Why Mormons are so good at languages

15 min readAug 21, 2020


Photo: Kavita Pillay

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Alena Lorentzen: I heard a saying from one of my Finnish friends that there’s only two kinds of people that can learn Finnish, and that’s babies and missionaries (laughs).

Kavita Pillay: Finnish is a difficult language to learn. But try learning it while also trying to get the introverted and secular Finns to receive the gospel. Not that it’s stopped missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from trying.

Tania Moilanen: One of the girls that we’re following, she cries herself to sleep at night, praying to God that he would give her the tools to speak Finnish fluently.

Kavita Pillay: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle, stories of languages and the people who speak them. Whatever you know — or think you know — about Mormons, it’s hard not to marvel at their approach to language learning. Today, missionaries at the edge of the world: what’s the X-factor in their unique success with languages? Why is it so hard to replicate? And what’s love got to do with it?

Kavita Pillay: Hey, it’s Kavita here. Patrick is out of town, so it’s just me this week. And first off, let’s deal with the M-word. Why do some people say Mormon while others say Latter-day Saints?

Patrick Mason: Well, and that’s a big issue. I wrestled with that as a scholar, too.

Kavita Pillay: This is Patrick Mason.

Patrick Mason: And I’m the Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.

Kavita Pillay: Patrick Mason says that the term Mormon comes from the Book of Mormon, and it was an insult that was used against them by others.

Patrick Mason: It’s sort of like Yankee. But very quickly, members of the church took the name and adopted the nickname for themselves.

Kavita Pillay: These days, the Church would like people to use the full title, which is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But Patrick Mason thinks that Mormon is still a useful shorthand.

Patrick Mason: In some ways Mormonism for me is a bigger category than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints. Most people have no idea what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is, but they have some idea of what a Mormon is.

Kavita Pillay: And some of those ideas may rely on stereotypes. Patrick says the main stereotype is that they practice polygamy — by the way, mainstream Latter-day Saints haven’t practiced polygamy in over a century — or that they’re naive, or prudish, or haven’t fully embraced modern ideas about diversity and gender. In short:

Patrick Mason: Mormons are kind of caught in between these worlds. They’re not quite the right kind of Christians for other Christians. But they are way too religious for the rest of the secular world.

Kavita Pillay: It doesn’t help that a lot of us — myself included — may not have had many interactions with Mormons. You may know about Mitt Romney and the questions that came up for him about his faith when he ran for president in 2008 and 2012.

Mitt Romney: I believe in my Mormon faith, and I endeavor to live by it. Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they’re right, so be it.

Kavita Pillay: And then there’s the hit musical, The Book of Mormon.

Song: I am a Mormon, and dang it! A Mormon just beli-i-i-i-i-eves! I know that I must go and do, the things my god commands.

Kavita Pillay: But because they’re just two percent of the US population and largely concentrated in Utah, if you’ve met a Latter-day Saint, it may have been a missionary. You don’t have to serve a mission to be a member of the Church. But missionaries are central to the Mormon experience.

Patrick Mason: It’s the reason why the church has grown from just six members when it was founded in 1830 to 16 million members around the world. And it was global from the very beginning.

Kavita Pillay: Today, there are Latter-day Saints missionaries in 166 countries, and the Church currently teaches 57 languages. That includes ones you might expect, like French and Spanish and even American Sign Language. There are also ones you may not have heard of — or at least I hadn’t — like Hiligaynon and Malagasy. I’m not even sure if I pronounced those correctly. They also teach Finnish, which I know something about because I’m married to a Finn.

Sauli Pillay: Mitä sä haluat että mä sanon?

Kavita Pillay: This is my husband. His name is Sauli.

Sauli Pillay: That means, “What would you like me to say?”

Kavita Pillay: His name is Sauli. And like most Finns of a certain age, he’s also fluent in English. I thought everything about Sauli was amazing when we first met, including his very difficult mother tongue. So, I put up post it notes around my apartment to learn things like the Finnish words for refrigerator, jääkappi, and door, ovi. But I didn’t get much further. Even after many trips to Finland and raising a bilingual child, I know maybe 100 Finnish words.

Kavita and Sauli Pillay speaking Finnish

Kavita Pillay: That’s me trying to string a sentence together. I’m ashamed to admit this but I guess even my love for my family hasn’t been enough to motivate me to learn Finnish. But what if I loved all 5.5 million Finns?

