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Latter-day Saints who choose to serve missions enter a Missionary Training Center for just 2-10 weeks before they go out into their assigned areas for the remaining 18 or 24 months.

Since many serve in foreign countries, they learn a new language while in training, and many missionaries are fluent after about a year.

What techniques are used to teach LDS missionaries, and how to they get away with doing so in such a short span of time? Would the LDS church claim that it's related to the gift of tongues?

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Rosetta Stone? Do they know there mission in advance? – Affable Geek Mar 13 '14 at 13:58
This is extremely subjective. Is there any basis for believing that LDS missionaries learn any faster than someone else would who went throug the same training and immersion? I highly doubt it. – Narnian Mar 13 '14 at 14:27
@Matt I don't think he's reading too much into it. From your wording, the question implies that LDS missionaries have a superior method. I still think this is off topic because it's not a question about Christianity. I find it similar to: "How do Baptists get to church so quickly in the morning?" Maybe you mean, "What methods do Christian missionaries use to learn new languages for their mission trips?" Which would then be a polling question. Good question, bad place to ask it (SE/SO) – The Freemason Mar 13 '14 at 15:13
"Fluent" is probably massively overstating their abilities. – curiousdannii Mar 13 '14 at 22:01
This is a language question, not so much a question on Christianity. – Richard May 5 '14 at 15:15

6 Answers 6

up vote 19 down vote accepted

I served as an LDS missionary for two years and I think it can be predominantly attributed to a few simple things.

  1. 8-12 weeks in the Missionary Training Center where you study the language for at least 6-8 hours of the day have a big effect. We had experienced teachers that also went through the learning process. After a few weeks of study, we were asked to communicate only in the mission language we were studying, which greatly accelerated the learning process.
  2. Total immersion in the language. I was sent from Salt Lake City straight to a city in Mexico, where I was assigned to work with a companion that was experienced and also knew no English at all. The need to communicate was a necessity, and created a total immersion in the language. The way it is typically set up, you cannot fully function until you learn the language.
  3. This may be an extension of point 2, but you are encouraged to pray, read, and even think in the mission language from your first weeks of training. The program and method is designed to push you.
  4. After leaving the Missionary Training Center, each missionary takes at least one hour out of every day (for two years) to specifically study a foreign language (the mission language if you are not native to the location, and English if you do not already know it).

It also helps when you have full faith that if you're trying your best, God can give you the gift of tongues. When you have complete faith that God will help you learn the language, you tend to have some fairly accelerated learning.

The LDS church provides counsel to missionaries trying to learn a language in their missionary handbook, Preach My Gospel.

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Welcome to the site! This next has nothing to do with the quality of your answer, it's just standard to help new visitors avoid misunderstanding the site (as I did at first.) As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following two posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": the help page and How we are different than other sites? – David Mar 14 '14 at 1:46
Thanks for the answer! Just so you know, I updated my post to include a question on the LDS belief about the gift of tongues. You're welcome to comment on that in your answer, or I'll still accept this as-is! – Matt Mar 14 '14 at 13:26
The linked article has a section on the LDS view of the Gift of Tongues. Would you prefer me to edit the answer to mention that? – GarrettJ Mar 14 '14 at 15:55
Welcome GarretJ. People are not notified of your comments unless you a) Post a comment in their question/answer, or b) use the @ sign prepended to their name, like @Matt – Matthew Moisen Mar 15 '14 at 20:27
Thanks @MatthewMoisen for the notify. @ GarrettJ: Ah, I see that now, and it does answer my appended question, so that suffices. Thanks for pointing that out! – Matt Mar 15 '14 at 20:29

My experience was that those missionaries who are required to learn a foreign language usually spend 8-10 weeks in language training. Some missionaries have previous exposure to the language of their mission. The instruction they receive emphasizes religious vocabulary they will use in teaching and is a limited subset of the full language. It is a full-immersion program: after the first two weeks, they are expected to communicate in their mission language only, which provides a motivation for intensive self-study. When they arrive in the field, they are assigned an experienced companion who is already reasonably fluent in the language, or may not even speak English at all. In some missions, they may be asked to spend a half hour or more daily in language study. In the process of teaching, they are engaged nearly full-time in conversation and attempts to converse with native speakers. These factors combine to make the whole process faster and more thorough than the typical college or commercial program. This basic program has been in place for approximately the past 50 years, as outlined in the Missionary Training Center Wikipedia article.

It is understood that the gift of tongues is given more for the purpose of helping missionaries preach and less as a sign to non-believers. Various accounts of missionaries in the 19th and early 20th century report incidents in which missionaries became temporarily fluent in languages they had struggled with. Although missionaries are still encouraged to pray for the gift of tongues, it is more often expected to come in the form of enhancement of the missionaries' own efforts than evident miraculous display.

