Becoming the ‘Language capital of the world’


Editor’s note: This story is part of the April 2022 issue of The Daily Universe Magazine.

Eduarda Santana never took private English classes, since they are expensive in her native Brazil. Instead, her parents printed off lyrics to Disney songs so young Santana could sing along while watching TV.

As she grew older, Santana read gospel materials like the Book of Mormon and Ensign magazines in English. She taught herself grammar and sentence structure in English.

Her missionary service for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in southern Brazil solidified her English skills. Santana said her missionary companions made learning English conversational skills fun.

“They would come up with the funniest exercises, like not being allowed to speak Portuguese with them after the sunset, writing fictional stories or singing hymns we loved,” Santana said. “I believe that was the key to my fast improvement.”

After living in Panama and singing many Disney songs, Santana learned Spanish and English. She currently studies Mandarin in her spare time. She recently got a job, took BYU-Pathway Worldwide classes and started online classes through BYU–Idaho thanks to her language skills.

President Spencer W. Kimball said in his 1975 Second Century address that BYU should become the “language capital of the world.” This included the Language Training Mission that at the time trained missionaries in foreign languages.

President Kimball said, “There is no reason why this university could not become the place where, perhaps more than anywhere else, the concern for literacy and the teaching of English as a second language is firmly headquartered in terms of unarguable competency as well as deep concern.”

Santana accessed this capital of language learning through BYU-Idaho and BYU-Pathway Worldwide. She continues to study and work in Panama while taking virtual classes at BYU-Idaho.

Language learning and spiritual learning have spread across the world in several areas since President Kimball’s 1975 address. BYU educational programs and institutions have expanded greatly in the past 47 years, giving opportunities to students from Provo to São Paulo.

Foreign language degrees

In 2019, The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked BYU third in the nation for producing the most graduates with degrees in a foreign language. BYU was the only private nonprofit university listed in the top 10.

Rebecca Marks, assistant director of the BYU Center for Language Studies, said BYU currently teaches 71 languages. The most recent addition is modern Greek, added for Winter Semester 2022. According to Marks, BYU teaches languages that no other university does, such as the Polynesian language Kiribati.

According to a University Communications report, nearly 65% of BYU students in 2019 spoke a foreign language, with over 128 different languages found on campus. This is likely due in large part to returned missionaries who served in foreign countries. In addition, the BYU student body was 4.5% international students in 2021, with over 100 countries represented.

However, linguistics major Rachael Merrill has noticed people in her Japanese classes who attend simply because they want to learn the language. “There’s just a contagious desire to learn foreign languages and cultures,” Merrill said.

Nicole Berriman spends a summer in Kenya getting to know the people and culture. (Nicole Berriman)

BYU institutions

Merrill lives in the Japanese house of the Foreign Language Student Residence, which was built less than two decades after President Kimball’s address. The FLSR provides housing to students who speak foreign languages, with apartments separated by language.

Merrill served for several months in the Japan Kobe Mission before being reassigned to Iowa due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said the FLSR provided a way for her to immerse herself in the Japanese language and culture again, something she has missed since her mission.

BYU–Pathway Worldwide and BYU–Idaho provided language immersion and cultural connections for Santana. Understanding other languages and cultures has helped Santana to make friends from around the world, and BYU institutions have enabled her to do so without leaving her apartment.

“That helped me to make friends that I could never connect with if I only knew Portuguese,” Santana said. “I just can’t imagine my life without some of these people.”

While the number of students admitted to BYU has grown by about 8,000 since 1975, the BYU–Pathway Worldwide program has expanded even further the reach of the Church Educational System. BYU–Pathway Worldwide started in 2017 and now serves more than 60,000 students in 160 countries. Pathway Connect provides an introductory online education curriculum to about 35,000 students currently, and about 27,000 students have moved through the initial Pathway Connect program and are now involved in online degrees and certificates through BYU–Idaho.

During the March 2022 inauguration ceremony for BYU–Pathway Worldwide’s second president, Brian K. Ashton, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve addressed the expanding reach of Church education. Elder Holland is a former president of BYU.

“I consider the creation of BYU–Pathway Worldwide to be the most important and most far-reaching development in the Church Educational System of this Church since the creation of seminaries and institutes of religion over a century ago,” he said.

Santana is just one of nearly 1 million students across the globe who has benefitted from this expansive educational system through BYU.

The Missionary Training Center

President Kimball uses the word “bilingual” in his Second Century address as a metaphor for combining secular and spiritual learning. These two languages are uniquely brought together at BYU. President Kimball included missionary language training as part of BYU’s mission to become a language capital of the world.

Merrill works as a Japanese tutor at the Missionary Training Center. Through her mission, her job at the MTC and her life experiences, Merrill has learned to feel the spirit no matter what topic she is learning. For example, she often connected the meaning of Japanese characters to spiritual concepts while serving as a missionary in Iowa, she said.

Merrill described the recent change in curriculum at the MTC that combines spiritual and language learning. During their first two weeks of training, missionaries are taught principles of discipleship in their native language. The rest of their time in the MTC is spent learning spiritual concepts in their assigned mission language.

“But the spirit should be the same in both experiences,” Merrill said.

Bilingual in spiritual and secular knowledge

“Learning a new language is spiritual learning,” Santana said. “People tend to categorize knowledge as secular and spiritual when, at the very end, it’s just knowledge.”

Santana said she learned through her studies at BYU–Idaho that all things are spiritual to God, and His power is what enables her to learn anything, from English grammar to gospel doctrine.

BYU Center for Language Studies director Ray Clifford emphasized this point in a 2017 devotional. He explained how a prompting from the Spirit led him to accept his current role at BYU when doing so made no logical sense to him.

“Of all the world’s languages, it is the language of the Spirit that best satisfies the aims of a BYU education,” Clifford said.

Elder Holland recently echoed President Kimball’s thoughts on the importance of an education. Whether addressing worldwide or individual problems, Elder Holland said at Ashton’s inauguration, “an education — especially an education in discipleship of the Lord Jesus Christ — should be a central, majestic part of the solution.”

Professors across campus open their classes with prayer. The Marriott Center hosts regular devotionals on Tuesdays with spiritual messages delivered by Church leaders and BYU professors. Students are required to take religion courses to increase spiritual learning along with their other GE classes. These and other evidences show how BYU attempts to combine spiritual and secular learning to create students fluent in both languages.

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