Huntsman, Missions, and Language Skills

I don’t live in Utah and so I am not as closely familiar with Governor Huntsman as others are, although from a distance I have appreciated his moderateness and his support for civil unions in the state.

When I first read about his imminent appointment as ambassador to China (see the BCC sidebar to the left for a link), the article made mention of his fluent skills in Mandarin. Without knowing his background, it was obvious to me he gained those skills from an LDS mission, which was confirmed when I then read the Deseret News article.

The first thing I thought of was Chad Lewis. A BYU football player who played professionally for the Philadelphia Eagles, he had served a mission to Taiwan and had similar language skills. The NFL made him a sort of ambassador to China for the league, and he has travelled frequently to mainland China, sometimes in the company of the NFL Commissioner.

But for an LDS mission, how many Americans would have fluent Mandarin skills? And while a Lewis or a Huntsman could do his respective job as ambassador without actually personally knowing the language, it seems to me that their effectiveness in such a role will be greatly enhanced by their greater capacity to communicate directly with their contacts in China.

As someone who served a domestic mission and didn’t learn a language, this is one aspect of the mission experience for which I feel a twinge of envy, and I take a certain pride in the great number of Mormons with these kinds of language skills as a result of their missions, something that is quite unusual in the American context.


  1. Kevin:

    As usual you have made some great points. Yes, I feel a twinge of envy for those who learned Mandarin while serving on missions. However, in my case, I was sent on an English-speaking mission because the Man upstairs knew that my mouth would never be able to utter a single word of Asian origin. And, this is why you know more Hebrew than me too.

  2. I loved learning and speaking Lithuanian. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, knowing a language only spoken by some 4 million people hasn’t exactly proved useful during the intervening years. Some mission languages are far, far more useful than others. :)

  3. One gap that former missionaries have is that many languages aren’t yet used by the Church, and some of those languages are widely spoken and useful. The places where those languages are spoken are places where there are very, very few Mormons. It’s too bad American Mormons generally learn languages outside of official missionary work at about the same rate as the rest of America.

  4. I learned to speak English on my mission…not to be confused with American.

    I do wish I better knew another few languages. I did interpret in ASL…so with some brushing up I’m good with that. I’d like Spanish and Hebrew.

  5. Droylsden says:

    I am also envious, but not having to spend so much time studying a foreign language freed up more time to study the gospel and how to teach it. Today I give much better talks, lessons, and am far more comfortable speaking with people than I think I would have been otherwise.

  6. ” fluent in Mandarin Chinese from his service as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan.” (News articles). Is this true? I think only small groups use Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan (??)

  7. My Arkansanese has served me again and again. Just the other day I ordered chitlins, collards, and grits like a Little Rock Native.

    Like you Kevin, I’ve always had a twinge of longing I did not serve a foreign mission. I’ve had language envy for years. I tried taking undergraduate classes but my language capacity seems fairly limited. What a wonderful thing though that so many Missionaries get to have that opportunity.

  8. We have missionaries in our current ward in England that are Mandarin speaking. There’s a large Chinese student population in the town and we have frequent baptisms from that community.

  9. Bob:

    Here’s your answer. Google is our friend…

  10. #10: Thanks Nate, I found it.
    “For example, the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan by students who speak Taiwanese (a dialect of Southern Min) or Hakka as their mother tongue is usually spoken with a grammar and accent that renders it different from the Kuoyu standard, creating a version of Mandarin commonly known as Taiwanese

  11. Some mission languages are far, far more useful than others.

    True, but if it’s any consolation, relatively few missionaries achieve a level of Chinese fluency that is fit for non-proselytizing usage. Truth be told, even those with a knack for learning languages typically have to engage in years of intensive post-mission study in order to achieve “fluency” in Mandarin.

    Judging from the little Chinese that Huntsman spoke at the end of his press conference with the President this morning, it’s difficult to say how “fluent” he is. He definitely spoke with an American accent, but I have met a number of Americans who actually speak quite well, albeit with a rather strong accent.

  12. DMT #2–Just wait to see how useful Lithuanian becomes. My dad presided over the Baltic States mission when it was first opened in 1994. There was such an anti-Russian sentiment at that time that he requested his missionaries learn the languages of the various states–Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia. You never know when something big will happen in a place which requires a particular, even obscure language.

    I didn’t serve a mission but that certainly didn’t stop me from learning a language or two. All you really need is a passport.

    And I’ve heard Gringo Spanish that has actually had a southern accent. Weird.

