What of the



Senior Missionaries


                                    Written to Encourage and Help Senior Missionaries           

by Elder Wade W. Fillmore





It is always mistake to underestimate the power and willingness of the Lord to help His servants do His work if they are willing to do what He wants in His own way. We may not have much confidence in ourselves, but we have every right to have full confidence in the Lord to help us do His work despite our weaknesses and inadequacies, real or imagined.

Some senior missionaries find themselves learning new languages or trying to relearn languages they once knew. This paper is to encourage and help them approach that task for the best possible success and effectiveness. The most important thing they must do is seek the help of the Lord in their learning. He knows all the languages. He knows each missionary. He knows more than all the linguists and teachers in the world combined. If missionaries are willing to learn and to follow His guidance, the Lord can and will teach each missionary what to do, the order in which it is to be done, and how to do it. His guidance is more important that any textbook or any teacher. It is much more important than this paper.

I have no doubt that if a senior missionary couple who had never learned another language, were sent by themselves as the first and only missionaries to the most remote area on earth, without any written learning materials whatsoever to help them, they could learn to communicate the gospel message effectively in a language they had never even heard of before, if they would listen to the Spirit teach them what to do and then follow that direction. This is so because our Heavenly Father loves each of His children. They are all precious to them. He will help His chosen servants communicate His message. This is the most important message of this paper. The Lord will bless his servants to do His work.

The direction of the Spirit will, however, often be to use materials already prepared, to listen to teachers, to listen to tapes, and to take every opportunity to learn from those around us. When we learn under the direction of the Spirit we are receiving the gift of tongues.

Receiving the gift of tongues will likely require effort on our part. The Spirit will teach us how we can learn effectively. One of the most effective ways to learn to communicate in a new language is to use native informants. Native informants are native speakers of the language we are trying to learn. They have grown up in an environment where they have learned the language from the time they were children. This paper is about using native informants to help us learn faster and more effectively. It is based on the experience of the author and millions of other effective language students, most of whom, perhaps did not realize how they were learning.

As we begin, it is always important to begin with the truth. Here are some important truths about language learning:


The seventh Article of Faith begins, gWe believe in the gift of tongues....h The best known scriptural reference to the gift of tongues is found in Acts 2: 4-11. gAnd they (the Apostles) were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.h

We can learn important things from this scriptural story which we call the Day of Pentacost (because it happened during that Jewish holiday). Here are a few of them:

1.     The gift of tongues was given to the Apostles on the Day of Pentacost in Jerusalem to advance the cause of the Kingdom of God. At that time, devout Jews were gathered out of every nation. It is likely that these were the most faithful Jews in the world at that time. They had come to Jerusalem because of their devotion to Jehovah. It is likely that God had inspired them to come to hear the message of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, their Jehovah. This was an opportunity to have that message taught with power by authorized representatives to a large group of holy men gathered in one place at the same time. These men, when converted, could take the message, return to their homes and spread that message throughout the world. And so it was. The gift of tongues was given to the Apostles and to those who listened so the truths of the gospel could be taught effectively and understood correctly.

2.     It is the same today. The gift of tongues is given to Godfs representatives and to those who hear their message so they can effectively teach and understand gospel truths. It is not given to bring worldly honor to any person, but rather to help Godfs representatives and those who hear them for the accomplishment of Godfs purposes.

3.    As missionaries, we have a right to ask for the gift of tongues for ourselves and for those who listen to us only when we are willing to use that gift for Godfs purposes, to do His work, and to teach His gospel more effectively.


Thoughts and feelings form in our minds and hearts. In our minds, we convert those thoughts and feelings into words or groups of words according to the rules of vocabulary and structure we have learned. Then we convert the words or groups of words into sounds accepted in our language to indicate the words and phrases we wish to communicate. We make these sounds with our vocal sound-making facilities. The sounds carry through the air into the ears of those to whom we are speaking. The hearer converts the sounds into words and phrases and then the words and phrases into (what are hopefully) the thoughts and feelings intended by the speaker.

