Lessons From The Language Boot Camp For Mormon Missionaries

Jun 7, 2014
Originally published on June 10, 2014 12:01 pm

On a sunny Wednesday in Provo, Utah, a long line of cars spits out about 300 new arrivals to the Missionary Training Center. The facility, known as MTC, is the largest language training school for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Every year, about 36,000 students come to the center before they leave on missions around the world to spread the Mormon faith.

There is a lot of excitement; last year, the church lowered the missionary age to 18 for men and 19 for women. The mood is like the move-in day at a college, only all of the students are dressed in dark suits and modest skirts.

The training center is widely recognized as one of the best language-instruction institutes in the world, though that's not the only thing that's taught. In a matter of weeks, these enthusiastic young students will be speaking foreign languages fluently enough to spread the gospel.

How Do They Do It?

At 8 a.m., in a small downstairs classroom, 10 missionaries start their day with a Mormon hymn — in Mandarin. Instructor Bracken Hodges is a student at Brigham Young University, which is next door. Like most of the instructors, he's a former missionary (he spent two years in Taiwan).

"We're working on the grammar structure ... and we're teaching that grammar structure in the context of teaching someone about Jesus Christ and what he did when he was on the Earth," Hodges says.

The class recites phrases like, "What did Jesus Christ do when he was on Earth?"

Once everyone has the pronunciation down, Hodges quizzes individual students. After that, students pair off for role-playing exercises. One student plays a missionary, and the other a local — a potential convert.

Megan Jackson, a 26-year-old from Wisconsin, has vocabulary flashcards pinned to her skirt — a pretty common accessory here. When she arrived five weeks ago, Jackson had never studied Mandarin.

"I was like a deer in the headlights on the first day, to be honest," Jackson says. "But now I can understand like 98 percent of what the teachers are saying to me. I'm getting more and more excited as the time goes."

Kirsten Weiss is one of the few students in this class with previous experience in Mandarin. She studied the language in college but says the training at the MTC is much more intense.

"The five weeks that I've been at the MTC, I've seen people go from having zero experience with Mandarin — or even learning any language — to going where I was maybe about my third year of studying at a university," Weiss says. "It's very impressive."

Instructor Hodges says the secret is in the unofficial motto of the training center: "Speak your language." Rather than memorizing a list of words, students learn through trying to speak their assigned language in various scenarios. When they stumble in saying a phrase, that's when they find new words to learn, Hodges says.

A Novel Approach

A decade ago, many universities taught languages through rote memorization and translation. The context-based teaching that the MTC uses is relatively new in language instruction.

The approach has also gained traction in the U.S. military. In fact, the ties between the U.S. military and the MTC run pretty deep. The Army's Intelligence Brigade, made up of linguists, is based in Utah and draws on former missionaries to fill its ranks.

The military trains soldiers in much the same way the church trains missionaries; they're not conjugating verbs, they're acting out real situations.

"I'm not going to give you multiple-choice questions. I'm not going to give you fill-in-the-blanks," says Betty Lou Leaver, the provost at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. "Instead, we're going to actually do something. So a task is something you might actually do in your life."

But there's a difference between training soldiers and training missionaries. To study Mandarin at the Defense Language Institute takes 64 weeks; missionaries leave the training center after just nine.

Many institutions want to know the secret to that efficiency, not just the military. The MTC frequently hosts visitors from government, academia and business.

But there's something that can be hard to replicate outside of the church. It's the thing that has these young adults smiling and bright as they spend every waking hour focused on their task.

"Everything we do is trying to learn by and with the Spirit, so that's really the only way you can ... stand it here," says Benjamin Simpson.

Many other students said the same thing in one way or another — and whether you share their faith or not, the results speak for themselves.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR news. I'm Arun Rath. On a beautiful, sunny Wednesday, I'm at the missionary training Center in Provo, Utah. I'm here for arrival day at the largest language training school for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The missionary training center is widely recognized as one of the best language instruction institutes in the world because what they do here is truly extraordinary. In a matter of weeks, these enthusiastic young students around me will be speaking foreign languages fluently enough to spread the gospel. Every year, about 36,000 students come here before they leave to spread the Mormon faith. Among the roughly 300 new arrivals is Lindsay Christensen (ph), from Wyoming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSIONARY TRAINING CENTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Work hard.

LINDSAY CHRISTENSEN: I'll see you in a year and a half.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: How does it feel to be here? Or are you excited?

CHRISTENSEN: I'm so excited

RATH: Right now, Lindsay has no idea how long she'll be here. But the school has determined it will take her six weeks to learn Slovenian before she begins her mission in Eastern Europe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSIONARY TRAINING CENTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Awesome. She is going to love it. I will take this for you.