Kavita Pillay: If you spend even a little time among Latter-day Saints missionaries, you’ll hear them talk about love: love for the people they’re serving, love for the gospel. What’s love got to do with learning languages?

Audio of SATNAV: “Turn right onto Temple View Drive, then turn right.”

Kavita Pillay: This is the Mission Training Center in Provo, Utah.

Audio of SATNAV: “Your destination is on the left”

Kavita Pillay: It’s also known as the MTC. It’s open 365 days a year and thousands of missionaries are trained here each year before they head out all over the world. If you’re serving in your mother tongue, you might be here for as little as two and a half weeks. And if you’re assigned to go somewhere like Finland, you could be here for as long as nine weeks.

Missionaries singing in Finnish

Kavita Pillay: These missionaries aren’t just learning a language. They’re also preparing spiritually and emotionally. They’ve barely been studying Finnish for a week, but they’re already able to muddle through singing a religious song in the language.

Missionaries speaking in Finnish

Kavita Pillay: They repeat their purpose in Finnish, over and over. That’s what they call it, their purpose: inviting others to come to Christ, to receive the restored gospel, and to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. All of this is written on a board in both Finnish and English, but as they repeat it, the teacher — who is a returned missionary — he starts erasing the Finnish words.

Missionaries speaking in Finnish

Kavita Pillay: It’s a memorization technique. And it’s reminding them of their motivation, because missionaries don’t have any choice in where they go. But that doesn’t matter; they are motivated by a higher calling.

Alena Lorentzen: I know that through trials, God has made us stronger. You know how to say “I know”? Tiedaan että.

Kavita Pillay: This is Alena Lorentzen. She’s 19 years old. The whole training experience feels very military style, including lots of jargon and acronyms, including this one, SYL: Speak Your Language. If you visit the Mission Training Center, you’ll see reminders everywhere for missionaries to SYL. The point is to get comfortable with the target language and use it whenever possible, to use English as a bridge when needed, and allow yourself to make lots of mistakes.

Alena Lorentzen speaking Finnish

Kavita Pillay: Gradually, the mistakes disappear, the English disappears, and you build your own relationship with the language. That’s SYL.

Kavita Pillay: Have you traveled outside of the US before this?

Alena Lorentzen: If a Mexico cruise counts, then yes.

Kavita Pillay: For missionaries like Alena, faith is the oxygen that gives life to everything they do.

Alena Lorentzen: My faith has only helped me…to…to learn…um…

Kavita Pillay: And it can get very emotional, especially for new missionaries. In their words, they are feeling the spirit.

Alena Lorentzen: God wants all his children to be able to know of the gospel in their own tongue and language, and so I know that he will give me the power to speak and understand so that I might be able to share this gospel with them.

Kavita Pillay: After the break, transforming from Alena Lorentzen to Sister Lorentzen. Yeah, a new identity.

Kavita Pillay: From the day Alena Lorentzen entered the Mission Training Center until she completes her 18-month mission in Finland, Alena will be known as Sister Lorentzen. That’s true of all female missionaries, they’re called ‘Sisters’ while male missionaries are called ‘Elders’. All missionaries also have to dress conservatively and professionally. And they’re assigned a companion, whom they have to be with every moment of every day, except when they’re in the bathroom. Then there’s the daily schedule:

Alena Lorentzen: So, we wake up at 6:30am and then we get ready for the day, and from there we have our personal study time where we can study out of the Book of Mormon or in the scriptures.

Kavita Pillay: They’re supposed to exercise every day, then they’re in class studying the language and religious texts for 10–12 hours. Once they’re on their mission, they’re out the door early, trying to talk with everyone they meet. And they do that until evening.

Alena Lorentzen: We are in bed by 9:45pm-10:00pm, but we’re supposed to be asleep by 10:30pm.

Kavita Pillay: And for six days a week that’s their life. Missionaries are building a new identity.

Daniel Everett: It’s like soldiers in the army when they get their head shaved or, you know, they’re called by rank.

Kavita Pillay: This is linguist Daniel Everett.

Daniel Everett: I mean, they’re sort of losing their former identity and gaining a new identity, and I suppose that for many missionaries, you know, going to sister and elder, this is a new identity that that they’re getting.

