Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Brigham Young on Other Languages

0--BrighamYoung1Our society today believes that proper education includes understanding your own tongue. What that understanding entails is sometimes debated, as is exactly what makes up “proper English.” Of course, Brigham had his own ideas about what was “proper” for English; while well intentioned the Deseret Alphabet didn’t really work out all that well. But he was also a strong proponent of learning in general, and learning language specifically.

Even in Brigham Young’s day, the Church needed members who spoke other languages. By 1860, the Church was already teaching in at least 4 languages other than English, but missionaries often had to learn the language themselves somehow. Perhaps this was in the back of Brigham’s mind when he said the following:


True Civilization

by Brigham Young


See that your children are properly educated in the rudiments of their mother tongue, and then let them proceed to higher branches of learning; let them become more informed in every department of true and useful learning than their fathers are. When they have become well acquainted with their language, let them study other languages, and make themselves fully acquainted with the manners, customs, laws, governments, and literature of other nations, peoples, and tongues. “¦

Remarks by President Brigham Young,
made in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City,
March 4, 1860.


Today the Church provides the website in 100 languages — and has at least some materials available in several more. We are also proud of the huge body of members who have learned (somewhat) another language while serving as missionaries. Unfortunately, post-mission, this capability is mostly wasted. Returned missionaries rarely use the knowledge they have gained either for the Church’s benefit or even for their own benefit (although recently the Church’s online volunteer center has started trying to harness some of this knowledge).

I hope I can be excused for stretching the boundaries of what might be called literary criticism today–this is one of those subjects near and dear to my heart. I am convinced that expanding the reach of the gospel requires not only building the Church, but also building local Mormon cultures that support the Church. And these local cultures will require additional material translated from English, beyond the basics provided in Church handbooks and lesson materials. Even some Mormon literature, I’m convinced, will need to be translated.

Many years ago I came across the following button for sale at a conference. I like to think that Bro. Brigham would agree.

4 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Brigham Young on Other Languages”

  1. Very nice, Kent! I like this very much.

    In my case, I had had a strong desire to learn French even before my mission, for no understandable reason. I started memorizing words from a dictionary when I was 10, and it was a bitter disappointment when we moved to a town at the beginning of my 7th grade year to learn that in that district foreign language training couldn’t be had until 9th grade.

    I’ve lost the ability to speak, and even to understand spoken French because there has been no opportunity to use it for 30 years; I like to think it would come back quickly if I were in the right environment. But there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t read French, very often for Church purposes (I use French genealogical records, I’ve translated some things for the Church History Library, I’m editing the papers of a French-speaking pioneer family, I even research stories for Keepa in French language materials.) Still don’t know why French fascinated me as a child, but having it offers opportunities for spwork and service that otherwise would be closed to me.

  2. Ardis, have you considered podcasts in French? I’ve been trying to listen to the RFI’s Journal en Français Facile, and it feels like I’m beginning to understand (cognates with English or Portuguese are quite obvious. Each episode is only 10 min. so its not much of a burden.

  3. My usable French after three years of high school instruction consisted of “Allons! Debout! Ne reste pas dans la neige,” which loosely translates as “Come on! Get up! Don’t just lie there in the snow!” (which I actually had an opportunity to say to a student lazing on a classroom floor). Nevertheless, I can watch a World War II movie with my wife and her knowledge of German, and be able to figure out all the dialogue that isn’t subtitled.

    Spanish I learned as a shopping-mall Santa. “Que quieras para la Navidad? Asi do bueno? Muy bien! No llores por favor, mija!” which sort-of means, “What do you want for Christmas? Have you been good? Great! Please don’t cry on the suit, kid!” More Spanish came as self defense during my days of substitute teaching. The strange thing is that, as a librarian, I will suddenly find myself speaking with a fluency far beyond my ability. The gifts of the Spirit come when you are ready to accept them, and I know that the gift of tongues is real.

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