In October 1973, President Harold B. Lee spoke about an area conference that took place in Munich, Germany. 14,000 members from eight countries (nine if one counted members from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany)) assembled together. Translation was required into five languages not including English. At the end of that conference, President Lee explained that “it is impossible for the General Authorities to learn seventeen different languages, the number of languages in which we are teaching the gospel today. But how simple it would be if all of you would try to learn English besides your own mother tongue. Surely you could learn one language, English, rather than to expect the General Authorities to learn seventeen different languages.”
Today there are vastly more than seventeen languages being used in the Church. The Book of Mormon is translated into well over 100 languages (110 as of May 2015). Missionaries in the MTC learn dozens of different languages to go out and ensure that people can hear the gospel preached in their native tongue.
Yet, the ideal that President Lee spoke of remains a vital goal. To have a common lingua franca that is shared throughout the Church is even more desirable than it was in President Lee’s day. This is why the Church as part of its new CES Global Education Initiative is focusing first and foremost on making English learning accessible to members throughout the world.
President Lee noted that only 30 years prior, those nations assembled together had been at war with one another. But as they assembled together they “felt the united brotherhood as these from various countries mingled together …” President Lee quoted George Bernard Shaw who memorably quipped “If we all realized that we were the children of one father, we would stop shouting at each other as much as we do.”
And President Lee provided a moving paraphrase of Galatians 3: 28-29
“Now you are neither English, nor German, nor French, nor Spanish, nor Italian, nor Austrian, nor Belgian, nor Dutch, but you are all one as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Despite the political differences that you have had with various countries, in you now, because you are all members of The Church of Jesus Christ, the war must end so far as you are concerned.”
This vision of a united brotherhood linked by common spiritual ties as well as by a common lingua franca is the dream of a global zion. It is one of the most powerful ideals that we aspire to as a Church and a people.
Some may see the effort to teach English as imperialist or western centric. But I’d rather see it in this profound lens. If we can all speak the same language, then gaps will be bridged both literally and figuratively. Bridging language barriers will put members in contact with those from diverse cultures and nationalities. It will help to put down strife and misunderstanding. It will heal the wounds of history. The common brotherhood that President Lee spoke of is a lofty aspiration. But the growth of technology and the new Church education initiative bring that vision closer to fruition.