In How do Mormon missionaries learn foreign languages so quickly? it is claimed that LDS (Mormon) missionaries spend only up to ten weeks in languge learning, and that most are "fluent" within one year. These missionaries receive this training together at the Missionary Training Centre, Utah, which means they will be studying many languages together, outside of a speech community for those languages. By comparison, most Protestant missionaries spend 2-3 years in language learning, and if possible this time is spent in a society where the language they're learning is spoken regularly.
An NPR story claims that the LDS school is recognised as one of the best language instruction school in the world. It quotes one student who says that 5 weeks at their school gets you to where you would be in three years at a university, and that nine weeks at the LDS school is equivalent to 64 weeks at a US army school.
It says that their teaching strategy is focused on contextual learning rather than memorization, which is definitely how many experts say language should be taught. But the time spent at the school sounds incredibly short. Is there any independent evidence that the students of the Missionary Training Centre actually become fluent to the level that the students of other missionary, government or commercial schools take a couple of years to reach?
Languages have been divided from Group I to Group IV based on their complexity of learning by students through ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) Ratings. It takes about 16 weeks (480 hours) to reach a minimal aptitude of intermediate High while using the training offered by LTI for Group I languages.
Referring to Richard O Cowan on the Missionary Training Center Regimen which is based on a program which equals to 432 hours (9 hours each day for a total of 8 weeks which calculates to 432 excluding Sundays) developed by the U.S. Army. The hours can also increase from a minimum of 9 hours to a maximum of 12 hours of language/religious learning per day.
Also distractions such as phoning home, chatting with friends on the internet, watching TV or non-LDS videos, reading novels or newspapers, listening to popular music is banned in the language boot camp.
The schedule is rigorous. Classes have ten to twelve students who meet in three-hour sessions, morning, afternoon, and evening. Studies include the scriptures, languages, and missionary methodology. Academic responsibilities are balanced by spiritual development and recreational opportunities. Temple attendance and weekly devotional addresses given by visiting General Authorities aid spiritual well-being. Exercise programs promote physical fitness.
Trainees learn by listening and repeating. Classroom instructors are usually experienced former missionaries and foreign students from nearby campuses. Linguistic drills are related to the culture, customs, and characteristics of the assigned mission field. In one week basic grammar is learned, and after two weeks a missionary begins to converse, pray, and sing in a new language. In eight weeks, missionaries are reasonably adept in conversation and can teach gospel lessons in a foreign language.
A foreign mission is a 16- or 22-month immersion experience coupled with strong motivation to learn the target language. (And for less than $10,000, it’s a fantastic bargain. If you shopped around carefully, you might find a 12-week study abroad program for the same price.) Missionaries also come into regular contact with a much broader spectrum of the foreign culture than most students studying abroad. With that amount of time, that degree of motivation, and that much interaction with native speakers, Mormon missionaries have an opportunity unavailable to most American college students. Despite their extensive experience, most returned missionaries still have gaps in their language skills and cultural knowledge. Missions are excellent preparation, but turning a mission language into a professionally useful language will take a bit more work.
Research on Returned Missionary proficiency in Second Language
Research shows that foreign missions in a range of 16 to 22 months along with strong motivation to learn the target language and interaction/regular contact with native speakers tend to help the LDS missionaries to build their language skills to higher proficient levels equivalent to K-12 language teaching levels.
Referring to the book 'Second Language Acquisition Abroad: The LDS Missionary Experience' edited by Lynne Hansen in 2012 which is an analysis of Latter Day Saints Returned Missionary (RM) second language acquisition skills, the following points have been summarized from the review of Robert Arthur Cote.
The Church of the Latter Day Saints or the Mormon Church have created Missionary Training Centers (MTC) which are basically target language boot camps which utilize a hybrid task-based and focus-on-form approach to assist missionaries in both obtaining survival communication skills and acquiring the ability to spread religious messages.
This is accomplished by attending an eight-to-twelve week pre-departure immersion program at one of sixteen centers around the globe called Missionary Training Centers (MTC) in which the missionary receives six hours of language instruction per day five days a week. The focus at the MTC is on oral communication for survival and sharing religious views.
After completing the language course, the missionaries are sent to their host country, where they are matched up with a companion who is either a native speaker of the target language. The pair remains together 24/7 for language study.
All interviews for the research mentioned below were conducted by telephone by ACTFL-certified testers and all tests were double or triple rated (triple if double ratings did not exactly agree). Research indicated there are no significant differences in ratings between telephonic and face-to-face interview scores.
Research results through American Council on The Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) oral proficiency interview (OPI) shows that the length of time immersed in a target language is better than only learning language in a classroom, but factors such as aptitude, motivation, amount and types of practice and nature of social interactions also play important roles and for optimal outcomes, additional instruction and negative feedback may be necessary. The proficiency levels listed in the research are the minimum levels established by the various professions, and higher levels would often be preferred.
The missionaries tested had all spent about the same amount of time in the language environment but did not all attain the same amount of proficiency. However, there are clear limits to their “missionary language” that might prevent them from participating in more linguistically demanding careers such as contract negotiation or professional translation.
Nearly all would meet the minimal proficiency requirements for K-12 language teaching, and a large percentage would be capable of using their language in service professions such as police and paramedics, customer service, social work, or billing and clerical work. It is clear from the data that by the end of their missionary service, RMs are able to fluently discuss a variety of concrete and personal topics with others in their target language. Their speaking proficiency levels are higher than those achieved by the typical undergraduate major.
Much of the Returned Missionary target language was centered on teaching about religion, and this was done by memorizing chunks of language which were repeated over and over, creating a positive bias towards the ability to discuss religion.
Many of the RMs showed their highest levels of target language ability when discussing religious matters, an ''ability pattern that OPI testers would describe as a hothouse special'', a skill rarely found in traditional students.
The strongest predictor of vocabulary attainment for the learners was time on the mission and out of the affective variables among motivation, attitude and faith, motivation was the strongest predictor.
The more time that passed and the less exposure to the target languages in the person's native land, the more vocabulary that was lost.
The larger the vocabulary of the language (lexicon), the greater the apparent savings benefit in relearning old words, and the better able one is to learn new words.
Researchers found during the measurement of oral fluency in mission languages that the pause variables have a stronger relationship to second language attainment, and the silent pauses, both in frequency and length, correlate most strongly with measures of language proficiency.
Researchers determined that the pause variables have a stronger
relationship to second language attainment, and ''the silent pauses, both in
frequency and length, correlate most strongly with measures of language
Research in 2014 by Rachel W Kirk on Spanish proficiency of Mormon returned missionaries through written survey completed by 103 students shows many attained a high level of linguistic proficiency but their awareness of cultural issues and ability to articulate them were limited.
A research paper by Lynne Hansen also shows that European languages are learned faster by the English-speaking learners than are the more distant Asian languages and European languages are retained better than Asian languages.
Another study in 2013 among LDS learners found that two motivational factors, learners' interest in culture, travel, and people, and positive learning attitudes/experience and intended efforts predicted learners' interest in continuing foreign language learning.
In other words, when the learners had positive attitudes towards L2 community, enjoyed the learning environment they were in, and made efforts to learn L2, the tendency that the learners desired to continue language study was high. This finding is similar to the results found in Wen's (2011) study which showed that positive learning attitudes/experience and intended efforts is a strong predictor for future L2 study.