Those who represent the Lord have the added benefit of sometimes being able to speak under the influence of the Holy Ghost which conveys the truth of what they are saying to the souls of those who are listening. This can happen even when the speaker and hearer may not be able to speak and hear each other accurately according to the rules of the language being used for communication.


We can divide languages many ways, but all languages that are still alive (still spoken) have at least three distinct parts: a sound system, a structure, and a vocabulary.

Sound System

From among the many hundreds of sounds the human voice can produce, each language has selected just a few which it uses exclusively. Languages with simple sound systems may use as few as fifteen sounds. Languages with complex sound systems may use as many as 55 or so.

Knowing that Japanese, for example, has a somewhat simple sound system compared to the complex sound system of English, helps us understand why adult Japanese have more difficulties [1]with English pronunciation than Americans have with Japanese pronunciation. Many sounds needed to speak English correctly do not exist in Japanese. On the other hand, most sounds needed to speak Japanese accurately do exist in English.

Comparing language sound systems show there are many common or similar sounds in most languages, especially the long vowels and the most used consonants such as m, n, k, s, and d. When a native speaker of a language hears a new foreign word, he[2] may try to imitate the sound of the new word by approximating the sound using the sounds in his native language. Americans are blessed to have grown up learning a language with a complex sound system. This enables them to more easily approximate the sounds of the new language they are learning.

Structure (Word Order)

All languages require words to be spoken in a certain accepted order or orders. For example, in English, we can use the following word orders for these four words:

1.     I saw a dog. This is the most common expression for these four words.

2.     A dog I saw. Not common, but understood.

3.     A dog saw I. This is still understandable.

4.     I, a dog saw. Still understandable with the right accent on I.

5.     Saw a dog, I. What do you think?

The following are not considered acceptable word orders for these words in English:

1.     Dog a saw I.

2.     A saw dog I.

3.     A I dog saw.

4.     I a saw dog.

5.     Saw dog I a

There are more possible combinations for these four words, but the point is that word order (structure) is important for communication in English and it is the same in other languages.


All languages have words that represent things. Things include objects, ideas, concepts, descriptions and feelings. Most, if not all, languages have many words that can be considered exact equivalents to words in different languages. However, it is likely that many words in one language will not exactly match the meaning of an apparent equivalent in another language. For example, the word Ao in Japanese refers to a color, the color of the sky. It is also the color of the traffic signal which means go. Thus we see that the color range for the word Ao doesnft match the color range for either blue or green in English. So it is with many initially-apparent vocabulary matches between two languages. In some cases there is a word in one language that doesnft seem to have a match in another language. For example, there doesnft seem to be a good single match in English for the Japanese word sabishii. And there doesnft seem to be a good single match in Japanese for the English word silly.


English is among the most difficult languages for anyone to learn. Though the structure of English is not as complicated as that of some languages, its sound system is complex with several difficult sounds, and it has, by far, the largest vocabulary of any other language. The last estimate I saw was 1.2 million words, about half of which are technical.

As an educated native speaker of English, you have learned this complex language well. Though you may not be able to describe it technically, you know its structure. The proof is in your correct use of the structure to communicate. You have also mastered the pronunciation. You can make all the vowel sounds, both gthh sounds and the difficult grh sound. You likely cannot give the linguistic names for the sounds, but you can speak them accurately. And finally you have mastered most of the most common vocabulary.

How did you do this? Most of these basic language skills (except for vocabulary) you had mastered by the time you were five years old. You did not read any books or have any formal instruction. You just learned by listening, mimicking, making mistakes and then self correcting and trying again.

Now, as an adult, it is likely you believe that your way of learning your first new language (English) so successfully is not the way to learn a new language.  Having come to associate learning with books and classrooms, you might think that using books and studying in a classroom is the best way to learn the new language, also.


Swimming is skill learning. So is riding a bike, riding a horse, playing golf, and learning to sing. We can learn a great deal about swimming in a classroom. We can learn the history of swimming, the names of the muscles we use to swim, the names of great past swimmers, the names of famous swimming pools, etc. We can take and pass tests on these topics. But at some point in time, we have to get into the pool and actually swim.

