Foundations: No.78 Spring 2020

The Use of English in Cross-cultural Mission: Observations from Africa

This article discusses the use of the English language on the mission field in Africa today. While the learning of indigenous African languages was a must for every missionary in the past, contemporary experience shows that more and more missionaries tend to operate only in English (or some other colonial language). This development, which can be observed especially among those missionaries who speak English as their first language, has proven to be problematic. Use of English as the sole language does not assist missionaries in overcoming the cultural gap between them and the African people they have come to serve. It rather conveys an attitude of insensitivity and superiority, which only serves to further cultural distance. Consequentially, missionaries who insist on speaking English alone face the danger of remaining cultural outsiders, and risk hindering the effectiveness of their ministries. If missionaries believe the Bible is God’s revelation in written form, they must then recognise how seriously God takes human language as a means of communication. Accordingly, the importance of sharing the gospel of Christ in the mother tongue of indigenous peoples, i.e. in their heart language, should again become a staple element of missionary practice today.

I. Introduction

An orphanage in southern Africa was led by both local Christians and foreign missionaries. At the leadership meetings the local African Christians usually kept very quiet while most of the talking was done by the missionaries. The latter interpreted the silence of the former as ignorance or a lack of interest in the affairs of the organisation. The truth, however, was far from that. The local Christians were very much committed to the orphanage but, amongst other reasons for their silence, they felt inferior to the missionaries. The missionaries fostered that feeling through their behaviour; though English was the official language of the country hardly any local person spoke it as his or her native language. For the local members of the leadership team English was a second or third language, while the missionaries from the UK and the USA were all English native speakers. Often they would use words or expressions their indigenous colleagues had never heard before. When it came to writing the minutes for the meeting a missionary would complete the task within a very short time, while for a local member of the team it would take much more effort. Missionaries usually produced all project proposals. All brochures or press releases were written or proof-read by them. In addition, the missionaries showed little interest in learning any of the local languages.[1]

II. The Cross-cultural and Linguistic Perspectives

The Western missionaries did not see the necessity to learn any of the local languages as they were serving in a country which had English as the main official language. Local people spoke that language with varying degrees of proficiency. English was also the designated company language of their host organisation. The missionaries failed to recognise the struggles their African team members had with the country’s main official language. Some of the Africans had only a functional command of English. In the words of de Klerk and Gough, they lacked “the more empowering cultural and critical literacies which usually operate through more prestigious forms of English”.[2]  Neither did the missionaries understand that using the same language, i.e. English, did not do away with the cultural differences that existed between them and their African colleagues. As Jim Harries puts it,

Western people who engage with African partners using English are forgetting something very important… the cultural gap between them and the Africans who they are endeavouring to reach. Often they seem to assume that cultural differences disappear when one uses one language. I think this is illogical: how can cultural differences disappear as a result of someone’s having learned a language? They cannot. At best they go into temporary hiding.[3]

Though it was not their intention at all, by using the English language the way they did the missionaries not only exercised power over their indigenous co-leaders but also sent out a message of cultural insensitivity and communicative superiority. This message was emphasised even more by their refusal to learn a local language.

Sometimes it happens that missionaries who do not have English as their first language find themselves at the receiving end of such an attitude too. English has become the language of global Christianity.[4] This can be seen in a variety of developments. All over the world the teaching of English, for example, is used by missionaries as an evangelistic tool.[5] “Christian books, journals, and daily devotionals published in English” have, as Zoltán Dörnyei points out, an “international impact”.[6] In many international mission organisations English serves as the lingua franca. In such organisations English native speakers often have an advantage over their colleagues; they tend to have the ability to better articulate themselves in the team language than their Brazilian, Filipino or Korean missionary colleagues.

