Language Learning and The Mormon connection



As I write this blog, I am in Bogotá Colombia. As I often do, yesterday I attended church. Since I am LDS, it is always interesting to attend church in other countries. It is also a great experience in language learning.  I sometimes feel sorry for those of you who are language learners, but who are not LDS. Of course we can talk about you becoming Mormon someday, but that would be a blog for another time.

Mormons go to church every Sunday for three hours. Here in Bogota, that meant three hours of listening to Spanish, talking in Spanish, exchanging ideas in Spanish, expressing opinions in Spanish. We sing songs in Spanish, we hear and give prayers in Spanish, and there is an intensity to the amount of Spanish that is heard and spoken and practiced. And because the Mormon church is a lay church, that means that everybody participates. On one hand, I heard Spanish from very educated, articulate individuals.  But I also heard Spanish from others who were less articulate and less educated.   I heard Spanish from little children, and I heard Spanish from the elderly.  

I have now been in Colombia for two days. The first day I visited a number of different locations, and saw a lot of things, and talked to a lot of people. But I would also say that in the three hours that I was at church, I was exposed to more Spanish than what I had heard the whole previous day.  Clearly, for me, one of the linguistic benefits of yesterday’s church services was the amount of language that I was exposed to.

However another benefit is the context in which language is used.  I am familiar with the way Mormons conduct meetings.  I know the topics that are discussed, I am familiar with the scriptural stories.  I know the agenda of the meetings, I know the way the Sunday school lessons are taught.  I know the protocol of how meetings are conducted.  All of these things provide me with a context for the foreign language experience.  This familiarity automatically enhances my comprehension in a foreign language. If a non-LDS person were to hear a lesson on the duties of a member of the deacon’s quorum, it might be hard to follow.  For me, however, it is a familiar context.

And finally, yesterday’s experience was great for language learning because it was real communication.  Nothing was contrived, there were no fake dialogs, no manipulated phrases to trigger the subjunctive, and no artificial exercises to practice direct object pronouns.  A grammar focus has its time and place, but what I like about real communication is the pace.  Real communication flies by fast, and you need to keep up with it.  I learn a lot by having to keep up with the pace of real communication.  

So for those of you who aren’t LDS, I hope you find a similar context for your foreign language experience.  For me, yesterday was a nice reminder of how great church going can be for language learning.

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3 Responses to “Language Learning and The Mormon connection”

  1. Sean Bohle Says:

    Hi Orlando,

    Thanks so much for your Tá Falado podcasts that you did a while back. I am also LDS and served a mission in Argentina. My Spanish helped me jump into Portuguese with lots of vocab and grammar under my belt, and I found Tá Falado looking for Portuguese resources for Spanish speakers.

    About the Mormon connection for language learning, the other great opportunity the church presents is the same content in multiple languages over different media. For example, I use the Gospel Library app to listen to General Conference in Portuguese, I have a copy of Preach My Gospel in multiple languages, and I read the scriptures in Portuguese while listening to them on audio files so I can practice my pronunciation.

    I once told a Brazilian who asked how I had learned Portuguese that I did so in part by listening to “discursos” and he thought this was kind of strange. What “discursos”? General Conference talks of course!

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Stephan Gabrielson Says:

    Last October, my wife and I traveled to Brazil for 10 days to “pick up” our son at the end of his mission in the Brazil Piracicaba Mission (I commented briefly in the comments section of the Línguadagente Beginning lesson “It’s So Hot!” about how hot it actually was when we were there). I should mention that when we arrived in Brazil, I had previously learned only a little Portuguese and didn’t really have even basic Portuguese conversation skills, though I did know some Spanish from having taken Spanish classes in school, years ago, and my wife didn’t know any Portuguese at all (needless to say, our trip was an adventure; albeit a wonderful one).

    While we were there, we went to church in Hortolândia and in Piracicaba. I absolutely agree with what you wrote about the advantage of being familiar with the way LDS meetings are conducted and with the structure of Sunday School, and Priesthood and Relief Society lessons. I recognized enough words that, combined with my understanding of the context, I was often able to get a general sense of what was being said. The first Sunday we were there was a Testimony Meeting (the week after General Conference), so certain frequently-repeated phrases enhanced my ability to understand what was being said. The ward we attended our second Sunday there had their Primary program that Sunday, so we were able to hear simple narrative statements from the children and Primary songs with which we were familiar, spoken and sung in a different language. This brings up another “Mormon connection” advantage: the hymns and songs. We were familiar with the music and English-version words of the hymns and Primary songs, and we sang along with the hymns in Portuguese (to the best of our ability), which proved to be a really good interactive way to quickly learn some more Portuguese. We also quickly became familiar with the way some Portuguese contractions are used in the hymns to facilitate matching the words with the music.

    Finally, the universal curriculum of Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society lessons, combined with the Gospel Library app on my iPad, made it possible to follow along with the lessons and even share a comment, with translation help from my son.

    By the time we left Brazil, my vocabulary and ability to understand and interactively communicate (still quite limited) in Portuguese had increased more than I would have thought possible in just 10 days.

    Thank you for the incredible Portuguese language resources from UT-Austin that are available on the Internet. Eles são demais!

    • Orlando Says:

      Hi Stephan,
      Don’t you just love how LDS people have such a different foreign experience! Who else goes to Brazil and travels first to Piracicaba! And how lucky that you were able to view a primary program. That would be the perfect sacrament meeting to be able to hear lots of basic statements and simple vocabulary.
      Thank you for your report, and thanks for using our language resources. Our current língua da gente series has been loads of fun to produce. Our recording sessions are often the highlight of my week.

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