So it is with learning to communicate verbally in a new language. We have to speak to real people who are native speakers, have them hear what we say and respond to indicate whether  they understand.


Who is in the best position to manage our language learning? We are. We know what we can say, what we can hear and understand, what we want to learn, and what we need to learn to do our work. And if we listen intently to ourselves and compare our speech to that of native speakers, we will even be able to know our pronunciation weaknesses.

We know when we have learned and when we havenft. We know what we can say and what we cannot say. We know when we feel comfortable going ahead and we know what we need to review.


This author believes we began our language learning while still in our motherfs body. We could feel, if not hear, the sounds as our mothers spoke. We became acquainted with the rhythm and flow of our native tongue. After we were born, we began to hear with more accuracy the sounds of the world about us and we heard speech in various forms.

After hearing the sounds of our language for thousands of hours, we began to experiment with the sounds ourselves. At first we mimicked what we heard. Gradually we came to associate sounds with meaning. We watched and listened. Then we tried again. Over time, we learned which sounds were acceptable in the language of those around us. We learned which sounds were not acceptable. We learned to put sounds together to make words, then phrases and finally sentences in the right order. We made many mistakes, but we learned from our mistakes.

To learn to verbally communicate in a new language, most of us need to listen to the sounds of the new language again and again. Over time, as we do this, we will also learn which sounds are acceptable in the new language. Some of them may be sounds we cannot currently make using the existing English sounds we have mastered. But by listening carefully, we will be able to approximate most sounds of the new language with sounds we already know. As we pray for help, the Lord will bless us to be able to make sounds that are more and more accurate in the new languages. We will learn where to pause, where to put emphasis. We will gain an ear for our new language. This is part of the gift of tongues and is a gift we can all seek if we do it to help us be more effective as the Lordfs servants. And when we receive this gift, in order to keep it, we must give credit to the Lord from whom the gift came.

Language learning takes time. How can we maximize our time to listen to the language? One way is to use tapes of the language being spoken. We can purchase tapes already prepared and we can ask someone to make tapes for us as described below. In some languages, we can buy tapes produced by the Church. An example of these is the recording of Gospel Principles in Spanish for the blind. We can also listen to the radio or listen to and watch television in our target language. At first it will be difficult for us to understand what we are hearing, but if we persist, we will gradually be able to pick out words, the phrases, and then sentences. It is not important to listen to tapes or media intensely. There will be no formal test. We do need to allow ourselves to become familiar with the sounds of the language. This will take many hours of listening. We can listen regularly at home, in the car, and whenever we have a spare moment or two.


In an academic setting, the teaching and evaluation of student progress in a new language is often based on a perfection criteria. The test answers are either wrong or right. There is nothing in between. One reason for this is the necessity for the teacher to grade each student on using an objective and defensible criteria. Consequently, students are given grades based on tests, mostly written, that measure what students have learned. In the real world of verbal communication, however, the measurement of language skills is based on whether communication takes place. And communication often takes place without the speaker speaking perfectly or the hearer understanding completely the first time he hears what was said. This is a communication criteria for measuring language skills.

Students should measure their own progress based on communication rather than perfection criteria. If they speak and are understood and if they hear and understand, they have passed the evaluation. Sometimes, it may take several times of trial and error before communication is complete, but as a student improves in ability, through careful self correction, he will be able to reduce the number of times he needs to say the same thing, and he will also be able to listen and understand with less and less confusion.


Students have a great capacity for self evaluation and self correction. As humans, we begin using this capacity very early in our lives. We use this principle when we learn to walk, to ride a bicycle and in hundreds of other skills we master during our youth and beyond that. We learn by making mistakes. We try not to make the same mistake again. Mistakes teach us what not to do. In speaking a new language, we attempt to say something in the new language. We get a blank stare from the person to whom we are speaking. We donft know if we had a problem with the sound system (we mispronounced), vocabulary (we used the wrong word), or structure (we used the wrong order). So we try to find out what we didnft do right. We try again until we get it right.


