The first little bit of any full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is spent at one of the 15 missionary training centers (MTC) located throughout the world.
I spent two months at the MTC in the Provo, Utah, in part to receive language training in Samoan with seven fellow missionaries. Afterwards, we were shipped out to Samoa, where we spent the next 22-23 months immersed in Samoan language and culture . . . and food.
When we arrived at the islands, we were paired off with more seasoned missionaries and assigned to labor in different areas in Samoa and American Samoa. Every once in a while our assigned areas or companions or both would change.
Of the 18 companions I had on the mission, 14, or 78%, were Samoan (one of whom was New Zealand born and raised), accounting for 70% of my two years. Seventy-one percent of my time on the islands I spent in Samoa versus American Samoa, with 81% of my time in Samoa spent on ʻUpolu versus Savaiʻi.
In all, I served in 24 ecclesiastical units or congregations, including 18 wards and 6 branches. One ward was an English language ward, but the other 23 units were all Samoan language units.
What this amounted to was a lot of Samoan language, day in and day out, in my on-duty time and in my spare time. Though I experienced language frustrations and culture shock at times, I can't think of a better way to learn a language than total immersion.
I will always be grateful to my Samoan companions who taught me their language and culture. And I'd be remiss if I didn't thank my American companions who also taught me a lot about the language--often it was extremely helpful to hear a grammar concept explained in plain English by one who had felt what I was feeling as a second language learner.
Today I don't have the luxury of total immersion in Samoan, though living and going to school in Hawaii these past three years certainly have helped my language development. I'll explain more in future posts.