I watched my classmate walk to the front of the room, and my heart began to race; I knew that my turn was next. It was the second week of classes, and our French teacher was having us take turns reciting the French alphabet in front of the whole class. I was 14 years old, taking my first class at the local high school, and it was my first time ever learning a foreign language. “Très bien, Sarah! Okay, Jessica, your turn.” I stood up slowly, pushed in my chair and walked forward. Turning around to face the class, I began, “A, b, c, d . . . ”
Now, fast-forward seven years.
The hum of friendly pre-church chatter filled the air as I took my seat in a special booth at the back of the room. My heart began to race as I watched the songleader walk onto the stage and up to the pulpit. I readjusted my headphones, cleared my throat, and looked down to make sure that my microphone was on. The songleader looked out at the room and smiled and said, “Bonjour à tous.”
“Hello everyone,” I said into the mic.
“J’espère que vous allez bien aujourd’hui.”
“I hope you’re doing well today.”
“Nous allons commencer dans 5 minutes. Veuillez rejoindre vos sièges.”
I spoke quickly and concisely, trying to keep my words up to speed as the non-French speakers listened to my interpretation through their headsets. “We’re going to start in 5 minutes,” I said. “Please find your seats.”
Last year I celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles in France and had the opportunity to do simultaneous interpretation for the first time. The Feast was full of amazing opportunities: meeting the French brethren, singing special music in French, helping interpret for the tour guides on some of our excursions, leading the children’s choir in both English and French and so on.
How had I gone from learning how to recite the letters of the French alphabet to speaking French well enough to interpret sermons, tours and conversations? If you answered “lots of time and practice,” you would be correct. There’s no doubt that learning your first foreign language is difficult. Many of you, I am sure, have already begun learning your first foreign language, and can attest to this. Not only do you have to learn completely new words and their spellings, but you must also learn the proper ways to organize those words and the seemingly strange ways to move your mouth in order to pronounce those words.
The next challenge in language learning comes when you put the language you have studied into practice. Languages exist to help people communicate, so you will have to eventually test out what you have learned on another human being. This can be intimidating! However, it brings me to one of the most important tips I can give to someone who wants to learn a language: Do not be afraid to make mistakes. If you can find a way to lay aside your fear of making mistakes and embrace them as part of the process, you will make leaps and bounds in your progress. If you never open your mouth, you’ll never learn anything new. (Mistakes often make for great stories later—I definitely have a few!)
Now that we’ve talked about how to learn a foreign language, the bigger question is why—why, for example, did I choose to keep learning French after I had completed the two classes that my high school required? For me, something clicked when a group of French exchange students visited my high school. As I listened to those teenagers talking to each other in French, I realized: “Wow. Real people across the world use this language every single day.” Perhaps this fact was obvious to everyone else, but in any case, a light bulb went off in my head when I realized the implications and benefits of being able to speak another language.
Think about this: Behind each language lies a whole world that is waiting to be explored. This includes books, movies, poems and songs that you have never seen or heard before. There are people to meet, stories to hear and different cultures to learn about. At their core, languages exist to help us connect with other people and share ideas with them. The more languages you know, the more people you have the potential to meet! How cool is it that millions of people around the world would be thrilled to talk to you about your country, your favorite movie or your family—if only you both had the words to do so?
Thanks to my time studying foreign languages, I have had many such opportunities, and I cannot begin to tell you how much enjoyment they have added to my life. I chose to study French as one of my majors in college, and part of this experience included studying abroad in the French Alps for a semester. I lived with a French host family, with two girls who became like my little sisters. We still keep in touch. When I spent my first year of college at a community college that didn’t offer French, I decided to take the opportunity to learn a little Spanish as well. Because of this, when I went to Mexico for the Feast in 2014, I was able to talk to the Mexican brethren, which made the week even more enriching and unforgettable. As a result of having studied Spanish, I recently had the opportunity to volunteer for a Youth Corps project in South America. My Spanish-speaking abilities are nowhere near fluent, and I made plenty of mistakes when I spoke, but I knew enough to be able to joke around and have some great conversations with the Chilean brethren during the project, to serve the youth at some local middle schools and to make some memories that I will never forget.
Aside from the fun benefits of being able to speak a foreign language, the skill also has many practical applications. Knowing a foreign language can make you stand out to a future employer and can serve as a determining factor in whether you get that future job you are really excited about. In fact, that is what happened to me! In February of this year, I was offered a job in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the Church’s home office to work in the French department. Since that time, I have translated hundreds of e-mails, worked on a new French website that is almost ready to be launched and collaborated on plenty of other fun projects, including translating the kids video Poly, Col y Toly from Spanish into French! Learning new languages opens up opportunities to meet people, to learn and to serve. Because I took the time to study a couple of languages as I was growing up, I have had the opportunity to meet many people from around the world, travel to foreign countries and volunteer for fun church projects. You can too! You can even start today! It’s as easy as un, deux, trois, or uno, dos, tres. Above I have listed a few ideas and resources to help you on your own language learning adventures. Bon courage!
Ideas for getting started
On your own time
- Books from the library
- Fun, free apps like DuoLingo
- More expensive and thorough programs like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur
- High school classes
- Community language club
- College classes