With my clothes still looking new, my shoes still shiny, and my optimism unjaded, I pulled my suitcase along a cobblestone road. Laundry hung on clotheslines stretching from one building to the next, and even though it was late morning, it smelled like dinner. I heard an ambulance siren in the distance and tried to take it all in. I memorized the First Discussion (missionaries now use Preach My Gospel) in Italian before I left the MTC, and was ready to hit the ground running!
The first night in my first city, my trainer took me to the piazza, or town square. (I didn’t take the picture above, but that’s the piazza we were in!) We set up a street board, which was a multi-paneled wooden easel featuring pictures of Christ, The Book of Mormon, and a Temple. Then we talked to the people who came to look at it. Well, my companion talked to them. I got a reality check. When I heard a real-life Italian start talking, the only thing I needed a shield of faith for was to hide behind. They talked so fast! I tried to pick out some of the words I had learned and caught “Gesu Cristo” a few times, but beyond that I was toast.
While my companion was engaged in conversation, a young woman who looked to be about 18 or 19 started walking toward me. Emergency! EMERGENCY! What if she tried to talk to me?
“Buona Sera,” the young woman greeted me. Wow, I actually understood that!
“Ciao,” I said back. Then she said something else and looked at me intently, waiting for a reply. Heavenly Father, what do I do? I prayed.
Say what you know, I thought.
So, I started reciting the First Discussion. After the first principle, I stopped. The young woman said something, and I expected her to walk away. But she didn’t, so I gave her the second principle then paused again. This time, she didn’t say anything. She just continued to stand there and look at me, so I continued talking at her. I got through the entire discussion—all six principles of it—before she said anything else. Then another girl came to get her and the two of them walked away.
My companion finished her conversation, then came and asked me what the young woman said. “I have no idea,” I told her and started laughing. She could have said my Italian was atrocious, invited us to dinner, or told me she wanted to be baptized and I would’t have known the difference!
“Did you give her a Book of Mormon?” my companion asked.
“No,” I said, looking down at the one I had been holding the entire time. “But that would have been a good idea.”
My Language Advice. . .
The language barrier definitely makes things more challenging until you break through it, but I learned on my first night that it doesn’t have to be a brick wall. Start with what you know. If you’re willing to try, Heavenly Father will give you opportunities to share it. Your first conversation with a native speaker has to happen sometime. I recommend sooner than later, because it can only get better from there!
Missionaries who will be learning a new language always ask if they should start before they leave. It certainly won’t hurt to introduce yourself to the language you’ll be speaking, plus it’s fun and will get you excited about it! But the rate at which you’ll learn it in the MTC will quickly surpass anything you learn before then. We were praying out loud in our mission language by lunch time on day one. We learned a few words and simple phrases that morning, then had to say a one or two sentence prayer. They don’t waste any time!
My friend’s daughter just left to serve in the Brazil Sao Paolo mission and found a member online who Skyped with her a few times so she could hear what a native Brazilian sounds like. Even if you don’t talk to someone live, watch a few online videos of people speaking the language you’ll learn. That way, the first time you hear it you can be shell-shocked from the comfort of your own home instead of face-to-face like I was.
I love the movie, “The Best Two Years.” I think it depicts the language learning curve perfectly. I especially love how Elder Rogers tells his new companion that one day, someone will come up to him and without even noticing, he’ll carry on a full conversation in Dutch. Pray for help, do your best to learn and listen, and that’s exactly what will happen! But be patient with yourself, because it takes awhile!
Instead of thinking of how much you have to learn, focus on how much more you know each day than you did the day before. You’ll realize you’re making some serious progress! You CAN do it, and you WILL get there!