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Cultural Literacy and Language Learning

argentina culture horse carts in the streets Most missionaries who learn a second language understand that it is necessary for them to learn the vocabulary and grammar of the new language. It is less obvious, though, to many missionaries, that cultural literacy, or knowledge of the culture, will also significantly improve their ability to speak and understand the language. If you understand the culture of the people to whom you are called the teach the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, you will have more success because you will be more likely to:

  • Anticipate misunderstandings as you prepare to teach.
  • Understand what people really mean.
  • Express yourself appropriately.
  • Become one with the people.

Note: This post on cultural literacy is part of the language learning series.

Anticipate misunderstandings as you prepare to teach.

You should strive to understand the unique culture of the people you are called to teach so that you can communicate the message of the Restoration in a way that will be clear to them. As you anticipate how the message will be received, based on your cultural understanding, you may make adjustments to the way you teach certain principles of the gospel. Then, when you teach people, they will understand what you are telling them in the context of their own culture and experience.

Understand what people really mean.

As you become acquainted with the culture of the people where you are serving, it will be easier for you to understand what people are saying to you even if they don’t explain every detail. People in your mission may have many attitudes and practices that are foreign to you and you may come to the wrong conclusions about what they are saying if you do not understand their perspective. See, for example, the following true story that was sent to me:

Most people base their ideas of who God is on the culture in which they grow up. In my mission, we taught Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, and Evangelicals. Almost every religion I’d ever heard of thrived in my mission, as well as some I’d never heard of before. I quickly learned that when people talked to me about their feelings about God, if I didn’t have some basic understanding of their religion and culture, I wouldn’t know how to interpret what they were telling me.

Once, the day after I was transferred to an island I’d never served on before, we were teaching a young woman who seemed very receptive to our message. She was very willing to believe that God is our Father and that Jesus Christ is our Savior. She readily believed the Joseph Smith story and our account of the Book of Mormon. We were excited that she seemed so receptive. We moved through the discussion, teaching principle after principle, thrilled as she accepted one doctrine after another. Needless to say, we were very surprised when she did not accept our invitation to read and pray about the Book of Mormon.

Later that day, we stopped at a fruit stand to get a quick snack. During our chat with the vendor, I asked him if he believed in Jesus Christ. He replied that he did. He said, “We don’t want to offend any gods, so we believe in them all. I believe in your Christian god as well as in my own.”

That was when it hit me – the woman we’d taught earlier that day was polytheistic and willing to believe in many gods. She believed in our God because she didn’t want to offend Him, but that didn’t mean that she saw the need of changing anything about her life. She could fit the things we taught her right into her belief system. If I had known that when we were teaching her, I wouldn’t have been so puzzled by the situation and I could made it clear that we were bringing her something different. Then our invitations would have meant something.

Express yourself appropriately.

As a Mormon missionary, you should strive to understand the local culture so that you express yourself in appropriate ways. You should not assume that you can simply translate your thoughts, word for word, into another language and that people will understand. You must learn how to think and express yourself in the new language and in the way that is appropriate to that language and culture. A missionary learning Mandarin might ask, for example, “How do you say, ‘We love you’ in Mandarin?” Although a teacher could translate this statement literally, that would not be helpful since that is not a phrase the Chinese people say. A more appropriate question might be, “How does one talk about feelings in Mandarin?”

When I was in Argentina, I was amazed one day, several months into my mission, when I realized that instead of thinking in English and then translating my thoughts into Spanish, I was simply thinking in Spanish.  From then on, my language abilities began to improve more rapidly.

Become one with the people.

One of the greatest things you can do to gain people’s trust and admiration is to embrace their culture in appropriate ways. This has been the way of great missionaries since the apostle Paul in ancient times (1 Cor 9:20-22). Get to know the people among whom you serve. Strive to understand their background and values. Do not suppose that because you feel comfortable with the language and culture that that is sufficient.  What is equally as important as you feeling comfortable with the language and culture, is that the people feel comfortable with you, your language, and your behavior.

Also remember to always speak the mission language when you are in public. Speaking your native language with your companion when other people are around can be very impolite. Members and investigators will trust you more and you will have more opportunities to get to know them if you always speak their language in church meetings and other public venues.

