Wondering how Mormon missionaries learn languages fast?
What if I gave you a nine-week deadline to learn Korean? From scratch!
Would you throw up your hands in horror?
Cry, “Olly, you're crazy! That's impossible!”
Or, would you be signing on the dotted line, so fast your fingers were a blur?
In this post, you'll discover just how Mormon missionaries learn languages fast from their total immersion method at the training centre to their partner system on the ground in a new country.
By the way, if you want to learn a new language fast, my top recommendation is StoryLearning®, a fun and effective method that gets you fluent thanks to stories, not rules. Find out more and claim your free 7-day trial of the course of your choice.
Otherwise, if you want to find out the language learning secrets of Mormon missionaries, either keep scrolling to read this blog post or hit play to watch the video version below.
The Mormon Missionary Experience
Believe it or not, 36,000 young men and women learn languages in six to nine weeks every year at the MTC. That's the Mormon Missionary Training Centre in Utah. Their intensive language programmes have taken extreme language learning to new heights.
Now, Mormons—aka Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints— are well known for their missions, which aim to spread the Mormon faith and message.
You've probably seen pairs of men in suits or smartly-dressed women offering pamphlets and engaging people on the street in conversation.
But those Missions spread worldwide, and the chances are that missionaries will get sent to a country that doesn't speak their language. So, in that case, how do you preach your message?
You enter the MTC.
How Mormon Missionaries Learn Languages Fast: What IS The MTC Method?
The MTC is a bit like a foreign language Bootcamp for young people before they set out on their missions. It's widely regarded as one of the best language instruction systems in the world.
The facility in Utah—and the other 14 training centres around the world—teach 56 languages in either six or nine-week blocks. (Six for “easy” languages like German or Portuguese; nine if you have to learn a different script, like Cyrillic or Kanji.)
That's six to nine weeks to get that language under your belt before you're thrust on a plane and off to a country where no one speaks the language you grew up with.
Let's look through the eyes of a former student, Derek Driggs, to see how Mormon missionaries learn languages fast.
Total Immersion From Day One
When he applied to be a missionary, Derek didn't expect to be learning Korean, but he jumped in at the deep end when he started at the MTC.
“They just started speaking in Korean to us right away. There was no English at all—and I didn't even know how to say “hello,” or “nice to meet you,” or anything!”Derek Driggs
That's called the “immersion method,” and it's an extremely effective way to learn when you have a plane ticket booked in nine weeks.
Derek says he started by learning the Korean alphabet on day one. And from that moment on, the class studied everything in Korean, from grammar and vocabulary to how to be a missionary.
No English allowed in class or anywhere on campus. He studied, dined, exercised, even prayed in Korean for nine weeks.
You Learn The Language You're Given
That's right! You don't get to choose what language you learn. Instead, you fill out the application form, send it away and wait. Eventually, you get a letter in the post telling you where you're going.
It could be in your own country — or another country that speaks your language. But, equally, it could be anywhere in the world. Derek's letter said “South Korea,” so that's the language he learned.
Students Intensely Motivated To Learn
All the MTC students are there for one reason — to learn a language and get out into the field to teach people about their religion.
It's an intensely personal goal that aligns with their faith and beliefs and sustains them through the hard times ahead.
Hard times? You bet!
It's not easy to learn a language in nine weeks and then be thrown headlong into the realities of missionary life.
There's no time to waste when you're learning a language in a few weeks so the training is intense.
Here's what a typical study day looks like:
- Wake up call
- Bible Study
- Get together with your classmates to sing a morning hymn in Korean (or whatever language you're studying.)
10:00 classes begin
These are three-hour learning slots with various instructors, covering grammar, vocabulary, speaking practice sessions, and classes in how to be a missionary.
The Teachers Are Former Missionaries
One essential facet of the training is that all the teachers have been through the programme themselves.
So, they know what it's like, how the students are feeling and where they might get stuck.
They also understand what it's like to be a young missionary, so they can speak from personal experience.
There's a lot to be said for empathy when you're going through such intensity.
Practice, Practice And More Practice
Speaking begins right away even though no one knows quite what they're doing or saying.
The teacher introduces simple phrases using one grammar principle and repeats them many times, allowing the students to hear and mimic the phrase patterns.
