International Series: Tongue-Tied

We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.

Today’s post comes from Amira.  Amira is a peripatetic wanderer with lots of opinions about being an expat, books, education, women in the church, and food. She blogs at The Golden Road to Samarqand.

Three months after I turned 18 and graduated from high school I went overseas for the first time to get out of Orem, Utah, as soon as I could. I took Latin, French, and Russian in high school and spent 9 months in the Middle East in college, minoring in Arabic and majoring in International Relations. I married a fellow Arabic student who spent a summer during law school in Egypt studying Islamic law. We got stuck in the US for a few years while our two oldest children were born until we went to Kyrgyzstan for a year when they were 6 and 4, and back again a few years later; we speak Russian, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz between us as a result. Now we live in Mexico with three children (my husband speaks much better Spanish than I do) and are planning a move to Saudi Arabia in two years. I don’t know how much Arabic I remember after 20 years, but it will be so nice to not start on a new language. New languages are a huge part of expat life for me.

Growing up I always had an unrealistic idea of what it would be like to raise a family overseas. Some parts have come true (standing on the Great Wall of China with your children is much better than seeing the pyramids with your roommates), but other parts haven’t worked out the way my 16-year-old self imagined. Church has nearly always been hard overseas, learning languages takes a lot of work every single time, and you can’t make your kids love being international. Pretty much everything else, including the house with no plumbing in the kitchen, has been an adventure, but not those three things.

When we lived in Kyrgyzstan we had church at home. There always were other members around, but the church attorneys in Moscow always thought it was a bad idea for us to meet together so we were on our own. That was fine when our boys were little, but as they started with Young Men’s, homechurching wasn’t their favorite (personally, I love it). We had various uncles, grandfathers, and cousins teach YM lessons over Skype, but my oldest, social son in particular hated church by the time we left.

We thought things would be better in Mexico, but now we’re isolated linguistically instead of geographically as the only English speakers in the ward. We have no translation equipment despite a year of asking for it, my boys are the only native-English-speaking LDS teens in Guadalajara (unless some have hidden themselves well), and there is no Young Men’s program in our ward because there aren’t enough men to fill all the men-only callings, so non-essential callings like YM president don’t get filled.

My oldest son, the one who hated homechurching in Kyrgyzstan, says the isolation at church is worse now than with homechurching. Since I can’t make them learn Spanish (and because my expectations regarding languages have become more realistic) and since language-designated wards in Latin America are almost universally banned by the church, there’s not much I can do about that isolation. One of the main reasons we wanted to go to Saudi, in addition to the Arabic, is that church is in English there. My teenage boys are lonely again, and it’s hard to be happy at church if your kids aren’t.

It’s hard to learn a language. I’ve had enough experience to know exactly how hard it is. No matter how many missionaries you know who come home speaking a language “fluently,” it’s not reasonable to require anyone to learn a new language to participate in church. Missionaries have the advantage of putting all their time into practical language learning. Even if I had decided, and my children agreed, that we were all going to learn Spanish well enough to make church work, we would have had to drop everything else for months, if not a full year. It’s one thing to memorize enough phrases to say your testimony or to bless the sacrament, but it’s something else completely to really share your testimony, teach one of the youth lessons, or just to make friends in another language. There are so many valid reasons why people cannot make language learning their only priority when they move to a new country.

Women in particular can be more isolated because of language.  I’ve had expat friends who live in wards and branches where anyone who comes to church is given a calling or three. I’ve never been an expat in a ward like that but my husband is needed at church because he can hold callings I can’t.  Even if he didn’t speak much Spanish, he would still have a calling in our ward because there aren’t many men in the ward.  Also, married women are more likely to be in another country because of their husband’s job or family.  Their husbands’ need for and access to language learning resources are much different.  This also is a concern in countries where there are many languages spoken and women might have less access to languages of business or education which are more likely to have church materials in them.

This is a huge problem in the US too. I remember one year when we were living in the US and I always sat next to a woman from China in Relief Society.  She was reasonably competent with English but the Joseph Smith manual that year was hard for her to understand and she needed help in Relief Society.  I was the only one who sat by her and explained what was going on and cared whether she was there; she quit going to church after I moved away because of the isolation.  I had other friends in that ward who had held many church callings in Mexico only to feel completely useless when they moved to the US and didn’t speak English. There are thousands more stories like this where linguistic isolation is a major barrier to people’s participation at church.