  13. Elouise says:

    The greater usefulness of certain languages can’t be denied, and in a way, that’s too bad. I was certainly grateful to be sent to a French-speaking mission all those decades ago, and I have enjoyed knowing the language ever since. When I anticipated teaching in Hungary in the ’90’s, I had a few months tutoring from a recently returned missionary who’d served there. (He was, btw, the son of a missionary buddy from the old days.) Had I known better, however, I would have spent those three months more fruitfully learning German. Hungarian is a language unrelated to any other spoken in Europe (okay–it’s a very distant cousin to Finnish); lacking the Indo-European ties, it’s devilishly hard to learn. Hungarian doesn’t yet have a literature widely read outside its borders, as do French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. And the small city I lived and worked in was 18 kilometers away from the Austrian border. EVERYone in Szombathey spoke German. Few spoke English. (Busloads of shoppers came twice a week from Austria to take advantage of the lower prices on food, dentistry, haircuts, etc.) My college students there, however, spoke excellent English; they even read Faulker’s “The Bear” for the class. I wished I could have ordered T-shirts for them proclaiming that achievement!

  14. Elouise says:

    P.S. Full disclosure: I never learned enough Hungarian to say anything other than “thank you.” Alas.

  15. oudenos says:

    Jon Huntsman seems like a decent guy. Good on him for this appointment. As for fluency in Mandarin I am guessing that this is a classic case of using the term ‘fluency’ a bit loosely. I spent two years in Korea and no foreign missionary gained anything close to fluency. ‘Fluency’ sells language study products and becomes the currency of coolness at the MTC but in reality missionaries going to Asia return home speaking proselyteze, with bad accents at that. But again, good for Huntsman.

    For those who have language envy, I can speak for myself and say that the envy goes both ways. Helluva thing, the self-realization that at 22 months in the country you still speak like a 3 year old with wacky register and vocab and an incorrigible speech impediment. Kind of humiliating.

  16. CCharles says:

    The language skill is only a little part of what I call “the cultural conversion of the LDS missionaries”. Beyond that, you have countless other elements that make RMs the US best recruiting pool, provided that they really immersed into the cultures where they served. That is, a missionary whose only goal is to make converts will have learned nothing from the people by the end of his two years. And, I doubt he will have had any lasting success making converts. On the other hand, if he tried to learn from the people he was called to preach to, their customs, their way of thinking, what make them accept or reject the gospel, etc., by the end of his mission, he would have been a good missionary.
    I was kind of disappointed too when I received my mission call to serve in my home country. On my way to the field, I was blessed with the gift of… tongue. Honestly, I thought that brother who was setting me apart had missed something: I was going to preach in my mother tongue; so, what need did I have for the gift of tongue? That’s human reaction. And I was wrong to think that way. After about 8 months teaching in my mother language, several factors combined to bring about my reassignment to another mission where I had to teach in English, Spanish, and French. Years after my mission, guess what brings me livelihood? Languages. I teach… English in high school and Anglo-Saxon studies at university level.
    That was the spiritual aspect of things. On the temporal side, I would say that being a missionary in my native land was an eye-opener. I was put in a situation where I HAD to see things differently and rediscover my country and culture. In any case, when we send in our applications to serve missions, we do not condition our service on whether we are assigned to serve abroad or not. Some have to stay home so that others can go abroad.

  17. @ #12
    I’m very much aware of who your father is and am in awe at his accomplishments while serving in the Baltics. I can still recite my lineage of trainers back to one of the elders he dispatched to Kaunas to learn Lithuanian.

    Short of a resurgent Russia muscling its way back into the Baltics, NATO honoring its treaty obligations to defend them, and the Pentagon’s sudden need to draft and infiltrate RMs like me into the country to coordinate with the Lithuanian Resistance, I suspect that my language skills will simply remain a “conversation starter” on my resume. But thanks for the pep talk! :)

  18. Researcher says:

    Even if Huntsman required the service of a translator in addition to his own language skills, being able to understand what is happening and not needing to rely entirely upon a translator could be of great benefit to an ambassador.

    Living in the United States, I have had infrequent use for German since my mission, since most Germans here speak better English than I do German, but I would estimate that I’ve used my language skills about once a year on average, although quite a bit more recently for one reason and another. It’s a fun bonus to have the second language.

  19. #12: “All you really need is a passport”. Margaret, you make me feel so dumb. I have lived in S/CA 60 years and I can carry on a “conversation” in Spanish, only if the other party is willing to limit it to Spanish nouns and verbs.

  20. I went backpacking through Europe a few years ago, and that German that had been so useless in the US was actually a great help. I’m pretty confident in saying that it’s the second most useful language to know in Europe (next to English, of course). And not just in the German-speaking countries, either.

