Returned missionaries discover benefits of being bilingual

Andy Nelson sits on a hill overlooking Sao Paulo, Brazil. Nelson had the opportunity to visit the country he served in to do research for the University of Sao Paulo. (Andy Nelson)
Andy Nelson sits on a hill overlooking Sao Paulo, Brazil. Nelson had the opportunity to visit the country he served in to do research for the University of Sao Paulo. (Andy Nelson)

Bilingual students have become the overwhelming majority on campus.

Campus records report that nearly 70 percent of BYU students are bilingual — a significant chunk compared to the percentage of bilingual Americans, estimated at 20 percent by the 2007 American Community Survey.

Campus records also report that only 6 percent of the BYU student body are from outside of the United States. But records also show that approximately 50 percent of BYU students have served church missions. It appears that the mission advantage is where the bilingual advantage lies.

Studies have shown that learning a second language often comes more easily to children, but that hasn’t stopped the church from sending missionaries to all corners of the world to spread the gospel and, consequently, learn a new language. Many of those missionaries come to study at BYU after they return home. The campus is no stranger to foreign languages and is equipped to handle the bilingual masses. More than 55 languages are taught on campus, with another 30 languages available depending on student interest.

The ability to speak another language can change everything with regard to what a student may choose to study. Returned missionaries often end up choosing or changing their majors after their mission. Many look for a major that provides an opportunity to use their mission language in a future career.

Elizabeth Robinson, a graduate student studying Spanish Pedagogy, did it slightly backwards. Before her mission she already knew she wanted to use Spanish in her future career. She explained her motivation to serve a mission.

“It got me thinking about, if I decide to serve a mission, I feel like that’s an act of faith, that’s putting my life in God’s hands, that he can guide me. And when I come back I’ll either continue my time as a Spanish teaching major, or I will completely change my major,” she said.

Robinson served in Dallas, Texas, and has continued on the path she originally set out for herself.

Adam Burton, an English major from Springville, also learned Spanish on his mission. Upon returning home, he found that the ability to speak another language opened up a wider array of job opportunities and, oftentimes, higher pay. He took a job at a health supplement company within a month of returning home and has used the Spanish he learned to earn $1 more per hour than his monolingual coworkers. Burton thinks bilingualism is an advantage on any job application.

“I can’t think of a single employer that wouldn’t be more eager to hire a bilingual person than a person that only speaks English,” he said.

Many times the ability to speak another language is just what is needed to open the door to unique internships or extracurricular activities that might not have otherwise been available. The director of international study programs at BYU, Lynn Elliott, said many of the study programs offered are geared directly toward bilingual students.

“Bilingual students often have the opportunity to do more interesting things and get more interesting placements,” Elliott said.

Andy Nelson, a Portuguese and Latin American studies major from Brigham City, has been able to find opportunities available to Portuguese speakers through campus resources after serving a mission in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He completed an internship for LDS Employment Resource Services in Portugal last year and spent this summer doing research at the Institute of Brazilian Studies at the University of Sao Paulo.

“Portuguese was essential in both of the opportunities,” he said.

Along with academic and career-related benefits of learning another language, the cognitive benefits are clear, as discussed by Northwest University Professor Viorica Marian in an article written for the National Institutes of Health.

“To maintain the relative balance between two languages, the bilingual brain relies on executive functions, a regulatory system of general cognitive abilities that includes processes such as attention and inhibition. Because both of a bilingual person’s language systems are always active and competing, that person uses these control mechanisms every time she or he speaks or listens. This constant practice strengthens the control mechanisms and changes the associated brain regions,” Marian said.

Along with the cognitive benefits that come from learning any language, other interesting benefits often arise. Brett Johnson, an English major from Cedar City, served a mission in Romania and has found that he has been able to use his language skills in surprising ways.

“Besides being able to communicate with more people, learning and speaking Romanian has helped me to better understand the ins and outs of the English language, its grammar and the origins of some words, etc. It’s also nice to be able to speak to some of my friends without anyone else understanding us when we want to,” Johnson said.

The ability to communicate with more people seems to be one of the greatest benefits that can come from a campus where 70 percent of the students can speak another language. Elder Jacob De Jager, of the First Quorum of the Seventy, remarked on the importance of being able to communicate through different languages in the October 1982 General Conference.

“We in the church look at the learning of languages differently from the way the world does. For us it is almost a sacred obligation given by the Lord,” Elder De Jager said. “Because we have to take the gospel to every nation, we as church members, more than ever before, must take the obligation upon us to learn foreign languages.”


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