One of the things that scares the daylights out of senior missionaries is opening the envelope from Salt Lake City that contains the line: “You are hereby called to the (fill-in-the-blank) mission." The gasps and awes burst forth until they realize they will either have to learn a new language or brush up on the one they learned many years ago in the field.
Elder Lynn Snow, who served in Chile in the 1960s when it was just one mission, said, “At first I was elated at the call, and then the reality spread over me like thick cream on strawberries. It reminded me of a cowboy poem: ‘Forgotten More than I Learnt.’ ”
Most missionaries who have to learn a foreign language learn it pretty well before boarding the plane home. While traveling, they vow they will keep it up, speak their language to their children, read all the scriptures at least once a year in their learned language and practice with anyone they can.
Unfortunately, when the plane lands, families maul them, matriculation at the university or work begins immediately, and a special young woman or young man appears in one of their classes. The promises of keeping sacred their language dissipates like snowmen on a warm spring day.
The challenge becomes, then, learning or relearning a language when called to serve.
The church’s Missionary Training Center is a good place to start. The MTC offers one-on-one tutoring for senior missionaries. Plus, senior missionaries receive "Grammar Explanations for Senior Missionaries." They also have another binder that has “tasks,” such as “grammar,” “welfare,” “proselytizing,” “temple” and “general tasks.” These tasks come with CDs that walk them through each task with a native speaker who teaches them how to use correct pronunciation.
Sister LeeAnn Call, who serves with her husband in Guatemala, took the course. She said that “language immersion is the most helpful because you can more easily put things in context. My adult brain is still a little slow in remembering all the new words that are thrust upon me. But I'm trying!”
Reading the Book of Mormon, the Liahona and other church publications in the foreign language aloud can be an excellent way to keep up the language and the accent. When the tongue doesn’t exercise the language, it forgets where it is supposed to go.
By reading aloud and making sure words are being pronounced correctly, the tongue won’t forget, or at least will be reminded where it should go.
Speaking the language with others is perhaps the most direct way to keep up a language. It may be the only way to truly practice a language and keep skills fresh. This might be done by volunteering at a branch that uses those language skills. Unfortunately, not all language groups can be found readily in the U.S. Spanish in the U.S. is probably one of the largest groups. However, native Danish speakers are hard to come by.
Elder Rich Call, who is serving in Guatemala, said, “I believe mindset plays a role in this issue — we look at our missions of our youth as times of service and preparation for future service as we gain experience in the gospel. However, do we also view the acquisition of language skills as part of the process of preparation to serve?
"If we were to recognize that our exposure to language is the Lord's attempt to prepare us for future service in his kingdom, just as preaching the gospel prepares us for future service, then perhaps we would be more motivated to maintain those skills with the mindset of being prepared for additional service in the future.”
The best way — still — is making sure not to forget the promises made on the plane as a young missionary. Most missionaries believe they will marry, go to college, have a wonderful family and earn enough money to go on a mission with their spouse.
Those who have kept up their language skills will approach subsequent missions and language requirements with less temerity.
An Idahoan, Darrel Hammon likes being outdoors, growing things and seeing things the way they could be. You can read more of his musings at www.darrelhammon.blogspot.com. He and his wife are now serving in the Caribbean Area Welfare Office.