“No More Strangers and Foreigners”


Church members and leaders can do much to help non-native speakers overcome language barriers and participate fully in wards and branches.

In her native country of Peru, Isabel, a young grandmother, was heavily involved in her ward. But since moving to the United States five years ago, participating in church has been more difficult. She understands only about half of the words spoken during Church meetings, and she is frustrated. “If it is the gospel, I want to understand all of it,” she explains.

The gospel is for people of all tongues, and the challenge Isabel faces is not unique. Many members living in English-speaking countries are not native English speakers, and learning to feel at home in their wards and branches can be difficult. By the same token, there are many English-speaking members living in areas where English is not the mother tongue. They, too, long to feel welcomed in unfamiliar circumstances. Experience has shown that Church members and leaders can do a great deal to help members who are not fluent in the language to feel more comfortable. In addition, success stories show there is much these members can do to help themselves.

Extending Fellowship

Usually, the single most important way to help integrate these members in their ward or branch families is to extend fellowship, which can begin with something as simple as exchanging a greeting between Church meetings. Traditionally, greetings are some of the first phrases non-native speakers learn. As greetings are offered, smile, look the person in the eye, and speak slowly and clearly at a normal volume. When possible, speak to your new friends in a setting where there are few distracting noises; crying children, loud talking, and other extraneous noises can be obstacles when non-fluent speakers are listening carefully. Use common, simple words and phrases, but don’t speak condescendingly. Just because simple words are needed to communicate doesn’t mean the listener is simpleminded. Finally, allow extra time for the listener to respond.

There are other simple ways to extend fellowship. As a child, Tim Tsai emigrated from Taiwan to the United States with his family. Even now, he remembers when the wife of one of their home teachers taught his mother how to cook some American dishes. The cooking lessons established a friendship, and Brother Tsai’s mother enjoyed attending church because she knew that even though she didn’t understand all that was spoken, she had a friend.

Jing Yu, a student from China, joined the Church while living in the United States. She was expecting her first baby, and her visiting teachers offered to plan a baby shower. She still laughs as she recalls that the women had to explain that the baby would be “showered” with gifts, not given a bath. But their simple offer convinced Jing Yu that the two sisters did indeed care about her.

Inviting and Involving

Another way to help members who are not fluent in a language is to involve them in activities and classes. On the first Sunday Tomoko Notoya attended the Greenwich Ward in the Sydney Australia Greenwich Stake, she felt quite lost. Newly arrived from Japan, Tomoko was comfortable speaking in her native tongue only. She struggled to understand what was taught in Sunday School and what was said in sacrament meeting.

Under the direction of Relief Society president Lillian Duncan, the sisters in the ward took Tomoko under their wing and helped her through her early days in the country. Because Sister Duncan made a special effort to invite Tomoko to single-adult activities, Tomoko met new friends who helped her adjust to a new country and new culture. Anne-Marie Osmotherly, the wife of Tomoko’s home teacher, attended temple preparation classes with her, making sure Tomoko understood the concepts taught in the class. Sister Osmotherly also accompanied Tomoko to the temple when she received her endowment.

Richard Osmotherly, who had requested the opportunity to home teach Tomoko, obtained a copy of the Book of Mormon in Japanese for Tomoko to study. He also found copies of the Japanese-language Church magazine.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of those who involved her, two years after her arrival in Australia Tomoko is a confident member of her ward who contributes greatly.

Opportunities to Serve

Sometimes out of consideration for the feelings of non-fluent members, leaders may be reluctant to extend callings that require frequent communication with others. Well-intentioned leaders may simply not want to place those who have language limitations in situations that may cause them embarrassment or discomfort.

However, these members will improve their language skills faster and become integrated more quickly if they are given the challenge of serving in positions in which they can interact with others. Often these members have had previous experience serving in Church callings in their native countries and have rich experiences and creative ideas to contribute. Many of these members have risen to meet the demands of almost any calling to serve, improving their language ability along the way.

Organized Fellowship Efforts

While much of the help extended to members struggling with language barriers is on an individual level, organized efforts may also be effective. Some wards and branches offer language classes for non-native speakers or gospel literacy classes for members who do not read well. With proper priesthood approval, Church units might offer an adult Sunday School class for members with limited language abilities, taking extra care to invite the help of members who can provide translation services. In this type of class, members with limited language ability would have more opportunities to ask questions, review common words used at church and in the scriptures, and compare scripture passages in both languages.