It is important for students to gain a general understanding of the grammar of the language which they are trying to learn. This author recommends a student spend an hour a day reading (not memorizing) a grammar book until he has finished it. A student should be able to read 20 to 30 pages per day and finish a 300-page grammar book within 10 to 15 days. It is not important to read it as if there would be an examination on what one has read. Rather, the purpose of reading the grammar book is to get an overall feeling for the structure of the language. Languages have their own internal logic and patterns. It is important to gain a feeling for what these are. Much of what is read will not be remembered immediately, but in the future, as learning progresses, what a student has read will come back into his mind as he encounters the grammar he has previously read about. Then the student can use the grammar book as a reference to clarify what he encounters as learning progresses.


Native informants are native speakers of the language we are trying to learn. If we live in the country where we are trying to learn a language, they are all about us. They speak their language well. They are available to teach us. We overhear them speaking to each other. We hear them on radio and television. We hear them speak to us, especially if we live in a country where we look like they look. It is obvious they can speak and be understood and hear and understand. Almost all whom we meet are not professional teachers, but all who are willing can be native informants for us.

Finding one or more native informants who can help us on a regular basis (at least weekly) is also important. These may be friends who like to help for the joy of helping or they may be associates or co-workers. Or we may, in some cases, wish to exchange teaching of English to them for their help to us in learning their language. We may also consider paying someone to help us learn. But we should not overlook any opportunity to learn from native speakers we will meet everyday while conducting our business or while shopping, traveling, etc.

Is it always necessary to learn from native informants instead of from fellow missionaries, for example, who though not native speakers, are better at the language than we are? It is possible to learn things from non-native informants, however, what we learn from fellow missionaries, should normally be checked out afterwards by our own observations or directly with a native informant. This is especially important with the spoken language (pronunciation, accent, and intonation).


When we communicate orally, we usually begin with a greeting of some kind. We do our conversing and then we exit the conversation with a parting salutation. Here are some common greetings, normal discussion, and parting salutations that many people might use in English:


1.     Hi!

2.     Hello!                              

3.     Good Morning.

4.     Good Afternoon.

5.     Good Evening.


1.     What is your name?

2.     Will you write if for me?

3.     My name is (speak your name slowly).

4.     How are you?

5.     It is good to see you.


1.     Please teach me.

2.     I am trying to learn English (or the target language)

3.     What is this (point)?

4.     What does this word mean?

5.     What is another way to say this?

6.     What is the correct pronunciation of (this word)?

7.     I donft understand.

8.     Please explain another way.

9.     Does this mean the same as (this or another word)?

10.   When can I say this?

11.   What is another word for this?


1.     May we talk later?

2.     I hope to talk to you again.

3.     I have to go now.

4.     Please excuse me.

5.     I have to do something else now.

6.     Thank you for talking to me.

7.     Thank you for your patience.

8.     You have been helpful to me.


1.     Please excuse my poor English.

2.     Please speak more slowly.

3.     If you donft understand me, please let me know.

4.     If I donft understand you, may I tell you?

5.     If we go slowly, I think we can understand each other.

6.     Please be patient with my poor English.

7.     I donft understand what you mean.

8.     I donft understand this phrase.

9.     Some words are difficult for me to pronounce.

10.   Thank you for your patience.

11.   Let me check my dictionary.

12.   Do you mean that .....?

13.   Can you understand what I am trying to say?

14.   Please wait a minute. I didnft understand you.


Compared to beginning language learners who are teenagers, for example, we have certain advantages. We have much more knowledge and experience than they have. Our problem is communicating that knowledge and experience. Their problem is they donft have it. For us, we have read widely. We know much about a lot of things. We are familiar with the principles of the Gospel. We have read the scriptures.

We can compare the Book of Mormon in English to the Book of Mormon in the target language and just by analyzing carefully, begin to figure out word equivalents. We can see patterns and repetitive words and structures. We can compare the same two articles in church magazines. By reading first in English and then in our target language, we can figure out simple phrases and sentences. We can compare structure. We can do this because the content of what we are reading is familiar. We can obtain a copy of the missionary discussions in the target language and do the same thing. We can notice signs on the road, see what is being sold and figure out meanings of words. And since we will be working with native informants, we can ask questions to confirm and clarify what we are learning.