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Reflecting back on my mission experience abroad, I can say that it comes down to three main reasons to answer, "Why do Mormon missionaries learn foreign language so quickly?"

1) The belief in the gift of tongues: If this belief is constructive, like recognizing one's own progress, talents, self-worth, and endorsement/intervention from God without making comparisons to other missionaries or native speakers, it can be very empowering.

2) Persistence in imposing reception: Missionaries gain access to the native speaker community by actively and constantly seeking out the people that value their gospel message. This means a lot of interaction with native speakers to fulfill their mission call.

3) Instant membership in the language community: Missionaries already have enhanced language learning since they are well received by local Mormon native speakers who treat them like family by feeding them lunches and dinners, and see them as oracles when it comes to the Gospel and Church policies. They also have instant and constant membership in their small companionship communities. This may involve a constant companion that speaks the second language. Their is also the missionary community which creates a positive peer pressure that expects them to use the designated morning language study hour and make group goals to speak only the second language in meetings and/or among each other.

Bottom line is that knowing the second language very well is a fundamental part of their identity and purpose. But missionaries do have restrictions; they cannot use media that is not in their approved library; so they and are not too familiar with politics, news, and culture that is in the second language media. They are also very focused on talking about their Gospel message; so their writing ability does not develop as much as their speaking ability.

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There have been many good answers on this subject. Having been an observer of the missionary process to learn a language, I will share my insight.

They do immerse themselves into the language from day one in their training. As much as possible, they try to avoid their native language and attempt to communicate in the new language as exclusively as they can. This indeed accelerates the learning process.

However, even accelerated, even the military has studied the LDS language training process and has attempted to duplicate it as much as possible. Even they cannot seem to match the success rate from what I have seen, but they try.

When a missionary goes out, they often are not very fluent in the new languages. This makes for some very comical situations when they use a wrong combination of words that suggests something far from what they intended it to mean.

On the spiritual side though, there have been countless witnesses of missionaries who, when fairly new in the language, barely able to speak it well, if at all, have experienced moments when their minds just opened up and marvelous words seemed to flow from their mouths for the duration of a time, stunning not only themselves but those around em.

I believe very firmly that the gift of tongues is given to these missionaries. I believe that anybody who is sincere in their hearts in Jesus Christ can also experience this wonderful gift from time to time. After hearing the witnesses, there is no question in my mind that this gift is manifest in people far more than any of us realize.

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Welcome to the site! This doesn't really have much to do with your answer, but I find that sharing the following tends to help new visitors avoid mistaking the purpose of this site. I do hope to see more from you! When you get a chance, please see How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? – David Jul 4 '14 at 4:22

I work at the Missionary Training Center and my boss often speaks of when officials from the Army's language school came to study our curriculum to try and figure out how our missionaries learned languages so fast. (Below are links of two people's personal stories confirming this.) One big factor is that they are taught in total immersion from day one and as soon as they learn something new they are expected only say it in the language they are learning. When I was in the MTC we were taught to pray in Spanish on the first day and were expected to only pray in Spanish for the rest of our missions. Anyway, there are some thoughts for you. I hope this helps!

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I served as an Elder in the LDS church as a missionary. While I didn't serve a foreign mission, my brother and my father (the first in his family to join the church) did.

It's been mentioned several times in responses that in order to understand many of doctrines and principles of the LDS church all stem off of the belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that God (Our Father in Heaven) communicates through a prophet today as he has always done.

Contrary to the rest of Christianity, we don't believe the gift of tongues as most other Christians do. My buddy was Presbyterian, and I think has since converted or is in the process of conversation to the LDS church, and many others Christians I've known whom have prayed, speaking in tongues. I even have a life-long buddy that claimed to be pagan or Satanist that claimed he had a moment in which he "spake in tongues".

The fact of the matter is this, by our beliefs as LDS members, the gift of tongues is the ability to understand a spiritual message spoken by the Spirit, in one's native tongue, or the ability to learn a foreign language in order to preach the message among our Father's children. It's not some secret code or babble, it's an Elders ability to rapidly learn Spanish, English, or Mandarin at a rapid pace. In my experience, I served an English speaking mission but, I found I was able to communicate the message I was sent to deliver in a way I'd never been able to communicate with others before. I did it well. That was the gift of tongues, or gift of the spirit. I did learn a little German in school but nothing religious related but knocked on someone's door. They answered and only spoke German, but I was able to instantly convey a very basic simple gospel point in German. I may have been prepared in High School, but that language was quickly brought back, long enough to say my peace and then that was it. Never used it before and not after, that may have been the gift of tongues as well. It's not a secret, it's being open to the Spirit and granted the authority to be called to use that ability by God Our Father, not by a man having no authority. That's the beauty of having a living prophet.

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