  21. CCharles says:

    Sorry, first sentence incomplete in #16. I meant “the US best recruiting pool for foreign related jobs”

  22. A few years ago I witnessed the a California mission’s chiense language program. It was an interesting study, watching the seven or eight elders as they battled the fact that they were surrounded by english-speaking public and missionaries and leadership, yet still had to learn a very difficult language. This is different from Huntsman’s Taiwan mission, but it’s the closest thought I can conjure of what his experience base is.

    There were a couple of these elders who had studied some chinese before. In their cases, I feel they achieved a high level of fluency (for a non-native) by the end of their time in Cali. I make this judgment based on the fact that they were responding and contributing quickly and accurately in ongoing conversations with natives, as well as write and read.

    I agree, though, that two years in and of themselves are too few to learn “fluently” Mandarin. There have to be some pre-mission and/or post-mission studies to reach real fluency.

    But, really, I think the fact that he speaks AT ALL, is all that’s necessary for him to make the symbolic impact of union and friendship that he needs to.

    Of course, there’s the another angel for looking at this story here…is this going to result, perhaps in increasingly open relations between the church with China? Dare I even mention that oft-emailed rumor of missionaries in the mainland?

  23. *angle…not angel. I, in no way, meant to insinuate that Moroni appeared to Obama and told him to pick Huntsman.

  24. My understanding of what missionary work will really be like in China is from somebody who probably knows, since he works for the State department. The government will not relinquish control,but there will likely be some missionary work allowed, in monitored areas. There is already a branch or two of Chinese converts, and an ex-pat ward that is phenomenal. (We attended there while visiting my folks in Beijing. It made my daughter long to move to China just for the strength of the members there.) While I was at the MTC, we had several Chinese converts (from the Mainland) en route to places like Paris or Canada.

  25. They left the fun parts of the article to the very end – apparently Hunstman dropped out of high school to be in a rock band!

  26. They left the fun parts of the article to the very end – apparently Hunstman dropped out of high school to be in a rock band!

    Wasn’t like he really had to worry about getting that scholarship…

  27. There was a saying in my mission in Korea about English speakers and the various mission languages they speak.
    “English speaking missionaries learn the gospel. Spanish speaking missionaries learn a language. Korean speaking missionaries learn to guess at both.”

    As for the other topic being discussed here. I’m not too bothered by the article’s use of the word “fluent”. Even when used by linguists it can have a variety of meanings. I mean I’m a native speaker of English but by no means am I fluent in all its forms. Talk about computers and though I may know most of the words it’s all Greek to me. If he can hold his own in a one-on-one conversation about the weather and his family, can give understandable directions to a taxi driver, or can dicker with someone at a market (all very necessary missionary language skills) then I’m fine calling him fluent. Don’t mistake “fluent” for meaning native or near-native proficiency.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Huntsman’s tenure as American abassador to Syngapore likely introduced him to Singaporean Mandarin too. :

    [… …] “From 1949 till 1979, there was a break of contact between Singapore and China. This meant that Singaporean Mandarin did not have the influence from Putonghua during this period. Instead, influence came mainly from Taiwanese Mandarin (through Taiwanese Mandarin entertainment media) and to a large degree from the English language, after English was adopted as the lingua franca of Singapore in 1965.

    “After 1980s, Singaporean Mandarin began to have greater influence from PRC Mandarin (Putonghua) due to the increasing contact between Singapore and China. This influence included the adoption of Hanyu Pinyin for Mandarin pronunciation and the change of chinese writing system in Singapore from Traditional Chinese to Simplified Chinese.” [… …]


  29. Anonymous says:

    Also from Wikipedia: “Various Chinese linguistic groups formed 75.2% of Singapore’s residents, Malays 13.6%, Indians 8.8%, while Eurasians, Arabs and other groups formed 2.4%.”

  30. Naismith says:

    “But for an LDS mission, how many Americans would have fluent Mandarin skills?”

    This seems a bit self-congratulatory. There are lots of other ways folks learn languages. See for example

    Also, a lot of missionaries do not develop decent language skills outside the “church dictionary,” and many of them cannot write their language.

  31. Mark D. says:

    There are plenty of Americans who speak fluent Chinese. First and second generation immigrants, primarily.

  32. Anyone see potential for future gospel/missionary/church-approval in China out of his contacts and visits with Chinese officials as pretty much the defining reason why he accepted? That’s immediately what I thought. Although maybe it’s best not to wonder it to loudly..