Despite our best efforts at learning a new language, there are times when we simple do not know how to say what we want to say. We may be able to understand little of what we hear. As we start out (and we must begin where we are), we will lack many language skills. Over time and with effort we will improve. We will always be less skillful than almost all native speakers, but if we have done our best, the Spirit can take what we are trying to teach into the hearts of the people who are listening. When this happens, they can discern by the Spirit the true message.

When we get better at the language, we may tend to rely less on the Spirit and more on our abilities to speak well in the new language. This is likely to be a mistake. Unless we are careful, we may actually lose ability to teach by the Spirit as we progress in our language learning.

The key point is this. No matter how little we can communicate in the language, when we have done our best to learn the language, we have the right to ask for help from the Spirit to supplement our efforts and to help teach the truth of what we are trying to say directly into the hearts of  the people. That is part of the gift of tongues.


A frequent experience for us as new language learners is to feel overwhelmed at how little we know compared to native speakers of the language. Native speakers often speak too fast so we cannot understand. We cannot hear the differences between words, we cannot understand many of the words, and the verb tenses baffle us. It is normal that many native speakers expect us to speak with perfect pronunciation and an extensive vocabulary using correct grammar. Is it any wonder we sometimes feel overwhelmed. The task seems too daunting for anyone.

But many others who have shared this experience persist and learn to communicate in the same language we are now learning. What are the secrets to their success? Here are a few:

1.     They have reasonable expectations for themselves. They realize they will never become as capable at communicating as most educated native speakers of their target language.

a.     They will do their best to master the sound system of the new language, but realize they can still communicate if they never learn to say everything with a perfect native accent.

b.    They realize that since they did not grow up in the culture of the country where they are learning their new language, they will not know many things native speakers who grew up in the country, attended school, watched TV, and played and worked in society, etc., know by assimilation.

c.     They realize that speaking with perfect or near-perfect grammar is not necessary to communicate in the new language.

d.    When they donft understand two native speakers talking, they remember that many conversations between two native speakers are intimate conversations often based on continuing past relationships. This is especially true of husbands and wives, family members and longtime friends who speak almost a shorthand because they have had so many past shared experiences.

2.    They do their best, but especially at the beginning, they realize they will make many mistakes. They will understand little that they hear and often be misunderstood. They refuse to be discouraged, considering this to be normal. They know and accept the fact that they will never become native speakers in the new language.

3.     They learn to manage the communication with native speakers. They do this in several ways. Here are some of them:

a.     They apologize for their inadequate skills in the new language:

i.      Please forgive my poor Spanish.

ii.     I am sorry I donft know more words.

iii.    My grammar is not so good.

iv.    My pronunciation is not so good.

v.     I hope you have time to talk for a few minutes.

b.    They enlist the help of native speakers:

i.      Will you please speak more slowly?

ii.     If you donft understand, please tell me.

iii.    If I make a mistake, please let me know.

iv.    If we go slowly, I think we can understand each other.

v.     If I donft understand, may I tell you?

vi.    I didnft understand the last thing you said.

vii.   Did I say that correctly?

viii.  I am not sure I know what do you mean.

c.     They watch the face and countenance of the native speakers to make sure they are understanding the conversations. In some cultures, people are reluctant to tell a person they cannot understand what is being said. They may not want to embarrass themselves or the person who is speaking. In this situation, the learner must humbly ask for the language correction and help needed.

d.    They know the pace of communication will be slow and this can be a problem because people are accustomed to communicating at a normal rate of speed for their native language. They may apologize by saying:

i.      I am sorry this is going so slowly.

ii.     I wish I knew more so we could go faster.

iii.    Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

e.     They know that communicating with a non-native speaker of their own language is often a hard thing to do. They say such things as:

i.      Thank you so much for your patience with me.

ii.     I know it must be hard for you to talk with me. Thank you so much.

iii.    It is so kind of you to take so much time with me.

4.     They are satisfied with steady progress in their ability to communicate.


Here are some things you can do to work effectively learning your new language. You may already be doing many or most of them.

