I’d been in Thailand for more than five years and was still struggling with the language when I had a conversation with a young man in a crisp white shirt. I’d overheard him speaking in Thai and he sounded fluent. I brought this up and he furrowed his brows, expressing his concern that he hadn’t learned enough in the two months he’d been there.
It may be the best kept secret, but the most successful language learning program around might very well be run out of Utah. The Missionary Training Center (MTC) has been in operation since the 1920s and one online explanation modestly states that they simply learned along the way on how to train quickly and efficiently in any language in the world. We might not really know how they do it short of becoming a member, but somebody has thought of this and has written a book, “Second Language Acquisition Abroad: The LDS Missionary Experience (Studies in Bilingualism), edited by Lynn Hansen.
Relying only on a book review does not reveal many secrets and the review itself does complain that only one chapter out of eleven tells us how they really teach and learn, but it’s clear that they’re not channeling special help from above. There is no mention of messianic motivation other than the pressure of being thrown into a new country, not as a tourist but with a message to communicate. When it gets down to it, the method they claim that works is something we already know, but not always disciplined enough to follow. In short:
Be dedicated and diligent – Learning a language takes time and effort. Don’t stop improving language skills just because people start to understand what you’re trying to say.
Take responsibility – Make clear goals on why you want to learn a language. When you have a clear purpose, you have a clear idea what is most essential for you to know. The purpose essentially is to communicate.
Find chances to communicate - Maybe this is where missionaries have the advantage because they will always be interacting with people from a wide range of backgrounds. Don’t be shy about asking for help.
Make a plan – People often overlook the importance of being self-directed in learning a language. Don’t depend only on class time. Make goals and stay on track.
Choose your tools – There are lots of resources that you can find or make including dictionaries, books, websites, your own cards, notebooks, etc. Find what works best for you.
Memorize words and phrases – That’s what language is about. Keep looking for new words and ways to use them. The same goes for grammar and sentence patterns.
Listen actively – Listen and imitate. Listen for words and structures you’ve learned, but find out how people actually use them. This is especially important for idiomatic use.
Learn through culture – Language is culture and the more you understand the culture, the more you will understand the language.
This is a rather long list, but it worth knowing that even with the best program and the best results, there is no magic elixir. Language learning requires self-direction and self-discipline and for us, that’s either good new or bad news.