Transcending Language Differences


We can help foreign-speaking members feel welcome among us.

It is 9:05 on Sunday morning. Sister Rodriguez, a newly called counselor in the Primary presidency, comes hurrying toward the Primary room, her arms loaded with supplies. Within minutes the children begin appearing, and she greets them in Spanish, her native tongue.

This morning there is no pianist or music leader, so Sister Rodriguez leads the singing, even though she doesn’t know how to read music. The Primary president, Sister Michaels, gives a spiritual presentation; then Sister Mesa, the first counselor, gives a short talk. When the group separates into three classes, each of the sisters teaches a combined age group. The manuals to teach from haven’t arrived yet, but these newly converted sisters, wholly untutored in leadership, are excited about their opportunities to hold a calling in the Primary of their newly created branch.

What makes this scenario different from similar scenes in new branches the world over is that it isn’t located in a Spanish-speaking country, where the Church is in its infancy, but in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Many wards and stakes are experiencing an influx of non-English-speaking families moving into their boundaries. These members represent a growing number of truly courageous Saints. Some have left their homelands in turmoil and have arrived after great hardship and sacrifice. Others have discovered the gospel through friends or neighbors in their “new” country. But because of language and cultural barriers, their assimilation into a new ward will be slower and more difficult than it would have been in their native countries.

What a challenge—and opportunity—we have to reach across these barriers to offer fellowship and love! How can we help? If we can’t speak their language, what can we do as Latter-day Saints to ease their adjustment and offer friendship?

As Individuals

As we reach out with love, a thousand opportunities to communicate friendship will arise. Here are a few ideas.

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    Go beyond the smile and the nod. Greet them verbally, shake their hands, and talk, talk, talk. Even if they don’t understand your words, they will understand that you like and accept them. In time, the words, too, will have meaning.

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    Invite these families into your home. This simple gesture is one of the kindest things you can do. For an evening’s entertainment, learn new words in each other’s language. Show an interest in their culture and customs as you share your own.

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    Spend some informal time with your new friends in the kitchen. One of the most perplexing problems for homemakers new to our supermarket system is food preparation. Finding the proper ingredients for their own dishes may be difficult, but trying to figure out how to cook with unfamiliar food is next to impossible unless someone translates recipes and instructions.

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    Crossing the cultural gap can be fun, too. Families from other countries will be curious about what we do and why, but during holidays they will be most comfortable with the traditions that brought warmth and love into their lives in their homelands. An open-minded effort that helps them combine the old with the new will communicate our love and concern.

In some South American countries, for example, Christmas is celebrated by eating a midnight dinner and then setting off fireworks. The children leave their shoes out for gifts from the wise men. If fireworks are legal, could we find some for a South American family? Could we join them for a late dinner or leave small gifts and candy for the children in shoes placed near the doorway?

As a Ward

In the past few years I have seen families from Iran, Nicaragua, and Vietnam move into my Las Vegas ward. Only the families who spoke Spanish found any returned missionaries to speak with. As I watched these families become assimilated, I discovered a few principles that really help:

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    Since the first few weeks in a new ward are some of the most crucial, ward families need to temporarily “adopt” these new members. The “old-timers” could pick up these families for church, sit by them, and show them where classes are held. They could take them to ward functions and help the children get to weekday activities.

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    These members often have great testimonies and stories of courage and faith to share. A translator can help them participate, especially in testimony meeting. This would bridge the communication gap and enrich everyone.

    At one testimony meeting, the father of one refugee family told of his family’s escape from Nicaragua. He spoke of being hunted, of the fear for relatives left behind, and finally of the death of his brother who refused to give away his whereabouts.

    For a ward accustomed to more commonplace recitals, it was an emotional moment, and our understanding and love for this “different” family grew quickly.

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    It is vital that these families learn English so they can function in an English-speaking society. Where community classes aren’t available, some wards and stakes have offered English classes. Members of other faiths often attend these classes and thereby become acquainted with the Church.

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    Demonstrations of food preparation, particularly of holiday dishes, spark a great deal of interest. Roasting a turkey in an oven may seem simple to us, but it is an entirely new cooking skill for someone who has never even seen an electric or gas oven.

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    Serving in a Church calling, though challenging, helps these members to feel a part of the ward. And their contributions can be rich and inspiring.

When Esperanza Alvarado retired after teaching in Mexican elementary schools for twenty years, she and her husband moved to the United States, where they joined the Church.

For three years Esperanza struggled to learn English, but she couldn’t seem to grasp it. Still, she attended church faithfully, even though she couldn’t understand what was said. For months, the bishop tried to find a way to involve her in the ward. Then Sister Huff, the Primary president, asked if Sister Alvarado could be called as the Primary secretary.