For example, if it's a subject-verb-object language the class will recite phrases with that form so that the first thing they learn is what a proper sentence sounds like.
In other words, they train themselves to recognise a subject-verb-object form before they even understand exactly what they're saying.
Knowing that form so well also makes it easier to spot when something changes — for example, a different conjugation or tense.
And as soon as you've learned how to say a phrase, you have to use it in conversation. That reinforces your learning in another setting which helps it sink more firmly into your memory bank.
Memorise The Vocab
Students gradually build their vocab from reading, writing and speaking simple words to learning more advanced vocabulary.
Once everyone in the class can pronounce the words in today's vocabulary list, they begin some intensive drills and tests, using traditional methods like flashcards, notebooks etc.
Naturally, you take those into the rest of your day, too.
Derek says he went over and over the words on his morning exercise runs to get them to stay in his brain.
Teach What You've Learned
There's nothing like teaching a skill or concept to reinforce your learning. So, a couple of days after students have learned something they teach it to others in the group.
Derek explains that even in the first week, the teaching practice extends into role-playing, too.
“From day three you're told… you're gonna role play that you've met someone that wants to learn more about Jesus and you're going to go meet them and talk to them in Korean, so prepare a 10-minute discussion.”Derek Driggs
So you do get time to prepare — it's not off the cuff. And that's part of the secret of success for the MTC students. Their study zeroes in on a narrow set of situations and goals.
Students at the Missionary Training Centre have just one learning objective; to talk to people in that language and spread the word about their religion.
They're not going to be discussing politics or news.
They're not partying in nightclubs or gossiping over coffee.
Instead, their language needs centre around knowing how to talk about the bible and their church.
So, MTC focuses on those topics. Instead of trying to cover everything you might need to know in a foreign country, they zero in on what you DEFINITELY will need to know to do your job.
And the result is that the missionaries may not be fluent in all facets of the language by the time they fly out, but they do establish a solid base from which to grow. AND they head out reasonably confident that they can do their job.
Glimpses Of Mastery
Another benefit of covering one topic intensively is that you get a glimpse of what it's like to speak fluently about complicated concepts.
Within this narrow topic, you get to have high level discussions much more quickly than you would if you were just learning how to ask for directions and making small talk about the weather.
What Happens On A Mission?
You may be wondering how this all translates to the real world? How do these novice missionaries get on in their new countries? Are they thrown in at the deep end and left to sink or swim?
Fortunately, no. That's not how it works.
New MTC graduates partner with an experienced missionary who can already speak the language when they arrive. That partner takes care of the day-to-day conversations — buying food, catching the bus, asking for directions etc.
But they give their new missionary every chance to speak to people on the street as they've been trained to do.
Derek says that's exactly how it worked when he went into the field for the first time.
“My first partner… was a Korean guy who didn't speak much English. (He said) I'm just going to speak Korean to you, so I hope you can figure it out…. So, I sort of followed him around and mimicked him for the daily life things. But when we were in a missionary setting, he would let me take the lead.”
So, from a language learning viewpoint, students continue to practise and improve their fluency by speaking from a place of strength.
And, at the same time, they're exposed to more and more of the culture and language by observing and copying how their partner speaks in other situations.
What's more, missionaries are not allowed to go off by themselves, and they're not allowed any distractions. What does that mean?
Missionaries must stay together at all times. They can't read the local newspapers or watch movies. Only church-approved books are on the menu in their spare moments.
Should YOU Use The MTC Method For Language Learning?
In many ways the Missionary Training Centre has created the perfect conditions for language learning:
- 100% immersion
- Intense practice
- 24/7 contact with native speakers in their own country
- No distractions
- Huge personal motivation
- Hard work and sacrifice.
Taken together these create a perfect storm of language learning conditions. So it's no wonder Mormon missionaries learn languages fast.
But, it would certainly be difficult to re-create all this in your everyday life.
How likely are you to attend a six-week immersion programme followed by two years of travel in that country with a partner helping you 24/7?
Don't be downhearted if you can't quite manage all that. Instead you can use the StoryLearning® method to immerse yourself in your new language from home. That way you can learn through stories, not rules.
And when you do that, you can get to a conversational level in six months, just like StoryLearning® student Jannah did when she learned Japanese with Japanese Uncovered to surprise her best friend.