Tag Archives: Jim Harries

Languages of Wilder Confusion: Big Words, Big Trouble

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What I like about English,” a student pastor told me at the end of one class, “is that you have so many special words for things, so that means you can think and talk about so much more than we can in our own languages.”

Student pastors in Kagoro Seminary

This sounds fairly convincing. English has a word ‘justification’ and so it’s easy to talk about it — easier than trying to talk about the same thing in a Nigerian language, at least. It’s not just religious terms but science too: how would you teach people about hydration or polymers or anatomy. This is commonly a justification for rushing kids to English in school and abandoning the foundational languages they come with. There are no words for these ideas in the home languages and we have no textbooks (and don’t intend to write any) in local languages for children to memorise. So far, so convincing, but of course that’s only part of the picture. Leaving aside the slightly questionable Sapir-Whorf exaggerations, the argument relies for its adequacy on two questionable assumptions which no-one really questions.

  1. Education is chiefly about learning big words and regurgitating their definitions to pass tests, get a qualification and thus get a salaried position.
  2. If we all use the same terms, then we’ll all understand the same thing. Shi ke nan! (Kinda Hausa for Slam Dunk!)

I’ll leave aside the educational philosophy issue for now and tackle the second.

What’s the Ishɛ word for ‘OO gauge’ locomotive? For rolling stock?
For model trees? For ‘you’re off your head’? 🙂
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