Several benefits could come from these organized efforts. First, members can learn a new language more quickly if they receive specialized instruction and encouragement in a comfortable classroom environment. Second, these members have a network of people with whom they can learn and share thoughts and feelings about the gospel. Third, wards and branches can more easily learn of these members’ needs. Finally, members who assist in these classes will have the opportunity to review their own language abilities.

In the Classroom

Even in regular classes, teachers can aid understanding by a variety of simple techniques. These include using more visual aids to illustrate stories and concepts and writing the main points and scripture references on the chalkboard for all to refer to. In addition, teachers can make an effort to keep the lesson and class discussion focused on the main topic of the lesson and the basic concepts that support it.

Members trying to learn a new language can be involved in meetings and lessons, especially if they are given time to prepare in advance. Depending on how comfortable they feel, these members may be able to give short talks or retell an experience in class. Many of these members can read a scripture out loud or offer a prayer. In one ward’s Relief Society meetings, leaders encourage members to pray or bear their testimonies in their native language if they feel more comfortable doing so.

One sister from Brazil who otherwise felt awkward or uncomfortable when participating occasionally took advantage of this opportunity and bore her testimony in Portuguese. There were few dry eyes when she finished, because many who heard her felt the Spirit and understood her emotion even though they did not understand her words.

Showing Initiative

Learning to speak and read the language of the land is one of the most important things members can do to feel more comfortable, increase their level of understanding, and participate fully in Church meetings. An added bonus is that they also find it easier to function in the environment where they are living, working, and studying.

Many members have been quite successful studying a good language textbook on their own. Others find success in taking language courses offered as community classes for a reasonable price. In addition to diligent study, these members can practice speaking their new language at home and with native speakers in other settings.

An effective way for these members to increase their understanding of the gospel and of the language they desire to learn is to study the scriptures in that language and in their native language simultaneously. Fortunately, portions of the standard works are now available in more than 80 different languages. In addition, some bilingual parallel versions of the Bible are available in bookstores. The Church distribution centers also have a wide variety of Sunday School, Relief Society, and priesthood manuals, hymnals, and other materials available in many different languages.

One sister brings her Spanish scriptures and manuals with her when she attends meetings. With these extra resources, she is able to understand the lesson better. Many others continue their study of the gospel by subscribing to the Church magazine in their native language, such as the Liahona (Spanish).

The international magazines are printed in 31 languages. Members may order the magazines by completing a Subscription Order Form (34266) and indicating in the international magazines’ section the language they are interested in subscribing to. All branch and ward magazine representatives should have these forms. In addition, members may call or write to the Church distribution center that services their area.

Another way these dedicated members can improve their understanding is to look for things that can clarify words spoken during Church meetings and lessons. Pictures, songs, bulletins, and lesson manuals are just a few of the extra items that can aid understanding.

Focusing on the Positive

Although attending church week after week without understanding much of what is going on can be discouraging, doing so while focusing on the positive is a great step toward progress.

One sister remembers how little she understood in her new English-speaking ward when she first emigrated from Germany. But she concentrated on the hymns and music, which became the most meaningful part of her Sunday worship because music transcends language limitations.

Other members with challenges in language comprehension pray diligently to feel the Spirit every week, knowing that the Spirit can help them understand the basic message even if they do not understand all the words they hear.

Walstir and Fernando Fonseca, a couple who emigrated from Brazil to the United States, believe that non-native speakers must also overcome their fears about communicating. They remember well their first experiences in their new ward: “At first we were worried about whether we could communicate well in English. We knew some members might be afraid to talk to us at first. But soon after we arrived, we attended a ward volleyball activity. We quickly made friends and shortly thereafter received callings.”

Walstir and Fernando believe their effort to attend every activity and meeting helped them to quickly feel comfortable when communicating. Small, informal activities such as homemaking meetings, ward socials, choir, and sports activities are ideal for learning the language and becoming integrated in the ward or branch.

Many blessings can come from members’ efforts to fellowship those who speak different languages and from the efforts made by members who are learning new languages who have a great desire to understand and contribute. As diverse individuals who are committed to a common cause, the gospel of Jesus Christ, we can become unified as members of a growing international church whose members speak almost 140 different languages. In addition, we can discover afresh the “core” of the gospel, which is independent of language and culture. Then, regardless of our diverse native languages, we will no longer be “strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).

[photos] Photography by Steve Bunderson, except as noted

[photo] Photo courtesy of Visual Resources Library

Sue Campbell Clark is ward organist of the Moscow (Idaho) Third Ward.

Robert Good is an assistant in the high priests group in the Champaign (Illinois) First Ward.