Kavita Pillay: This is something Daniel understands well. Before he became a linguist, he was a Christian missionary. We’ll come back to that. But what he’s saying about getting a new identity kind of reminds me of something that Sister Lorentzen said:

Alena Lorentzen: I heard a saying from one of my Finnish friends that there’s only two kinds of people that can learn Finnish, and that’s babies and missionaries.

Kavita Pillay: Babies and missionaries. Who would have thought to put them in the same category?

Daniel Everett: Babies need the language to form their first identity. They don’t really have much choice. They need to communicate. They need to talk to their parents. And so, they’re going to give it a huge amount of effort.

Kavita Pillay: Babies have just been born, and in a way, missionaries are being reborn. Regimentation and a new identity are part of what’s helping Sister Lorentzen succeed in learning another language. She wasn’t even a week into her training, and she could speak so much more Finnish than I could after my 12 years of being married to a Finn! I asked her to keep an audio diary during her time at the MTC, and here’s one thing that stood out.

Alena Lorentzen: When I was younger, I always struggled in school. I was in speech therapy, I didn’t really care much for school or learning. And so, I was overwhelmed with the idea of learning the hardest language when I got my call. But now I’m just getting so excited.

Kavita Pillay: And there’s something else specific to the Latter-day Saints that supports Sister Lorentzen: The Gift of Tongues. It’s this belief that God wants everyone to hear the scriptures in their own language.

Alena Lorentzen: It’s something that we believe that God gives his children in order to speak to all of his children.

Kavita Pillay: A lot of Christians also believe in the Gift of Tongues, but Latter-day Saints seem to follow it more than most.

Alena Lorentzen: The scripture that I thought of was Doctrine and Covenants section 90, verse 11, and it says: “For it shall come to pass that in the day that every man shall hear the fullness of the Gospel in his own tongue and his own language, those who are ordained to his power.”

Kavita Pillay: And all of this together — the Gift of Tongues, the regimented training, a new identity, speaking your language — this has led Alena to set a big goal for herself with the Finnish language.

Alena Lorentzen: I’m hoping to come home from my mission speaking it fluently and forgetting that I even spoke English, so that’s been really cool to make those kind of goals, and having everybody else feel the same way.

Kavita Pillay: When I first heard this part of Alena’s audio diary, it stunned me. But Mormon scholar Patrick Mason says that this isn’t so unusual.

Patrick Mason: This happens all the time and so traditionally when a missionary goes out, they give a farewell address in their home church before they leave. And then as soon as they come back, usually the Sunday after they return, they give a homecoming address. And over and over and over again, if you attend a lot of these, the ones who come back having spoken a foreign language, they’ll be giving this talk. And at some point in the talk, they’ll pause and they’ll say, “I forget how to say that in English.”

Kavita Pillay: It makes me think of method acting when an actor is finding their inner motivation and overcoming inhibition. They’re using all of their conscious energy to transform their unconscious mind. Total immersion. It like Latter-day Saints missionaries are the Daniel Day Lewises of language! Except…

Patrick Mason: It’s not an affect. It’s not a performance. But for most of them, they come home feeling far more comfortable when they step off that plane in the language that they’ve been speaking for the past couple of years than even in their native tongue.

Kavita Pillay: I wonder though, how do these young missionaries hold up under such strict rules and high expectations?

Tania Moilanen: Remember, these are teenagers essentially who’ve just come out of high school.

Kavita Pillay: Tania Moilanen is directing a documentary film called The Mission. It’s about Latter-day Saints missionaries who get called to Finland.

Tania Moilanen: It’s very much ripe for internal drama because of all that pressure to be perfect. And I know one of the girls that we’re following, she’s really struggling because she wants to help the Finnish people so much. And she feels so limited by her inability to speak Finnish fluently that she cries herself to sleep at night, praying to God that he would give her the tools to speak Finnish fluently so that she can better serve the Finnish people.

Kavita Pillay: But the other thing is that Finland is now considered the happiest country in the world. It also happens to be increasingly secular. Why should Finns listen to these young kids when Finns seem to have figured out a lot about happiness, without bringing God into the picture?

Sister Carolina Debiasi: Whenever we talk about Finland being the happiest place on earth, Finns laugh at it like, well…

Kavita Pillay: This is Sister Carolina Debiasi. She’s a missionary to Finland.

Sister Carolina Debiasi: But they also know that there’s something missing. And we believe that that something is God in their lives.