I was asked to translate for her so she could get started. For the first three or four weeks, I attended Primary with her, explaining what was happening and what her responsibilities were. I worked out some fill-in-the-blank forms to help her with one part of her calling, showed her where classes were held, and helped her with her first report. It wasn’t long before she found she could do the work without my help.

“I was nervous at first,” Sister Alvarado says. “But I wanted to do my part, too. The sisters were just wonderful. I learned more English than ever before.” She waves her hand over the Primary. “These are my children,” she says with deep emotion. “This church has been the biggest blessing in my life.”

As Stake Leaders

When a Spanish branch was formed in our stake, I was asked to be a liaison between the stake officers and the members of the new branch. That was where I first met Sister Michaels, Sister Mesa, and Sister Rodriguez.

I discovered several things from that first visit. The members of the Primary presidency were all new converts and had never even seen a “real” Primary. They had few materials to work with and, even after orientation, they had little idea of what to do to get their Primary going.

The key to helping them succeed on Sunday, I decided, was to attend their weekday presidency meeting. At first, the sisters seemed shy and doubtful that as a gringo I was really willing to be their friend. But as we got acquainted, my new friends began to ask me for help.

I showed them how to calendar their meetings, plan quarterly activities, and take turns conducting. I invited them to attend other Primaries with me. I took them to stake meetings, where I translated for them.

After several months, Primary began to improve. A year later, during branch conference, the Primary stake officers visited the branch.

“What a change has taken place!” said Sister Long, the stake Primary president. “Today it looked like a regular Primary in every way!”

What did we learn from the experience?

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    Call at least one bilingual person as a stake Primary officer if possible. And plan on visiting non-English-speaking branches often, even weekly, at first.

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    Attend presidency meetings.

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    Be willing to teach by example. For three consecutive months I took a turn at giving a Sharing Time presentation with each member of the Primary presidency.

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    Let them observe a regular ward in action.

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    Provide translation services at stake meetings and conferences. At one memorable Relief Society stake leadership meeting, bilingual people came from all over the stake to accompany each sister to her class and translate for her.

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    Along with teaching organizational and leadership skills, offer help in crossing the cultural bridge. When Halloween came, the Spanish-speaking sisters planned a party, complete with costumes and bobbing for apples. Afterwards, one sister asked, “We did this right, didn’t we? This is what you do on this holiday? Sister Olsen, why do you do this?” (She had me there; I’m still not sure myself.)

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    Attend some of their branch activities. At one branch dinner, Sister Long and I arrived to find dinner still being prepared. So we headed for the kitchen, where we chopped, peeled, and poured alongside the others. We watched, fascinated, as they prepared their native dishes. Later, at dinner, we had to ask what to do with the stack of tortillas set by our plates. They giggled at our ignorance. These sisters were doing a wonderful job, and our respect for them grew as we saw them in action within their own cultural traditions.

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    Let the branch do their share. At one activity, our stake Relief Society president did not ask the Spanish branch members to bring any food out of concern for their limited financial resources. “Boy, did I hear about that!” she recalls, with a grin. “Now I always assign everyone something. They want to participate.”

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    Be flexible. Sometimes we develop cultural attitudes about how programs “should” be run. The truth is, there is no one right way to accomplish the goals of the Church. It’s okay to stand back and let people do the job their way. For example, our Spanish branch sisters enjoy getting together every week for homemaking meetings, even though Churchwide, homemaking meetings are held monthly.

“We pushed for a while,” admits Maxine Taylor, the Relief Society president. “But finally I just relaxed. They were doing a good job. When I changed my attitude, the tensions disappeared.”

Can Reaching Out Make a Difference?

Barriers crumble when Saints work together. A few years ago, before new Church budget policies precluded fund-raisers, the Spanish Branch held a dinner and eagerly invited the whole stake. More than three hundred people lined up for plates of tacos and refried beans at a dollar a plate.

“You haven’t charged enough,” said many of the gringos. And they reached deeper into their pockets and dropped extra bills at the door.

But according to branch president Humberto Obregon, they charged just the right amount. “You see, if you charge a big price, some families will stay away. But if you charge a small price, then those who can afford to give more will give according to their means. So everyone comes, everyone feels good. It is truly the spirit of giving, and many are very, very generous.”

Kendall Jones, recently released as president of the Las Vegas East Stake, agrees. “It really works both ways. Those who get involved grow, too.”

Reaching out—it’s the only way across the language barrier.

[photos] Photography by Jed Clark and Judy Chadwick Olsen

Judy Chadwick Olsen serves as director of media relations for the Southern Nevada Multiregional Public Communications Council. She is a member of the Crestwood Ward, Las Vegas Nevada East Stake.