- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 1, 2006

As I write this, my eldest daughter is on a plane traveling to a distant country to spend a semester learning the language. She is enrolled in a university there and will stay in a local boardinghouse. She will do some English-language tutoring to help support herself. Her hope is to gain a working command of the language in a concentrated time period.

Spending a significant amount of time in another country is a great way to learn a language. One home-schooling family I know sent their daughter to France for six months, after which she took College Level Examination Program tests and received 16 college credits for the knowledge she had gained there.

Doing missionary or service work abroad is a great way to learn a language while also helping others. For years, the Mormon Church has encouraged young men and women to do a two-year mission, often in another country. The church has developed a very fine language-training program to prepare these youths for the work they will do, which is itself impressive.

But the actual experience of immersing oneself in another country, and living side-by-side with the local populace, certainly is the best way to become fluent.

A friend told me about leading an exchange group of college students from the former Soviet Union, the United States and China in a two-week educational program held in Beijing soon after the Cold War ended.

Near the end of the trip, a significant number of the group went AWOL one night, and were not to be found — a headache of enormous proportions in the highly sensitive and politicized atmosphere of 1990s Beijing.

Suspecting they were heading for the Hard Rock Cafe, the tour director tried to ask the hotel staff how to get there. His Chinese was nonexistent, and their English was not up to the challenge, either.

A young man standing nearby offered to help. In fluent Chinese, he explained the situation, requested directions and help getting a cab, and arranged everything. With his help, the wandering sheep were found — indeed, sampling the delights of rock music and noneducational exchange — and a potentially serious incident was averted. It turned out this good Samaritan was a Mormon missionary who had spent two years in China, and therefore was able to offer his help to resolve the crisis.

A movie depicting the experience of four young Mormon missionaries in Holland, “The Two Best Years,” is available on DVD. It tells the story of some very different individuals who serve together and who learn many things about themselves and about the land and language of their mission country.

Missionaries from another Christian denomination inspired the movie “The End of the Spear,” which depicts the true story of five missionaries slaughtered by the Waodani tribe in Central America in the mid-1950s.

Incredibly, the widows and children of the slain missionaries then went to live with those who killed their husbands and fathers. They learned the language, and taught them the ways of forgiveness and service to one’s enemy, ultimately preserving the tribe’s survival, and allowing them to live in peace for the first time in centuries.

“The Other Side of Heaven” is another true story captured in dramatic format. The young missionary has an unforgettable experience helping the people of a Pacific Island nation, surviving many physical and emotional challenges.

Films like these can help your children understand the value of learning foreign languages, and they teach aspects of the geography, culture and history of other nations. Also, consider arranging your own “homestay” situations for your children through friends, relatives and people in your church or other networks. The flexibility of home-schooling really opens the world to young learners.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.


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