  33. #32:
    I don’t think that’s the primary reason.
    I think he may be tired of the partisan politics in Utah right now, and want a change.
    I think he wants a bit of an adventure, and he wants to give his children the opportunity to live in a foreign country.
    I think he wants a chance to make a difference in China.
    I think he’s looking forward to serving his country, and considers it a responsibility.
    I’m sure the church thing is a nice bonus, and something he’s happy about, but I really doubt it’s the defining reason why he accepted.

  34. Anyone see potential for future gospel/missionary/church-approval in China out of his contacts and visits with Chinese officials as pretty much the defining reason why he accepted?

    I’d be really surprised if this factored into his calculus.

    Frankly, I don’t think China is anywhere near “opening” to missionary work, at least not in the sense that Mormons normally think of.

  35. Mark B. says:

    oudenos (#15) is unnecessarily harsh. There is of course wide variation between missionaries in their vocabularies, accents, etc., but not all missionaries from Asia return home speaking only “proselyteze” with bad accents. More important–and I can only speak from experience about Japanese–one can learn grammar, which in Japanese is wonderfully simple, and forms of speech, which form a foundation on which new subject areas can be added.

    Naismith (#30) is right that many missionaries do not learn to write (and I’ll add read) their mission languages. We were encouraged not to spend too much time learning to read or write–in Japan, a missionary could have spent all his or her time learning to read–which would have left precious little time for studying the gospel or finding and teaching investigators.

  36. I believe that Gov. Huntsman truly is fluent. He is a former ambassador to Singapore and has led a trade mission to China.

    This post is one of the five or ten most important ambassadorships and is not just given to big donor or as patronage (which is particularly obvious in this case!).

    While being fluent and having served a mission would be a great advantage, this type of post requires much more experience than speaking the language or even having lived in the region.

  37. Considering that most ambassadors (and people in the state dept) are not fluent in the language of the countries they live and work ing, some Chinese is a great thing. And I know a lot of missionaries who speak much better Russian than the “fluent” state dept Russian speakers.

    Ditto #35. Some missionaries do speak amazingly–and some keep it up.

  38. Eh….I guess it depends on the kind of person you are. If my work can have an immediate and direct impact on changing attitudes of influential politicians about the church in a country of 1 billion people who aren’t allowed to hear about that church that would be my defining reason for accepting. And escaping partisan politics, doing something new and rewarding would be the extra bonus for me.

    I never said it would happen in 5 years. But then again how many people thought we’d have missionaries in the former USSR 5 years before it became allowed.

    If we were just talking about men you’d have a point. But with God all things are possible.

  39. esodhiambo says:

    As a Japanese RM and a former MTC teacher working closely with the northern Asian languages teachers, I would say that most missionaries do not achieve a fluency that would be used in, say, international diplomacy. That said, conversational fluency can be enormously useful and the cultural understandings a mission (and language study) can help develop are a great asset. A little Japanese spoken by a foreigner was always GREATLY appreciated by the Japanese people I knew, partly because it was so unexpected.

    It would be even better to not have a perceived alliegence to a rebel province (Taiwan), but, whatever.

  40. I’m grateful I got called to a Spanish speaking mission as that is what I always wanted to speak. Plus it has been and will continue to serve me post-mish.

    I wonder if the “language envy” works for foreign missionaries wanting another language. I know I would have chosen Mandarin and Arabic (is there even such a mission?) as my other two but I think the Lord knows my abilities and gave me a much easier Spanish. ;)

  41. There are 224 identified languages in Los Angeles County. (Fact)
    Yet, it is not a problem in our local Culture. (I’m not talking schools or jobs!) We have millions of translators! Mostly about age ten. You go into any Walmart and the non-English speaking have their kids or teenagers handling the tansaction.
    In dealing with these others, not knowing their cultural values is a bigger problem than not knowing their language.

  42. jjohnsen says:

    I was pretty excited to read my calling and see I’d be learning Cantonese in the MTC. Then I saw I was going to Australia. It was about as useful as you’d expect it to be, especially since most of the Asian people we ran into spoke Vietnamese or Mandarin.

  43. Peter LLC says:

    33:I think he may be tired of the partisan politics in Utah right now, and want a change.

    In that case, the non-partisan politics of US-China relations will be right up his alley.

  44. Patrick says:

    A year ago I found myself bargaining over the price of a camel-leather bag with a shopkeeper in the medina of Fez, Morocco in…GERMAN. Turned out it was the only language we had in common (apparently most of their tourists come from Europe). Who’da thunkit?