RATH: The mood is like the move-in day at college, only the students are dressed in dark suits and modest skirts. How do they learn foreign languages so quickly? For our cover story today, we're going to take you inside the Missionary Training Center to find out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSIONARY TRAINING CENTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Come on down this hallway.

RATH: At 8 a.m., in the small downstairs classroom, 10 missionaries start their day with a Mormon hymn in Mandarin.

(SOUNDBITE OF HYMN)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing in Mandarin).

RATH: Instructor Bracken Hodges is a student at Brigham Young University next door. Like all the instructors here, he's a former missionary himself.

BRACKEN HODGES: That's great. so we're working on the grammar structure of one at that time. And we're teaching that grammar structure in the context of teaching someone about Jesus Christ and what he did when he was on the Earth.

RATH: He has the class recite phrases like what did Jesus Christ do when he was on Earth?

HODGES: (Mandarin spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Mandarin spoken).

RATH: Once everyone has the pronunciation down, Hodges turns to individual students. Nineteen-year-old Kevin Gibbs does his best to answer.

HODGES: (Mandarin spoken).

KEVIN GIBBS: (Mandarin spoken).

HODGES: (Mandarin spoken).

RATH: Again, says Hodges, say the whole thing again.

GIBBS: (Mandarin spoken).

RATH: This time, Gibbs nails it. Next, students pair off with their companions for role-playing exercises. One student plays a missionary and the other a local - a potential convert.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: (Mandarin spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: (Mandarin spoken) - heal the blind.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: (Mandarin spoken) - raise the debt.

RATH: Megan Jackson is from Wisconsin. The 26-year-old has vocabulary flashcards pinned to her skirt. She's only been studying Mandarin for five weeks.

MEGAN JACKSON: (Mandarin spoken). Oh, my goodness I felt like a deer in the headlights on my first day, to be honest. But now it its - I can understand about like 98 percent of what the teachers are saying to me. I'm getting more excited as the time goes. Like, I can do this, you know.

RATH: Kirsten Weiss is one of the few students in this class with experience in Mandarin. She studied it in college. She says the training here is way more intense.

KIRSTEN WEISS: The five weeks that I have been at the Missionary Training Center, I have seen people go from having zero experience with Mandarin or even learning any language, to going where I was probably about my third year of studying at a university. It's very impressive.

RATH: Instructor Hodges says the secret is in the unofficial motto of the training center - speak your language.

HODGES: These missionaries are taught speak your language. And if you don't know that word, then say that word in English. And in your language study later today, make sure and learn that word so that you can turn around and apply the next time. As a teacher, if I see a missionary maybe saying a word wrong, if you just tell the missionary that they said the word wrong and give them the new word, it's very unlikely that they're going to remember that three days later. But if they say a wrong word and you say, wait a second and make them stop and go back in what they said and analyze it and realize - oh, I said this word wrong or I didn't use this right tone, then they're going to remember that word a lot more and be able to correct that error the next time that they use that word.

RATH: Just a decade ago, many universities taught languages through rote memorization and translation. The context based approach, used here, is relatively new, and it's gaining traction. Betty Lou Leaver is the provost at the military's Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.

BETTY LOU LEAVER: The language world is small. We know each other. So we share knowledge, even formally, through various mechanisms.

RATH: The Army's Intelligence Brigade, made up of linguists, is based in Utah and draws on former missionaries. The military trains soldiers in much the same way the church trains missionaries. They're not conjugating verbs. They're acting out real situations.

LEAVER: I'm not going to give you multiple-choice questions, and I'm not going to give you fill in the blanks. What we're going to do is we're going to do something. So the task is something you might actually do in your real life.

RATH: But there's a difference between training soldiers and training missionaries. To study Mandarin at the Defense Language Institute takes 64 weeks. Missionaries leave the training center after just nine. And when I asked about the dropout rate of the Missionary Training Center, they didn't know how to answer. Only a handful have ever decided to leave. A lot of people want to know the secret to that efficiency, not just the military. The Missionary Training Center frequently entertains visitors from government, academia and business. But there's something that's impossible to replicate outside of the church, the thing that has these kids smiling and bright as they spend every waking hour focused on their task. Student Benjamin Simpson put it this way.

BENJAMIN SIMPSON: Well you know, I mean, everything we do is trying to learn by and with the spirit so that's really - that's really the only way you can really stand it here. We've all had discussion about how this place would be not very fun without the spirit, so.

RATH: Just about every student I spoke with said the same thing in one way or another. And whether you share their faith or not, the results speak for themselves. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.