When missionaries underestimate the power of language negative results can follow. This is especially true for those missionaries who come from English-speaking countries and who serve in a context where English is used on a daily basis though not as a first language. To speak English as one’s mother tongue in such a situation means to have power. This is certainly true for those parts of Africa which were once under British rule or influence and which still use English as the language of politics, business and education.[7]

In order to avoid the mistakes described above and to overcome an attitude of superiority which is rooted in language skills (or to avoid giving the impression of having such an attitude) it is essential for missionaries to understand how problematic it can be to speak a privileged language in a multilingual context. Johannes Weiß and Thomas Schwietring write:

In multilingual contexts, problematic constellations regularly arise from the fact that one language is elevated to the status of the official language and so the language of the elites and the powerful, while other languages are relegated to a lower status and discriminated against. This may be observed in various political and historical contexts, and invariably where a plurality of indigenous and partly unwritten languages are subordinated to an official language in state affairs and transactions. This is particularly clear in post-colonial Africa, where the problems of de-colonialisation amidst the continuance of colonial power structures may be read off from the linguistic relations.[8]

In African countries which have English or another European language as their official language, speakers of local languages can easily feel that their mother tongues are inferior. Harries comments:

Others familiar with the African scene are likely to know the almost universal practice in schools on the continent. It is also one of those practices that is kept hidden. I am referring to punishment given in primary and secondary schools for children who deign [sic] to use an unapproved language within the school grounds… One day, I found a boy of about 14 making a cardboard mask of the face of a cow. “What’s the mask for?” I asked. He responded, “The teacher told me to make it. If someone speaks mother-tongue in school, they will be forced to stand in the corner of the class wearing this mask.” Children are taught from an early age that their own languages are inferior. The teacher’s punishment above implies that they resemble the mooing of cattle when they speak their own language. This has become part of the language policy, at least in practice if not in theory, of numerous African states. European languages such as English are seen as being the way forward, whereas African languages are associated with poverty and primitivity.[9]

As a result, more and more Africans are giving up on their own language without being able to communicate in English or another colonial language at mother tongue level. Niyi Osundare speaks of the danger of “alingualism”, which he describes as “a terrible state of disarticulation in which one has sacrificed his mother tongue in pursuit of a foreign language that he is not in a position to master to an appreciative degree”.[10]

For English-speaking missionaries who serve in such situations it is crucial that they are aware of the challenges local people and some of their fellow missionaries face by using a language which is not their first language and the role a person’s first language plays in general:

The first language acquired by an individual necessarily becomes his “natural language”. Everything that he later thinks and decides can be analysed and interpreted by his understanding, but finally he must always reach back to the level of his natural language. This observation touches on the double function of the first language. The first language lays the foundation for the understanding, its possibilities of grasping things and expressing them. And at the same time it socialises the individual.[11]

One way of gaining an awareness of the challenges that local people and fellow missionaries face is for English-speaking missionaries to learn the local language or, in a multi-lingual context, at least one of the local languages. By learning a local language it will be easier for them to identify with local Africans and missionary colleagues; it will help English-speaking missionaries to understand the difficulties and limitations which occur when people are compelled to operate in a second or even third or fourth language. They will also gain new insights into a local culture which will enrich them personally and better equip them for their ministries.[12] Learning a local language will even help them when they communicate in English with local people. Harries explains why that is the case:  

It is important to remember that African uses of English and other European languages invariably build on their people’s knowledge of their own tongues. That is to say, when people say a word in English, they are often implicitly translating from their mother tongue. This means that to understand people’s use of English in depth requires a knowledge of their mother tongue.[13]

Native speakers of Oshiwambo, the most common Namibian indigenous language, for example, use the word “paife” which is usually translated into English as “now”. But “paife” has a slightly different meaning from the word “now” as it is used by most speakers of American or British English. Whereas for them, “now” means something like “right at this very moment in time”, “paife” can mean anything between “in a few minutes” and “sometime today”.[14] If an Oshiwambo native speaker communicates in (Namibian) English and uses the English word “now” it is very likely that he has the latter meaning in mind. The result is likely to be confusion and misunderstanding if he is talking to a foreigner. To come closer to the British or American sense of “now” an Oshiwambo speaker would say “paife, paife” or even “paife, paife, paife” in his mother tongue or “now, now, now” in English, which can be equally confusing for any speaker of British or American English who does not know any Oshiwambo. Similarly, to figure out, by using the English language, how everyone on a Namibian homestead is related might be a real challenge, as the person who is introduced as “my mother” in English can be the birth mother, one of the grandmothers or any of the birth mother’s sisters.     

