Among the thousands of Latinos who have come to Utah in the past decade, Miguel Soza has a big smile, a ready laugh and a gleam in his eye. Shaking hands with an older couple of LDS missionaries he has come to love, he explains his joy to an observer.

"Before I come here, I speak no English," he said, crossing his hands emphatically across his chest, then releasing them to his sides. Many of his Hispanic friends gathered in the hallway of an LDS chapel smile wide in agreement as he becomes animated again. "Now I speak English!"

Which means he and many of his new friends understood more readily the messages shared on local radio and television this past weekend by top leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the faith's 174th Semiannual General Conference.

A native of Chile, Silva is one of hundreds of local Latinos who has learned to speak basic English through a new pilot program being offered by the church. Dubbed "Daily Dose," the curriculum is focused around 20-minute "huddles" held three times a week at designated local chapels. English-speaking LDS members are asked to lead the huddles, teaching basic English words and phrases related to everyday tasks such as talking about one's house or apartment, talking to the boss, calling 911 and using public transit.

Once students master words and phrases used in daily living, they expand their vocabulary with words and concepts unique to Latter-day Saints, such as "Family Home Evening." After one three-month beginner course, many students return for an intermediate class. At $10 per course, no one can find a better bargain to learn basic English, explains Elder Roy King. Former president of the Monterrey Mexico Mission and the Mexico City Temple, he and his wife, Darlene, were the first missionary couple asked to oversee the program.

"Elder (M. Russell) Ballard felt strongly with the Hispanic Initiative program that we should help start this," Elder King said. As an apostle — one of the LDS Church's top leaders — Elder Ballard spoke at the first local Hispanic fireside, held annually since 2002 for all Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saints. Members were encouraged to become bilingual while retaining their cultural heritage.

After thousands turned out for the meetings, the church organized a meeting last spring of several hundred Spanish-speaking missionaries and many local Latinos in the Tabernacle.

They heard Elder Ballard outline a program designed "specifically to work with and serve the Hispanic community," according to Marco Diaz, a local Hispanic activist and Latter-day Saint who attended the meeting and shared his impressions with the Deseret Morning News last spring.

Diaz said Elder Ballard laid out "the praise and vision of how these (Latinos) are our brethren and we must love them." Diaz remembers someone saying it "is no accident that they are here, but (it's) by the hand of the Lord that they are."

And in unprecedented numbers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which released statistics last week showing Hispanics alone accounted for 26.9 percent of the state's population growth from 2000 to 2003, up from 22.9 percent during the 1990s.

Though the "Daily Dose" program has not been publicized since the church still considers it a "pilot program," hundreds of Latinos along the Wasatch Front have already taken the classes and learned to speak basic English since the program was initiated in March, according to Elder King.

To get the classes going, the Kings "invited any nonmembers that we saw, and the (proselyting) missionaries would invite people as they knocked on doors."

Recruiting hasn't been a problem, according to Adrian Escalante, a Sandy businessman who created the "Daily Dose" curriculum and offered a free license to the LDS Church to use it anywhere in the world. Posters and other teaching materials used in LDS chapels now bear the church's own logo. The program's commercial success in a variety of corporate settings was recently featured in a Washington Post article.

"When we did our very first official class in March in South Jordan, I was there that night to see it hands on," Escalante said. As a Latino Latter-day Saint, he understood the potential for a program that could teach his fellow members English in short sessions focused on real-life concepts.

"We were expecting 20 to 30 people show up, but 100 people were there in a line out to the parking lot. We had three or four facilitators," who teach in small groups of only eight to 10. "We had done no advertising at all." Escalante jumped in to help teach, "and in my group, people from Sugar House had showed up. When I asked if they were members, they said no, and they didn't have friends who were members. They had heard about it from the friend of a friend at work."

The program is open to anyone who is willing to participate regularly, Escalante said, and it's grown exponentially by word of mouth. Classes are being held not only in the Salt Lake Valley, but in many areas along the Wasatch Front, in Logan and in Preston, Idaho.

When Elder Ballard met with seven missionary couples last spring to start the pilot program, the LDS Church had 29 Spanish-speaking branches in the Salt Lake Valley alone, Elder King said. "There are 40 branches in the valley now, and they believe there could be a 50 percent increase by early next year." A member of the state's Hispanic Advisory Board before he went to Mexico City four years ago, he said the thousands of Latino immigrants to Utah have made "Salt Lake City the mission field" for new converts to the faith.

From Elder King's perspective, "Daily Dose," attracts nearly as many non-Latter-day Saints as it does members. "For many of them, it's the first time they've ever come into a Mormon chapel," and he watches their comfort level grow with each passing class. "We have Catholics who feel very comfortable about coming. We love to have them here, and they make a new group of friends."

On a recent evening, Rosa, Christen, Olga, Anna, Francisco, Itel and Angelina and Amalia were among those joining Miguel at a Taylorsville meetinghouse for yet another lesson. They come from Mexico, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Colombia and Chile. Robert Michaelson, a former LDS missionary who speaks Portuguese, leads the intermediate class. He hands out hymn books and asks students to sing "I Am a Child of God" in English with him, before one student prays, thanking God for the instructor and asking a "blessing for learning Spanish and English."

Instructor Ralph Knudsen helps his beginning class distinguish between pronouns and adjectives, but he doesn't call them that. Instead, he uses sentences like: "My family reads the scriptures," "I read the scriptures," "I sing songs," and "My family sings songs," listening for his students to parrot the phrases back to him exactly as he said them.

The program's first class graduated in June, and on a late September day, Michaelson and Knudsen joined the Kings in cheering their students at yet another graduation program.

Escalante said he and his employees are so busy orienting new teachers to the program, he can't keep up with the demand, so the LDS Church is producing a video to train new instructors. He said a general authority in California called him recently after hearing about how well the program has been received, asking when he could offer it to some 11 million Hispanics in that state.

King can't say enough good about Escalante, a native of Argentina, though the businessman will have none of it. While he doesn't have time to facilitate a class himself, Escalante said he's pleased with the feedback he gets from students who attend. During the first "Daily Dose" class, one student, who likely didn't know he had created the program, gave him the ultimate paycheck, he said, savoring the possibilities that knowing some English opens for his fellow Latter-day Saints.

"I've learned more in these 20 minutes than attending six months of traditional grammar-based teaching" was the welcome comment.


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com