Teaching over 50 foreign languages, the Mormon Church’s language program deserves a close look

Well, they found me. I didn’t think they would. I didn’t even know they were anywhere nearby, but then there was that inimitable knock on my door at 7pm on a Sunday night.

They were startled when I opened the door. Two Americans standing there in suits, ready to pull the trigger on their spiel in the Japanese language, but confronted by a highly un-Japanese face.

“oh, uh… good evening sir. We’re here to talk to you about Jesus Christ.”

You all know how it goes from there. The Mormon Church has been sending out missionaries since it was incepted in the early 1800’s. In fact, pretty much all Christ-based religions have been sending out conversion delegations for a long, long time. These missions started out with dubious methods of conversion, often with violence and war, but later evolved to small parties of cultural ambassadors who traveled to the far reaches to build churches and preach and baptize as much as they possible could. The Mormons, however, have evolved another method: they take a door to door approach. Instead of reaching out to people en masse, they target individuals, at their homes; wherever those homes may be.

By now you might be asking yourself, what does this have to do with language teaching? And this is something you may not have realized, because if you’ve ever been approached by an LDS delegate chances are they spoke to you in English, but were you in Japan or Honduras (both places where I’ve witnessed these delegates in action) you would find them speaking to you in Japanese or Spanish. And I can guarantee if you were in Russia, Germany, Laos, Tanzania, or any of the 120 nations where the LDS operates missions, the delegates would be there, proselytizing in Russian, German, Laotian, Swahili, or the like. The Mormon Church has a large, highly effective, language learning program.

Being a language-teaching aficionado, I decided to find out how the Mormon Church goes about teaching these young missionaries a new language. According to its website, before being sent out into the world, a prospective missionary is sent to a training center. It’s there that the language learning begins; 6-9 weeks of it, depending on the language, and there are approximately 50 languages taught at the Provo, Utah training center alone. So let’s take a look at exactly what goes on in those 6-9 weeks.

There are three things, other than teaching methodologies, that jump out at me right away. First, this is what we call an “intensive language course,” meaning that during those 6-9 weeks these students are doing little else than studying their new language. This is very different than taking a language course in college, where you may meet for 2-3 hours a week over the course of several months. The missionary students are probably spending around 10 hours a day studying their language. Second, during their time at the training center they are encouraged to only speak their new language. This creates an immersion environment both in and out of the classroom. Lastly, effective language learning relies entirely on the motivation of the learner, and these students are operating under the mother of all motivation: God’s will.

That’s some pretty nice terra firma from which to learn a new language, but it isn’t everything. What about teaching methodologies? It turns out the Mormons employ cutting edge teaching techniques based on contemporary research. For example, context-based instruction, in this case using prayer, hymns, and the bible in the target language as source material. This not only provides familiar ground for the missionaries but also prepares them for teaching this material to speakers of the target language. The LDS language learning program also used task based learning. Students do role plays where one person plays the role of missionary and another the role of potential convert. Using the target language to complete meaningful tasks allows for language use in the classroom that mirrors what students may encounter in the real world; when they goof on certain phrases they don’t look to a teacher or a book for translational help, they have to negotiate a meaning on the spot, and they learn even more during that process. And of course the program has plenty of grammar and vocabulary instruction too, as it’s pretty hard to get very far without a basic understanding of those elements.

I can earnestly say, after researching their program, that the Mormon missionary training centers provide top notch training during the 6-9 week stay of their students. I have to add, however, that their training is not sufficient for a student to reach any kind of fluency, although I can’t say that fluency is necessarily the goal for the program. Many graduates of the Mormon program testify that they were completely unintelligible when they arrived in their service country. What this program does offer is a wonderful foundation in a language that can be used to build fluency over the roughly 2 years of work abroad that these missionaries typically embark on. For most of these missionaries, their goal is to be fluent enough to teach the gospel and nothing really beyond that. So for some, even after their mission is completed they can’t use the language to tell you about their travel plans or to talk about sports, for example.

The American military, in contrast, has a language learning program for people in their intelligence agency. This program is almost exactly the same as the Mormon program in its methodology and intensity, and even recruits former missionaries as instructors, but there is one major difference, the military program is 64 weeks long. With that amount of time spent in an intensive program, the military graduates students who are extremely adept in their target language. Once again we’re reminded that learning a new language is something that takes time and commitment.

In conclusion. I commend the Mormon Church for being on top of their game when it comes to language learning. There are many schools in the world that would do well to mimic their practices. But don’t get me wrong; if you’re looking to learn a new language, there are easier ways than becoming a Mormon proselyte, or joining the military. Just saying.