Languages of Wilder Confusion: hidden dangers for international collaboration

The Rowbory/Nigeria Family Blog

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Languages of Wilder Confusion: hidden dangers for international collaboration

I’ve appreciated the numerous short, thought-provoking articles Jim Harries has written (and also here) on topics of cross-cultural communication. One that got my attention recently was Building Castles in the Sky: A case for the use of indigenous languages and resources in Western mission-partnerships to Africa, particularly in the light of 2 realities which are close to home for me:

  1. For my work as a Bible translation consultant (in training) I am reliant on using languages of wider communication (mostly English, with little bits of Hausa) to discuss the meaning of parts of the Bible and help translators check and improve their work. I am very aware of the dangers and pitfalls that this entails.
    1. (Why is this a reality for me? I’m rather slow and poor at learning to speak languages, and work with far too many languages to attempt it.)
  2. There is a real push amongst some Americans who want to “accelerate Bible translation” to resource and partner directly with local churches around the world and to cut out the missionary middle man, as it were. This is possible because more and more non-Western partners are able to communicate in Western languages of wider communication(English, Spanish, French).

Jim warns that great danger lurks here.  When we’re communicating using a shared language, it is all too easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we share an understanding. Of course in many cases when languages of wider communication are used it doesn’t really matter whether we actually share an understanding. We can appreciate films, art, songs, and all sorts of things in ways that are very different depending on the cultural background and presuppositions we bring. Sometimes we really do need to share an understanding at several levels in order to partner well. International partnerships throw up all sorts of opportunities for catastrophic miscommunications based on mismatching presuppositions. In 1999 the Mars Climate Observatory burned up because of confusion over the international standard units (Newtons) compared to American standard units (pounds). Most likely everyone involved thought they shared an understanding. They all used English. They all used the standard units of force. But they used different standard units because of the different presuppositions and so a great deal of effort ended up being wasted as the craft was lost.

The major danger for these direct partnerships based on languages of wider communication (unfoldingword, MAST, etc.) is that we think we’re communicating one thing and something else gets understood. An older model of mission involved travelling far from ‘home’ to establish a new home, learn a new language and culture and observe and serve another community over a long time period.

So far – especially to business-oriented, go-getter enthusiasts – this may just sound like sour grapes on the part of ‘old fashioned’ missionaries, who may be characterised as being paternalistic stick-in-the-muds who can’t come to terms with mission being done without them.

Photograph of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther in 1867

Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther in 1867

We would do well to learn from history, though. One of the first missionaries and Bible translators in Nigeria was Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther. His middle name may be the only clue that he was in fact Yoruba, a rescued slave who turned to Christ, studied theology in Great Britain and became a missionary to his own people. While European missionaries struggled to stay alive in West Africa, Africans such as Crowther pioneered much early mission. However with time the colonial structures and healthcare technology matured (including antimalarial medications), and a notion of European/Aryan superiority began to infect European society. And so, a new wave of missionaries arrived on the shores of Nigeria, many predisposed to denigrate ‘natives’.

As the so-called imperial sun reached its zenith, African leadership, Crowther’s included, was increasingly denigrated by younger missionaries who should have known better but didn’t. Henry Venn’s radical three-self principles were quietly sidelined, and Crowther died eventually a broken man… (Church Missionary Society UK)

What has this to do with the ‘direct partnership’ dangers and follies? Superficially, one could argue that the problem was with (western) missionaries trying to muscle in as essential middlemen. But looking a little more seriously, we can analyse the problems differently. In both the edging out of Crowther and the denigrating of long-term deep relationships on the ground using local languages, we can see well-intentioned enthusiasm mixed with the latest social views leading to real harm.

In Crowther’s day the problem was that of unrecognised, irrational racial prejudice. In our day perhaps we have a problem with mass communication in languages of wider communication deceiving us into the irrational notion that we are all alike, can all understand one another perfectly and that we should pretend away any differences we detect, in the interests of enlightened thought.

As the CMS article above cites, there were people “who should have known better but didn’t”. The challenge for us today is to notice situations where we might behave foolishly.

I’m still wrestling with the implications of this issue. 3 options present themselves:

  1. Ignore the problems. Just continue to do as much as possible as fast as possible using English and all the technology that we can muster.
    • “This is very tempting… especially to a mostly monolingual English-speaking person like me.
  2. Stop trying to use English (and Hausa) to communicate about anything remotely important. Just concentrate on one language and go and live in one community for 10-20 years with keen observation and cultural/language acquisition.
    • “Please send someone else to do this.
  3. Use English, Hausa and as many other languages as possible but with extreme caution and suspicion, requiring much evidence to be convinced that successful communication and shared understanding has been achieved.
    • “This is what I’m trying to do right now.”

In another post I’ll maybe try to work through and unpack what that last option might look like.

Of course for us to really be convinced that there is a problem and to understand it well we need to consider some concrete examples of hidden miscommunications. Jim gives a number of examples in his papers. It’s probably wise for all of us engaged in cross-linguistic and cross-cultural communication to be looking out for and documenting other examples.

See also:


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