So what can the church do to help members who don’t speak the majority language? First, translation equipment should be available everywhere, always. If it hasn’t been needed in the past, it should be made available quickly and without question. If it gets stolen, replace it. And replace it again. It’s important. Second, do everything possible to group speakers of the same language in the same unit. That doesn’t mean I always approve of language-designated wards, because I don’t, but you need someone to talk to. Do everything possible to make sure at least one meeting on Sunday is in everyone’s native language. Also, there are so many online options for supporting isolated members that haven’t been considered, especially in areas where the branch is just trying to stay afloat and can’t deal with members who don’t speak the language. The church could hire translators far more often than it does. Finally, leaders must be flexible and respectful. Language is a legitimate barrier and it can be hard to stay officially active when you don’t understand what’s going on.

And what can we do? First, be welcoming no matter what the language barrier is. Try to be culturally sensitive so you don’t, for example, run up and hug someone who would be uncomfortable with it, but don’t do nothing because you’re worried about offending. Smiles, at least, nearly always go a long way (especially among Mormons who are used to smiley Americans). Second, if you know someone else’s language, even a bit, use it. I get that it’s uncomfortable on both sides, believe me, and if your efforts aren’t appreciated, you don’t have to try again, but so often even a hello and some simple questions in a familiar language make a difference.

Try to include her. The burden of learning a new language can be shared. Maybe have a RS activity where a new sister teaches a little of her language and she is taught some of yours, or set up regular classes when languages are exchanged. If there’s a need, organize classes to teach survival skills in the new language. Make sure she had access to church materials in her language if at all possible and help her follow along with the lesson if there is no one to translate. If at all possible, assign visiting and home teachers who speak her language. Speak clearly and possibly slowly, but not painfully so. Try using Google translate (I’ve known bishops who did interviews entirely through Google translate). Ask her to share her cultural and family background with you even if it’s through pictures and food instead of words. Ask members to pray and speak in sacrament no matter what language they speak. You can all sit there for a few minutes and listen- she does it every week for 3 hours. Be willing to answer questions. Maybe find someone else in the ward who shares her interests and see if they can find creative ways to communicate. Learn about the place she’s from. Show her you care. And don’t assume anything about anyone’s personality or intelligence based on their language ability.

Despite some hard times with languages, I would never, ever trade this life for a stable one in Utah or any other part of the US. I keep telling myself that my children will thank me someday. I think I’m lying, but you never know. Till then, I’ll never regret that we’ve had a lot of very interesting church experiences, some that have made my husband a Mormon feminist too. That we’ve seen, eaten, smelled, and touched so many pieces of the world and keep finding new ones. That I have skulls and bones hanging on my Christmas tree, that we celebrate Nooruz and the Day of the Dead, and that we eat the weirdest street food we can find (usually). And especially that I’ve been able to share that with the most important people in my life.

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9 Responses

  1. spunky says:

    What an interesting post! That is an interesting suggestion to have translation equipment everywhere, and I struggled to see how it might work. It DoD not occur to me that some wards and stakes might not have WiFi or even any internet access, so the materials already translated online would be problematic. A comment in another post on this series taught that her ward had called translaters to help expats, but that was a service that was not always appreciated, even though it was demanded. I struggle to see how translation devicesight work if there is nor am individual who is well versed in both languages to live-translate the unscripted parts of church meetings.

    How would the translation devices help and how do you see them being used? Is your son able to connect with a US home ward and so the program in that manner (american expats in our ward did that for scouts for their sons.)

    Thanks for sharing the challenges of your expat life in this series! Perhaps youight share even another post from you about your experience with relief society and women’s church callings? Sounds like you are just touching the iceberg here!

    • Amira says:

      I don’t think translation equipment is the best or only solution to the problem of people not hearing the gospel in their own language. The equipment sometimes doesn’t work well and you do have to have someone who is willing and able to interpret which is very often not possible. Translation equipment is a limited option and our family has chosen not to use it when it’s been available in wards we’ve been visiting for a week or two.

      But the church has enough resources that interpretation shouldn’t be unavailable solely because the equipment isn’t there. In our current ward there are several people who are willing and able to interpret and it really is a simple lack of equipment that keeps it from happening. I’d especially like to see it used in sacrament meeting. My teens still might not listen in church, but at least they’d have a choice.

