farther and farther away from home and get acquainted with foreign cultures and foreign languages.
But we in the Church look at the learning of languages differently from the way the world does. For us it is almost a sacred obligation given by the Lord. Because we have to take the gospel to every nation, we as Church members, more than ever before, must take the obligation upon us to learn foreign languages. The youth especially have to prepare themselves for this. But also married couples who have a desire to serve a mission in a certain number of years can now start to prepare themselves to converse in a foreign language.
As time goes on, the need for a command of various languages will increase because the gospel will be taken to new countries where we haven’t been engaged in preaching the gospel so far. As the Lord revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith, “It shall come to pass in that day, that every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language.” (D&C 90:11.)
This is a gigantic task to undertake, but we must come to a realization that we are all involved. And all of these efforts start in the home.
Very often the husband or the wife in a marriage has already served a mission abroad and has a knowledge of the language of the country where he or she served. And so to revive fluency in that language, they can take a course so that they can help each other in the language when they arrive in the mission field.
Parents also should see that their children begin learning languages. I have noticed that in the United States there are many families through which a line of languages runs because of the language of the old country. A person may be fourth-generation American, but the mother or the father may still remember the grandfather talking in German or Swedish or Spanish. There is a great opportunity for the present generation of that family to revive the language of the old country. And to do so will give great joy to the whole family.
Or it may well be that parents or older brothers or sisters have already served a mission in a foreign language area and still have a fair knowledge of the language. They should share that knowledge with their children and their younger brothers and sisters. But it must be a serious effort, and the parents can guide and lead and direct this in their own home.
In my opinion, this could best be discussed during a family home evening or in a family council so that children who are growing up can start a serious effort early in their lives to learn a second language.
All of this, of course, will not guarantee that the Lord will call them to a country where that particular language is spoken. But as Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Quorum of the Twelve expressed to me, “Make it known to the young people that it is not certain that the Lord will direct their paths to do missionary work in an area where the language they have learned is spoken. But if they are called to a completely different country, they will at least have the advantage of having learned well a second language. Learning another language is then usually not so difficult for them, because they have learned how to study and therefore will make rapid progress, especially when they are guided by the Spirit of the Lord.”
Among people in general there is still the mistaken idea that it is very hard to learn a foreign language. But experience has proven to me that it’s more a matter of time than anything else. Almost everyone can learn a foreign language. It’s mainly a matter of being willing to spend a considerable amount of time in learning that language.
After my return from a four-year Church assignment in Asia, I had a great desire to learn Mandarin Chinese. My greatest frustration was not the difficulty of the language, but that I could not make enough time available for study because of my daily schedule. The time factor is often the most frustrating element in language learning. This is another reason why starting early is important.
Some missionaries go to the Missionary Training Center to learn a foreign language with great fears because they are afraid they will not be able to learn the language of their assigned mission area. Let me relieve these fears. I have seen the very practical approach of language teaching in the MTC, and I believe in the gift of tongues. Miracles happen when missionaries learn to speak in a foreign language by the power of the Spirit. And they learn enough to begin conversing while they are still in the training center.
The same is the case for senior missionaries who enter the MTC as couples. If they are willing to dedicate enough time and effort to master the new language, the Lord will bless them exceedingly and they will have great joy in learning to speak a foreign tongue. Then, in the mission field, all missionaries are encouraged and given the opportunity to continue to study the language half an hour every day.
I firmly believe that President Joseph F. Smith received the gift of tongues when, as a young man, he went out on his mission. He said: “I was in a foreign land, sent to preach the gospel to a people whose language I could not understand. Then I sought earnestly for the gift of tongues, and by this gift and by study [I am sure he put in a lot of hours], in a hundred days after landing upon those islands I could talk to the people in their language as I now talk to you in my native tongue.” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939, p. 201; italics added.)
I think that is a powerful testimony. And I bear solemn witness that I have seen this in many countries in Asia where languages are extremely difficult for the average American. I have witnessed Latter-day Saint missionaries in Korea, in Taiwan, in Thailand, and in other places acquire a fluency which was really amazing to me. The people in those countries could not believe that these missionaries had started learning the language only a year before. When this happens, missionaries begin to understand that there must be a higher power involved in learning the language when in the service of the Lord than when just going through the old school system.
This is the time that the fulness of the gospel will be preached to every man in his own tongue and in his own language. We have the great opportunity to represent the Lord to the people of the world, proclaiming the reality of the Father and his Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and of the restoration of the gospel. I pray that we may be instruments in his hand and be guided by his Spirit to carry out this great and marvelous work.
1. Take a language class. Study at a local university, take an adult education class in the evening, or try a home-study course offered by a reputable school.
2. Speak the language. Instead of merely learning about the language, have a goal of being able to speak well and understand well. Practice the language with family members or friends who have served a mission or traveled in a foreign culture and have learned this language as a second language. Seek out a native speaker or tutor and practice speaking and listening at least an hour a week. Organize a ward or neighborhood group to learn and practice the language. (Returned missionaries could be asked to participate.)
3. Learn about people and cultures. Read about the people and the country. Visit with someone who is from the country or who has been there. Eat at an ethnic restaurant. See a movie or documentary film about the culture. If possible, travel to the country to gain firsthand knowledge of it.
4. Study vocabulary at home. Vocabulary is the most important area when beginning to study a foreign language. Concentrate here first. Buy a dictionary, label your home with names of objects in the new language, and practice until the words become yours. Purchase a Book of Mormon in the new language and compare familiar verses in English and the foreign language. You will increase your religious vocabulary quickly.
Whatever course you follow, be sure to do these three things: study the language regularly and faithfully, use the language whenever possible, and seek divine assistance. Steven R. Wright, director of language training, Missionary Training Center, Provo, Utah