By learning local African languages missionaries not only avoid misunderstandings (and even conflicts), but also demonstrate in practical terms that these languages are in no way inferior to English or any other European language and, by inference, that the Africans who speak these local languages are in no way inferior to foreigners.[15] Missionaries, however, who insist on speaking English only, face the danger of remaining what they were when they first entered their country of service: cultural outsiders. Without learning a local language they might still gain some cultural knowledge but in most cases it will be rather superficial. Without a local language they will not become part of the African community and can expect to misunderstand the people they have come to serve and to be misunderstood by them.     

In his book Cross-cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility Duane Elmer underlines the importance of language learning.[16] According to Elmer, to learn another’s language means to value that person;[17] not to learn their language means to reject that person or, as Lianne Roembke puts it, “Expecting the other to learn your language is just another form of cultural imperialism.”[18] For missionaries language learning is therefore a must. Elmer writes: “We cannot separate ourselves from the language we speak. It is how we define ourselves and make meaning out of life. Not to know my language is not to know me. Even when short-term missionaries make an effort to learn at least some greetings and a farewell, it communicates that they value others.”[19] To illustrate this point Elmer tells the following story:

When my wife and I lived in South Africa, we occasionally journeyed north into Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), the land of her birth, the home of her missionary mother and the burial place of her father. The first time we entered Zimbabwe we stopped for gas, and a black Zimbabwean served us. I spoke to him in English (probably his third language after Ndebele and Shona), and he dutifully attended to our car. My wife got out of the car and greeted him in Shona. A huge smile lit up his face and his body quickened with joy. Never have I seen such an immediate transformation, all because a white person spoke his language. He felt accepted – valued.[20]

Speaking the heart language of people is crucial for missionaries. Speaking people’s heart language is an important indication that someone belongs to a community, that she or he is a cultural insider.[21] A host people will forgive missionaries many of their cross-cultural mistakes if they speak the native language.   

III. The Biblical Perspective

Christians believe in the God who communicates through human language; he uses human words to address human beings. Having language is a central aspect of his personhood, or as Gene Veith puts it, “God is no abstract force, as in many religions, but a Person. As such, He thinks, loves and expresses Himself, so that he has language. He created humans beings in His image, as persons, and so we too have language.”[22] The premise that God speaks is pervasive in both the Old and the New Testament.[23] In the Old Testament we find many passages which claim to be the actual word of God. Often these passages are introduced by phrases like “God said” or “The LORD said”.[24] In other Old Testament texts we read how prophets claim to speak the word of God on his behalf. These prophecies usually begin with phrases like “This is what the LORD says” or “The word of the LORD came to me”.[25] The New Testament tells us that Jesus’ words had a unique authority and power.[26] Jesus asserted that his teachings came straight from God the Father: “For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.”[27]

God speaks because he wants to be known by human beings. He speaks to establish and sustain a relationship with them. The language he speaks is not some sort of unintelligible, heavenly language. No, God uses real human language which consists of real words and grammar.[28] In other words, God uses language which is accessible to his creatures. Mark Thompson writes,

Human beings are addressed in human words that have their origin in God, in order that by repentance and faith in the promise of God we might be included in the salvation Jesus Christ has secured by his death and resurrection. Yet unlike those who stood at the base of Mount Sinai, or those who accompanied Jesus during his earthly ministry, or even those who first heard the prophets proclaim the word of the Lord or the apostles who preached as ambassadors for Christ, Christians in the twenty-first century have before them a book, a text.[29]