      I also think it’s an option for wards to hire translators if there is a need that cannot be met on a volunteer basis. I know that has happened in places where there is no other way to communicate with a permanent member (it also apparently brings up an interesting question of whether the interpreter ought to continue to be paid if she joins the church, as happened in one place I know of).

  2. I attended a multilingual ward in the Czech Republic where talks were given in three languages. Headsets were passed out at the door as people entered and it worked beautifully.

    In contrast, I attended in Mexico and even though I speak Spanish, I was frustrated because there were no hymnals. I would have been happy to translate for my non-Spanish speaking family members, but it was awkward to do so without headsets. I did not own my own Spanish hymnal or have the hymns memorized in Spanish so I could not participate in singing, which made me feel like an observer rather than a participant.

    I wonder why the availability of books and equipment is so uneven in different places.

  3. Namakemono says:

    Amira – I love your post, and have read your blog for a while (envious of the wandering lifestyle too!).

    I’m in the situation of being an English speaker in a non-English ward/country, but speak the local language. Translation in our ward is something that everyone who is able tries their best to help out with, but it’s hard! And then there’s all the things that fall through the cracks – RS newsletter; the hymn numbers being different; ward stuff sent out by email etc. Attending church in another country last year where I understood nothing made me aware yet again, and I’ve tried since to be more aware of things I can do to help out.

  4. Liz says:

    The issues of language are so complex, and I’m really glad you’ve highlighted them here. I also echo April’s concern about the availability of materials in different languages – there’s a huge disparity there between the US and international church. I think there’s a huge difference in spending between US wards and international wards, too, and I think that might be part of the problem – I remember having to go to Girls’ Camp in Mexico and dig my own latrine up in the mountains, but the girls in Utah went to a church-owned camp with pools, cabins, and all sorts of amenities. And there’s a huge disparity in how church welfare is distributed within the US versus outside the US. These are big, big issues.

    My parents used to serve in a downtown Detroit branch, and they held simultaneous Sacrament meetings – one in Spanish, one in English. They did the same for Sunday School. So while there weren’t enough members to split the branch to hold language-specific congregations, and they held the 3rd hour together with some people translating into whatever language the speaker wasn’t using, it was a great way for people to worship in their own language while also being efficient.

    Great, great post. Thank you for writing for us!

  5. Loved this, Amira. Of course, I’m fascinated by pretty much everything you write. I used to translate in our Relief Society for a sweet elderly sister from Peru. We didn’t have any translation equipment, so I just whispered in her ear. Except that she was always whispering back at me. After a while, I realized that more than translation, she just needed someone to talk to. So we would have whispered conversations in Spanish all through Relief Society, some having to do with the topic of the lesson, others not. Like you said, a lot of what you miss when you don’t share the local language is the feeling of being included, not just being able to understand the talks and lessons.

    That’s rough that you don’t even have a YM president for your boys. I’ve been in small branches where they had few resources for youth programs, so instead they gave at least the older youth full-fledged callings in the ward. It was a really positive thing, because they felt needed and learned important skills, and it took some pressure off the adult members, who were stretched thin. I know it made a big impact on me to be called as ward organist at age 11, and do it throughout my teenage years. I don’t know if giving your teenagers callings is an option, or even helpful, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

    • Amira says:

      Sarah, I think giving callings to youth can be a great idea. I can’t think of anything my boys could do in this ward since it has plenty of people to fill non-priesthood callings, and all of those people speak Spanish, but I’ll keep that in mind.

  6. I love your idea of having members participate in church in their native language, regardless of the language of the services in general. I wish that happened more in my ward. Every once in a while, a family whose native language is not English will bless a baby or baptize a child in English, and I want to take them aside and say, this ordinance is for YOU, not US – do it in your own language! But I’m sure they have their reasons, or I hope they do.

  1. September 13, 2014

    […] Three months after I turned 18 and graduated from high school I went overseas for the first time to get out of Orem, Utah, as soon as I could. I took Latin, French, and Russian in high school and spent 9 months in the Middle East in college, minoring in Arabic and majoring in International Relations. I married a fellow Arabic student who spent a summer during law school in Egypt studying Islamic law. We got stuck in the US for a few years while our two oldest children were born until we went to Kyrgyzstan for a year when they were 6 and 4, and back again a few years later; we speak Russian, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz …read more […]

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