1.     Buy a book in English that explains the grammar of the language you are trying to learn.

2.     Set a schedule to read the grammar book at the rate of 20 to 30 pages per day and follow the   schedule.

3.     Make notes of any questions that come to your mind about what you are reading. You will be able to use these notes to ask questions and seek clarification in the future.

4.     Write down the first list of simple phrases you want to learn in your new language. Leave a space after each phrase. Ten phrases might be enough for the first training session.

5.     Find a native informant who is willing to help you.

6.     Ask the native informant to write the correct translation of the phrases after the English phrase you have written on the paper.

7.     Then ask the native informant to slowly say the phrase in the target language. Listen carefully to what he says. Pay attention to pronunciation, accent, and intonation.

8.     Then try to mimic what the native informant has said. Watch his face. Does he really understand?

9.     Practice again and again. Donft worry much about grammar at this stage. Repeat the phrase again. Listen to yourself. Compare your pronunciation, accent and intonation with your native informantfs.

10.   After you have learned the first phrase, move on to the next one.

11.   After a half hour or so of learning phrases, turn to something else. Read simple phrases from the scriptures in the new language, or from the Liahona, the missionary discussions, a missionary tract, a program from sacrament meeting, or a flyer you pick up off the street. Ask the native informant to read first and then repeat after him. This is not a memorization exercise, but practice in getting your mouth to say the words with good pronunciation, intonation, and accent. 

12.   End the session before it gets tedious.

13.   Each day, use cards or a small notebook to write down new things you hear, new things you want to be able to say, questions you might have, etc. for use in coming sessions with your native informant. Repeat the cycle.

14.   To add interest to a lesson, ask your informant to translate an English joke into the target language. Ask him to tell you a simple joke in the target language. Try to translate it into English.

15.   Walk around the room pointing to objects and ask in the target language. What is this? Ask your informant to reply in the target language equivalent of, gThat is a ______.h

16.   Do the same thing in the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom and bathroom. Walk outside and point to a fence, a brick, a road, a car, a bumper, etc.

17.   Learn colors, days of the week, months, counting, and telling time.

18.   Write a simple self introduction, have it translated and learn it.

19.   You might ask your native informant to make a tape of the introduction for you to listen to. Asking your informant to make tapes of other things you want to learn can be very helpful.

20.   Write a simple testimony with short sentences, have it translated and learn it. Consider having a tape made.

21.   Write a 200-300 word talk in simple English, using short sentences, and have it translated. Practice reading it together with your native informant. You may wish to have a tape of this, too.

22.   From time to time it is good to check your progress by using children as native informants. Children usually have no pretense, but respond honestly. If they understand it is usually easy to tell. They can also teach us.

23.   And last, but most important, pray to know what you should learn next. Pray that your tongue may be loosened so you can make sounds that are understandable, even if you donft have perfect pronunciation. Pray that your ears can hear the sounds correctly. Pray to be able to memorize what needs to be memorized. Pray before your lessons with your native informant, for him and for yourself. Pray to be able to understand (grammar) the structure of the language. Pray that you will enjoy learning the target language. Pray that you will not be discouraged. Pray for the curiosity, patience and persistence. Pray not to expect too much from yourself or too little. Pray that your motivation to learn might be out of love for the Lord and his children upon the earth and not for selfish reasons such as personal honor or glory.


Learning is one of the few intrinsically joy-producing activities of our sojourn here upon the earth. That joy is diminished if we come to associate our ability to learn or not learn with shame, embarrassment, or evidence of our unworthiness. Our Heavenly Father loves us just as we are. He wants us to be happy. Learning is part of being happy. He will bless us to learn if we seek that blessing. When we come to rejoice in being corrected so we can learn, we have learned a lesson that is essential for our salvation. All of us upon the earth have much to learn. All of us will make mistakes as we learn. We all need correction. We are seeking eternal life. Sometimes we are headed in the wrong direction. We need course correction. We need guidance. So it is with language learning. We need help. If we seek the help gladly, without embarrassment, learning a new language will become a joy to us.    


            [2]Whenever the lower case pronoun ghehappears, the meaning is ghe/ she.h