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Transmission Trouble: Clashes in English Language Theological Education in Africa

Theological education in much of Africa is in English and is an import from the West.

Despite the situations we have outlined above, theological education in much of Africa is in English and is an import from the West. In the few situations where theological education may not be presented in English, it is very likely to be a translation from English (In very few cases it may be a translation from other European languages, like French or German).

A situation we are looking at increasingly, is one in which a body of knowledge created through a language (English) in one context, is to be utilised through the same language but in a different context. Of course, my reference to context here is broad. I am not talking about a person moving from one context to another, like from town to country or forest to coastline. Far more profoundly, when English goes to Africa, almost everything can change: person, history, tradition, climate, culture, altitude, you name it! However, the language itself is not expected to change.

Increasingly, people with their own history, culture, characteristics, and way of life, are being enabled to communicate as if they do not have that history, culture, and different way of life. This is the particular feature of contemporary developments that I want to consider closely in this article. If language learning is learning to use someone else’s language in the way that someone else uses it, then what we are nowadays observing between Europe and Africa could be called language transfer. Learning another language so as to use it in the way it is used in its original context is language transfer.


A Piece of Language Theory

A group of students was split into two groups, A and B. Each group was given three sticks of different lengths. The sticks for the different groups are illustrated below.

Figure 1.

Group A were asked to identify which of their sticks is short. They identified stick number 3. Group B were asked to identify which of their sticks is long. They identified stick number 4. However, when group B showed members of group A their ‘long’ stick, members of group A could not agree with them. The stick that group B considered to be ‘long’, group A considered to be ‘short’.

The above simple exercise demonstrates something about language; that word meanings are contextual. What a word means (in our case ‘long’ and ‘short’) depends upon the context in which a word is used. In the above case, use of the terms ‘long’ or ‘short’ are not problematic within the groups concerned. But, in inter-group context, the groups end up not able to agree. Parallel things to the above occur when one language is used by very different people, for example traditional-African people and people of European origin. When the two groups come together, if for pragmatic reasons the interpretation of one of the groups is taken as the overall ‘norm’, then the other group will suffer from having to accept things as true that are evidently not true. For example, members of group B will have to accept that stick 4 is short, even though for them it is clearly ‘long’.

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Category: Fall 2019, In Depth

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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