Language and Ideas

A couple years back I attended a public lecture in Accra. It was given by a Ghanaian academic. The thing is, he is also a village chief. One of the things that is different about Ghana is the fact that a number of chiefs are highly educated. They might be academics as this man, or high level civil servants, or business people. Apparently, some villages in Ghana want their chief to be able to interface with the outside world.

At one point, the lecturer talked about language. He said that some of his subjects come to him speaking English and say things like “Your Highness”. He responds by asking them to say that phrase in their language, but they can’t. He said that if one of this subjects cannot translate things they say in English into their language, this is a good sign that they really don’t understand the thing that they are saying.

I have actually seen this first hand. I was helping a young man study for an exam he had to pass to get a diploma. As is the case for many Africans, he was studying and learning in the official language which was not his mother tongue and he was learning that language as he learned the other subjects. He would read and study in the official language, then come to me with things he didn’t understand. One day he came to me with a question in a sample exam. He knew the answer, but there was still a problem. He said that he knew that the answer was “The earth turns on it’s axis every 24 hours.” The thing is, he said that he had no idea what that meant. He knew that he could go to the exam an get questions like that right, but he also knew that he really wouldn’t understand what he was writing. As I started explaining, I found that I had to back all the way up to the fact that the earth is a sphere. I think, or at least hope, that he went away knowing what his answers meant.

Because many people go to school and learn in the official language which they don’t speak at home or in their community, and they are learning that language as they learn other subjects, then can learn to say something that they don’t understand, misunderstand or only partially understand. So it is possible to carry on an intelligible, coherent conversation with someone and find out later that they didn’t understand it, or understood it differently than you did. People can learn religious jargon without understanding it or without understanding it well. If you ask then to say the same thing in their language, they can’t. If someone doesn’t know how to say “Jesus is Lord” or “human rights” in their language, that’s a sign that they might not really understand the phrase when they say it in the official language.

Mind you, there is a layer of educated people who understand perfectly what they say in the official language. But that layer can be very thin in some places.

The lecturer-chief is on to something. He saw clearly the limitations of the official language. The lecture was in the official language, so obviously he thinks that it has it uses. But he is not naive enough to think that “Everyone speaks English”, because he knows that some who appear to speak English and who think they do, really don’t. We can’t build solid Christians and churches on a language people only seem to master.

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