In order to make this book, i.e. the Bible, available in as many languages as possible, a large number of missionaries have worked hard for more than two centuries now.[30] They have done so because they realised that if their mission was to be successful people needed to hear and read the good news of Jesus in their heart language. Patrick Johnstone notes, “It is almost impossible to conceive of a strong church within a people that has none of the Bible translated into their own language.”[31] Churches that do not have the Bible in their mother tongue struggle to grow spiritually.[32] They find it, for example, difficult to refute false teaching and to avoid syncretism. 

In the New Testament, the importance of communicating the gospel in the heart language of people is emphasised by the evangelist Luke. In Acts 2 he tells us how Jesus’ disciples, being filled with Holy Spirit, began to speak in other languages on the day of Pentecost. Luke also informs us about the reaction of those who were witnessing this manifestation of God’s Spirit:

When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”[33]      

Luke leaves us in no doubt that the languages spoken here by the Galilean disciples were recognised human languages and not some ecstatic utterances.[34] He stresses that Jews from all over the Diaspora identified the words which they heard as being in their own home languages. John Stott points out that the glossolalia phenomenon of Acts 2 should be interpreted as “a deliberate and dramatic reversal of the curse of Babel”[35]. There people had been separated by language because of their rebellion against God.[36] Because of their desire to be like God, he caused them to speak in many different languages and dispersed them throughout the earth. However, on the day of Pentecost the language barrier was overcome in a supernatural way. This served “as a sign that the nations would now be gathered together in Christ”.[37] For Luke, the glossolalia phenomenon was clearly pointing to the church’s global mission, or as William Neil puts it,  

He makes it plain in what follows that he saw in the Pentecostal utterances of the disciples a foreshadowing of the universal mission of the Church, when men of all nations would be brought into a unity of understanding through the preaching of the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. There was added point in this, since it was said that the angels at Sinai had proclaimed the Law to all nations in their own tongues.[38]    

The glossolalia phenomenon demonstrates God’s acceptance of all languages and the importance he places on them as a means of communicating his truths.[39] Timothy Tennent points out that in Jerusalem the followers of Jesus were “baptized into the reality of the infinite translatability of the gospel for every language and culture”.[40] Pentecost is, as Tennent writes, more than a sociological event.[41] It is a “theological statement” which demonstrates “God’s ongoing commitment to translate the good news of Jesus Christ into the heart language of every culture in the world”.[42]

IV. Conclusion

Traditionally, “[t]he mastery of local language(s) in the mission field has been seen by Protestant mission societies as an important, if not the most important, tool for the successful evangelization of non-Christian peoples.”[43] In order to reach people one has to speak their language. That was the understanding right from the start of the Protestant mission movement. For missionaries to rely on English, French or Portuguese, even if these languages are widely spoken in their mission context today, means to limit themselves and to erect unnecessary barriers. Language learning, even though it is usually challenging and time consuming, should still be a must, especially for long-term missionaries. In his book What in the World Is God Doing, C. Gordon Olson demonstrates this when he tells the story of Cameron Townsend, who became one of the founders of the Wycliffe Bible Translators:

Cameron Townsend was a missionary to Guatemala during the First World War who was impressed with the difficulty of reaching Indians through a Spanish language which they only poorly understood. He noted that his missionary colleagues were naively putting dependence upon a trade or literary language to reach the people, rather than through the language of the heart. He found that selling Spanish Bibles to the Indians was practically useless. The question from an Indian which really unsettled him was, “Why if your God is so smart, hasn’t he learned our language?” Townsend spent the next thirteen years learning the intricacies of the Cakchiquel language and translating the New Testament.[44]     

Many Africans could ask twenty-first-century Australian, East Asian, European or North American missionaries a similar question: “Why, if your ministry is so essential for the church in our country, haven’t you learned our language?”


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