Kavita Pillay: If you feel like you’re hearing unshakeable belief from these missionaries, that’s also what it’s like in person. There’s no ambivalence, no room for doubt. Sister Aubrey Christiansen recently finished her 18 month mission in Finland.

Sister Aubrey Christiansen: Our religion is a religion about eternity and being able to have the opportunity to live with God again after this life. And that’s a message of joy for me.

Kavita Pillay: Daniel Everett, the linguist and former missionary, is now 68 years old. He was an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church when he served his mission, and he has a lot of respect for Latter-day Saints missionaries.

Daniel Everett: I am in favor of people giving everything they have to live by their principles. And when I see two Latter-day Saints in the Amazon, learning the language and being with the people, I just think that’s phenomenal. They’re 100% consistent to their faith and that’s a rare thing in churches.

Kavita Pillay: He also understands better than most what it’s like to feel called by God to learn another language. And do so in order to convert strangers.

Daniel Everett: And by the time I was 26 years old, I was in the Amazon jungle with my family of five — three children and my wife — and I felt like it’s us against the world. We’re here for God and whether we die or whether we live, nothing will stop us from giving everything that we have to serving God and learning this language.

Kavita Pillay: Daniel learned a language called Pirahã. It’s spoken by just several hundred people in the Brazilian Amazon, and Daniel is one of only three people in the world outside the Pirahã community who speak it.

Daniel Everett: You’re learning it for them. You’re learning it because you’ve come to help them. At least that’s the perception of the missionary. But as the Pirahã began to understand the message that we had for them, and as I began to better understand them and stood back a bit from my religion and all the Bible training I had had and everything, and just tried to look at them objectively as a beginning anthropologist, I realized that all of the benefits I am claiming for Christianity they already have. And then as they began to sort of understand what I was doing, they realized I was talking about things I had never seen myself, I didn’t have any direct evidence of.

Kavita Pillay: This was Daniel’s come-to-Jesus moment, and it led him away from his faith. Missionaries just can’t have doubt, not in the Amazon rainforest, not in Finland.

Daniel Everett: They have to believe that their faith is from God and that no matter what else you see, that’s inferior to their faith. So, if you have that view, it’s extremely difficult to change it. There’s a huge price for them to pay if they start to question in any serious way. Starts off a personal price because you have this conflict with your own faith. You know, when I when I gave up my faith, hundreds of people who used to send money to help us do our missionary work, they don’t talk to me anymore. They have nothing to do with me. I’ve had people, many people, write and tell, old friends, that I’m going to hell. And, you know, my kids, two of my children went two years without speaking to me. And it led to a divorce.

Kavita Pillay: Daniel Everett taught linguistics and anthropology for years. These days, he’s a Trustee Professor of Cognitive Sciences at Bentley University and he’s done groundbreaking work that challenges linguistic orthodoxy. If there’s one thing he believes, it’s that learning other languages can be transformative, but just not in a religious way.

Daniel Everett: Wouldn’t it be a better world if we didn’t need to want to convert people to learn that much about them and to communicate with them so effectively if we just did it because we loved other people and we felt like we were citizens of the same world. That seems to me to be one of the greatest motivations we can have. It doesn’t seem to be enough, though.

Kavita Pillay: I’m left wondering what all of this means for someone like me. I live a secular life, and I’d love to learn Finnish, but I’m not going to be immersed in it anytime soon. I also don’t have anything like the Mission Training Center to support such a goal, and I’m definitely not bringing any religious energy to it. But still, could I have a little more success at learning Finnish if I try applying some of the Latter-day Saints approach on a semi-regular basis? Can I commit to this as a secular act of love for the Finnish speakers in my life, and for a country that I’ve come to admire?

Sister Alena Lorentzen began her mission in Finland on January 1 of this year, and at the end of her 18-month mission, I’m planning to pay her a visit to see how far she’s come. I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I’m committing to learning at least enough Finnish so that she and I can have part of that conversation in Finnish. Check back in the summer of 2021 to see how we do.

This episode of Subtitle was reported by Kavita Pillay. The podcast version of the story is available here and on Apple podcasts.

Subtitle’s sound designer is Tina Tobey. Thanks to Julie Sedivy, Daniel Woodruff, Spencer Christensen, Ulla Ritaranta, Ilkka Aura, Marcellus Harper and our partners at the Linguistic Society of America and the Hub & Spoke audio collective.

Subtitle is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.




A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod