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Linguistics Lands Missionaries in Mongolia

Linguistics faculty help train missionaries as basic English language teachers to enter Mongolia.

In the late 2000s, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was flourishing in Mongolia. The end of the country’s communist regime allowed for an influx of Latter-day Saint missionaries, and soon there were over 9,000 members in the country.

But in 2010 the government asked all foreign missionaries in the country to leave and prevented new missionaries from entering the country. The sudden change had to do with new, stricter enforcement of visa laws. Essentially, the Mongolian government mandated that foreigners entering the country have good reason to do so, and proselytizing wasn’t an accepted reason.

Teaching English as charitable work, on the other hand, was. So in order to get visas, Latter-day Saint missionaries had entered the country on the pretext of teaching English as part of their missionary work. But the Mongolian government decided that the missionaries weren’t actually qualified to do this. Professor Norman Evans (TESOL) explains: “Someone from the Mongolian government reportedly asked, ‘What credentials do the missionaries have to teach English?’ And the response was ‘Well, they’re all native English speakers.’”

That wasn’t enough to satisfy the Mongolian government—after all, it takes more than speaking a language to be able to teach it. “That’s sort of like saying, ‘I have teeth; therefore, I am a dentist,’” Evans says. “They didn’t have the training, so they were asked to leave.”

For the missionaries to effectively teach English, they needed actual training in English language teaching. Missionary Training Center (MTC) administrators reached out to BYU and were directed to the Department of Linguistics for their solution. Professor Neil J. Anderson and Professor Norman Evans, both with specialties in teaching English as a second or foreign language (TESOL), volunteered to help.

A group of Mongolian medical students participate in an English lesson.
A group of Mongolian medical students participate in an English lesson.

Evans and Anderson immediately began creating a TESOL course that would provide missionaries with a signed certificate indicating completion of a basic English language teaching course. The professors started instructing the first group of missionaries just one month later. Their course equipped missionaries with certificates, curricula, and, most importantly, practical English teaching skills, allowing them to meet the Mongolian visa requirements and reenter the country.

However, the program—which continues today—serves a greater purpose than simply meeting visa requirements. It gives missionaries the tools they need to effectively teach English and make a difference in the lives of those they serve. The program pairs missionaries with sponsor organizations, such as schools, hospitals, or government agencies, where they teach English for about 15 hours a week. Missionaries equipped with English teaching skills are a hot commodity in Mongolia. A Mongolian “medical school, for example, would like to sponsor many [missionaries], but the government only allows four sponsorships per organization,” Evans says.

Under Evans’ direction (Anderson has since retired), the program continues to evolve. Though it was initially held in the MTC, instruction now takes place in the English Language Center (ELC) on BYU campus, where missionaries are able to get firsthand experience interacting with English learners and TESOL teachers. The curriculum for teaching missionaries has also been updated and revised several times over the years to be more efficient; the training involves a 15-hour online component before missionaries begin the 28 hours of in-person training. Evans and TESOL MA students continue to ensure that all teaching materials are focused and practical.

Still going strong, the 12-year-old program has awarded over 400 missionaries with English teaching certificates. In addition to its benefits for Mongolians and the Church in Mongolia, “much good has also come to BYU faculty and students who have been involved,” Evans says.