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Nations, Kindreds, Tongues, and Peoples

The Humanities Center hosts an event to teach future missionaries strategies for foreign language learning.

Have you received a mission call to a foreign language mission, but have some time before you enter the Missionary Training Center (MTC)? Are you worried about how well you’ll be able to master the language or navigate a new culture? The Humanities Center event, Nations, Kindreds, Tongues, and Peoples (NKTP), can help you and other prospective missionaries who have received a call to a foreign language mission. At this semester’s event, held on November 16, 2023, Professor Rex Nielson (Luso-Afro-Brazilian Literature and Culture) offered strategies for language learning and adapting to a new culture.

Rex Nielson smiling
Photo by Rex Nielson

The first part of Nielson’s presentation focused on tips for effective language study. Nielson suggested doing focused, daily practice that includes listening, reading, speaking, writing, and receiving feedback. According to research, that type of study yields the best results for learners. Nielson also suggested students change the way they think about language learning. Instead of worrying about memorizing lists of vocabulary words or perfectly understanding the intricacies of grammar, Nielson recommended trying to learn how to accomplish specific tasks. He said that learning to ask questions, tell stories, talk about future plans, express feelings, and give instructions naturally, even if not perfectly, will help a student become fluent in their target language more easily. He said, “Grammar is not the most important part of language learning. Communicating a message is.”

The second section of the lecture included advice about how to respond to a new culture. Nielson explained that a culture is made up of products (both tangible and intangible), practices (customs and behavioral expectations), and perspectives (beliefs and ideologies). He described how a culture can be compared to an iceberg—the visible surface of a culture is just the tip of a much deeper and more complex system. Nielson encouraged listeners to be curious, open-minded, and observant when dealing with a new culture. He advised everyone to avoid judging customs as good or bad, and instead try to understand where they come from.

Nielson reminded listeners to be patient with themselves while learning a new language and culture. He said, “Learning to function in a new environment is not easy. It is natural to feel anxious or frustrated sometimes. The key is to remind yourself that these feelings are normal and are likely to be situational and temporary.” Nielson said he hopes these lessons will help missionaries “so that when they encounter something on their mission that is surprising or shocking, or upsetting or confusing, they can be better equipped to deal with that or respond to it.”

The event drew about 30 prospective missionaries, including both BYU students and members of several surrounding stakes and wards. Nielson received positive feedback from participants as well as from colleagues in Religious Education who said they would like to get involved in the next event. He concluded his remarks by sharing a passage from Preach My Gospel that encourages missionaries to continue studying their mission language throughout the mission and after they return. Nielson said, “If you are enrolled at a university, taking language and culture courses will enrich your understanding of the people you have come to love as a missionary.”

If you’ve been called to a foreign-language mission in a few months and have some anxiety about learning the language or the culture, keep an eye out for announcements about next semester’s NKTP event.