    My mission language also came in handy when I was working in Kuwait after the first Gulf War, and had my family relocated to Vienna, Austria for about a year. You just never know….

  45. Jonathan says:

    Which mission did he go to in Taiwan? This is great. The new President of Taiwan is trying to improve relationships with the mainland rather than historical attempts to sever its ties by previous presidents. Now Taiwan is improving its relations, America’s ambassador will also come from a very heavily Taiwan influenced background. This is a great opportunity. Jia you!

  46. #17 dmt : Carry around a Lithuanian copy and an English copy of the Book of Mormon in your car, and you’ll eventually run into Lithuanians.

  47. Well, I envy anyone that knows even a little bit of a foreign language–fluent or not. My husband’s native language is Spanish and he uses it constantly. Okay, so we live in the suburbian-ghetto of Chicago and 79% of my daughter’s school is Hispanic. Whatever. The closest store to us is Polish. There’s a Bulgarian restaurant down the street. And our next door neighbor is from somewhere in Africa. In a large metro area, you never know what language might come in handy.

  48. #44 & 47: In downtown LA, a lot of times being a bilingual worker or boss means you speak Spanish and Korean! (But not English).

  49. @ JJohnsen (#42),

    I can kinda relate. When I received my mission call, I was excited to read that I was going to Hong Kong and would be learning Mandarin. Of course, at the time I had no idea what people in Hong Kong spoke.

    Then I learned that most Hong Kong residents speak Cantonese. I had people telling me all kinds of things–that my call might be a mistake, that Cantonese might be “too hard” to teach in the MTC, etc.

    Turns out my call wasn’t a mistake. But that didn’t change the fact that Mandarin wasn’t extremely helpful when it came to talking to people on the streets of HK.

  50. For me, learning another language on my mission was quite transforming. I worked hard at it on my mission, worked hard on it after my mission (earning a BA), and despite the fact that I went 15 years without a reason to speak the language, I didn’t do too badly when I needed to pick it up again 6 years ago.

    Now I speak in Portuguese most days, read and write Portuguese daily, and try to travel to Portuguese-speaking countries once a year or so. All because my business requires Portuguese.

    I can say that if you speak one of the most commonly spoken foreign languages in the US (Spanish 10.710%, Chinese (all spoken varieties incl.) 0.78%, French (incl. Patois, Cajun) 0.627%, German 0.527%, Tagalog 0.467%, Vietnamese 0.385%, Italian 0.384%, Korean 0.341%, Russian 0.269%, Polish 0.254%, Arabic 0.234%, Portuguese or Portuguese Creole 0.215%, Japanese 0.182%, French Creole 0.173%), it should be possible to find immigrant communities or other speakers of that language in most metropolitan areas of the U.S.

    I’ve become a bit of an expert on this for Portuguese. I get weekly and monthly periodicals published here in the U.S. in Portuguese (there are dozens!), can get TV and movies in Portuguese (not counting on the Internet from overseas), and have a network of Portuguese-speaking friends who I can meet with or call up regularly to speak with.

    And then there is the Internet. I don’t care what language you speak, you should be able to keep your language and at least read a little in it on the Internet each day. (Personally, I’ve been fooling around a little with Kristang lately, which has about 5,000 speakers around the world and almost nothing formally published, and I can find material to read and study!)

    There is no question in my mind that my Portuguese is better than it has ever been, far better than it was on my mission. There is also no question in my mind that anyone who is willing to spend 15 minutes a day on the Internet reading or listening to their mission language should be able to maintain a decent ability, if not improve.

    Given how much effort it takes to learn the basics of a language in the first place, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to put a minimal amount of effort into keeping it up. If nothing else, join an email list or facebook group in your mission language!

  51. There is very little difference between the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan and that of the mainland. When Chiang Kai Shek fled to Taiwan in 1949 he brought with him people from all the provinces of China. The majority of the Taiwanese spoke Taiwanese with 5% or so speaking another dialect, Hakka.
    Most provinces in China also have their own dialects e.g. Cantonese, Hunanese, SiChuanese,etc.
    However, the Taiwan government is run in Mandarin, schools are taught in Mandarin, and mandarin is heard everywhere. The main difference is in the way it is written. Mainland China simplified the characters to make it easier to learn and also came up with “pinyin” a way of romanizing the language. All this way done to facilitate making the masses literate. Taiwan still uses the traditional characters.
    I assure you Huntsman’s mandarin is quite good. Plus, his American accent is not as difficult to understand as a Chinese from one of the remote provinces speaking Mandarin. He will be easily understood and should be quite effective.