BYU language studies professor shares her ‘rays of light’

Ellen Knell, associate director of curriculum and instruction for the Center for Language Studies gave the campus devotional on Tuesday, July 2.

Ellen Knell, associate director of curriculum and instruction for the BYU Center for Language Studies, taught that testimonies can be grown through multiple, small “rays of light” in her devotional address on Tuesday, July 2.

She began her address by mentioning a talk given by Elder Alexander Dushku of the Seventy during the April 2024 General Conference, titled “Pillars and Rays.” In his talk, Dushku discussed how his testimony did not arise from a single, impactful “pillar of light” but rather multiple, smaller “rays of light” over time.

The first “ray of light” Knell recounted from her life was when she had the prompting to go on a mission during her time at university. She followed the prompting and was called to serve in Taiwan, but she struggled to understand the language and communicate with others.

Once she became a senior companion after six months, she made many mistakes communicating in a foreign language. However, over time, she gradually understood the language.

“I felt God working through me despite my weaknesses and mistakes because the work needed to get done,” Knell said. “I didn’t expect the discouragement. I didn’t expect the feelings of incompetence. I expected a pillar of light and an instant gift of tongues. Instead, I got many small rays over time.”

She explained her mission experience sparked her interest in how people learn languages.

Knell discussed “small learning,” which emphasizes smaller, incremental steps in the learning process that can lead to a larger outcome over time.

BYU language professor Ellen Knell gives a devotional address at the Marriott Center on Tuesday, July 2. She shared the various “rays of light” throughout her life that helped her grow her testimony. (Emily May)

“I don’t think that we value small learning enough because we expect big outcomes, and we expect them right away,” she said. “I hope that we will be patient when the small learning takes a twist or turn that we don’t understand, because when we reflect back, we will see that we were making progress.”

Another ray of light Knell mentioned occurred when she applied for a teaching position in Hong Kong. A few months after she was rejected from the position, she found out that she wasn’t hired because she was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Some time after this, she began working in immersion language education. This led to her role training BYU students to become dual language immersion teachers. She is now grateful for losing the teaching position in Hong Kong because of this new opportunity.

“We don’t always know where our experiences, the small learning, will take us. Over time, we will detect a pattern, and we will see God’s hand in our life,” Knell said. “We must trust and do our best, collecting small rays as we go, and be sure to keep our covenants when things don’t seem to be going the way we want. Eventually, over time, understanding and learning will happen in the best way for each of us.”

She recounted a time when she served with the Church Literacy Working Group. The Gospel Literacy Program, which she evaluated in West Africa, taught Church members of various areas how to read and write using “small learning.”

Knell’s great, great grandfather learned to read and write using the scriptures, and Knell claimed that his progress must have been achieved through “small learning.”

“With persistence and patience, we know that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass,” Knell said.

Knell recounted the passing of her daughter Erica many years ago, saying she struggled to feel love from the Savior. A friend had told her to look for “tender mercies” and “rays of light,” and Knell did find herself surrounded by rays of light as she opened her heart to them.

“Eventually, I emerged with a knowledge that the Savior understands my sorrows and struggles and that he loves me and my daughter,” Knell said. “He brought peace and comfort that soothed my heart and soul. He blessed me with His Spirit and the knowledge that I will be with Erica again. He surrounded me with rays of light that I have learned to recognize and gather into a glorious, brilliant pillar.”

Knell said light can arise from unexpected places and unexpected people.

“Heavenly Father wants us to look for the light and continue on when it’s difficult, even when it takes a long time,” she said. “How we react to that struggle determines how much we will learn and grow. Small consistent choices and actions over a lifetime are what makes you who you will become.”

Knell concluded her address by teaching a single pillar of light, composed of many smaller rays of light, can warm students’ hearts. Small and simple things can become powerful over time and help students move forward with faith.

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