As you learn the culture of the people in your mission, as well as the language, you will become a more powerful instrument in the hands of the Lord.

Learning the Language: Tips for Mormon Missionaries

A large percentage of Mormon Missionaries are sent to a foreign land, and the majority of them, and even some that stay state-side, are asked to learn a new language.  This is the next in a series of posts on learning the language of your mission. This language learning series will be good for both future and current missionaries striving to better master their mission language.

mormon-missionaries-with-manReceiving the Gospel In Their Own Tongue

The Lord declared to Joseph Smith that “every man shall hear the fullness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language, through those who are ordained unto this power” (D&C 90:11). Regardless of the language you are called to teach in, whether it be your native tongue or not, you have been “ordained unto this power.” If you have been called to learn a foreign language, part of your calling is to learn to speak your mission language well so that you can help others come unto Christ.

In order for investigators to feel the truth of your message and seek to gain a testimony of their own, people must be able to understand your message clearly. It is true that sometimes missionaries who do not speak their mission language well are blessed to be able to communicate with people through the Spirit, but such instances are rare. Generally speaking, missionaries who speak the language better are more successful at helping others come unto Christ.

My Experience Learning Spanish

When I received my call to go to Argentina and learn Spanish, I was a little afraid. I hardly knew a word of Spanish, but I had faith in the Lord that he would help me.  I knew that thousands of missionaries who had come before me had learned to speak a foreign language, and learned it well. And I knew if the Lord helped them learn a new language, he could certainly help me. And thanks to a lot of hard work, early mornings of extra studying, good companions, and the help of the Lord I was able to learn Spanish. (See the post I wrote last year on learning a language for more detail on my experience learning Spanish)

Prepare Yourself Spiritually

Studying and understanding the doctrines of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ will strengthen your testimony and, in turn, increase your capacity to teach and testify convincingly. The strength of your personal testimony will bring converting power to your words. You must, therefore, then learn to express in your mission language what is in your heart and mind. To succeed in this, you must be spiritually prepared and willing to work hard and be obedient to mission rules and the commandments so you can have the Spirit with you.

Below are some tips from the Preach My Gospel manual on ways you can strengthen your faith that the Lord will help you teach and testify in your mission language:

  • Recognize that you have been called of God by a prophet.
  • Live worthy of the companionship of the Holy Ghost.
  • Be obedient to the commandments and to missionary standards.
  • Pray sincerely for divine assistance.
  • Study, practice, and use the mission language each day.

Work Hard and Be Persistent

Learning to teach effectively in a new language requires great effort. Do not be surprised if the task seems hard, or if progress comes slower than you expect. It will take time, but if you are persistent, work hard, and seek the Lord’s help, your language skills will grow.

You may be tempted to memorize the discussions or give the lessons word for word from memory, but to truly be effective as a missionary, you must take it to the next level. You must be able to interact well with others, understand the nuances of meaning, deal with uncertainty, and make adjustments as you teach.

As you improve your ability to speak the mission language, the people you meet will listen more to what you say than to how you say it. You will then be less worried about how to communicate the thoughts and feelings in your mind and heart, and you will be better prepared to respond to the needs of your investigators and to follow the promptings of the Spirit.

Continually strive to master the language throughout your mission and even beyond your mission. The Lord has invested much in you, and He may have uses for your language abilities later in your life. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland explained,

“We would also hope that every missionary learning a new proselyting language would master it in every way possible. Every missionary in this Church can improve his or her mission language skills. And as you do so, your proselyting and testifying skills will improve, you will be better received and more spiritually impressive to your investigators. Keep pushing on language mastery the entire length of your mission. . . . Don’t be satisfied with what we call a missionary vocabulary only. Stretch yourself in the language, and you will gain greater access to the hearts of the people. They will love you for trying to speak and honor their language” (Missionary Satellite Broadcast, August 1998).

You’re Not Alone in Learning the Language

I’ll conclude with another thought from the Preach My Gospel manual:

You are not alone in learning your mission language. Whenever the Lord gives a commandment, He provides a way to accomplish it (see 1 Nephi 3:7). Seek His help. Be dedicated in your study. In time you will acquire the language skills necessary to fulfill your purpose as a missionary.