Importance of Using Indigenous Languages in Africa

This contains many references to and quotes from the paper: The local language – a neglected resource for sustainable development by Thomas Bearth, 2004, found at:




I found this paper by Bearth to be extremely insightful and important for the future of the missions’ movement, so I decided to try and abbreviate it and post it as part of the Lausanne conversation. I have tried to get in touch with the author, but have not been able to do so.


While ‘sustainable development’ is explored in Bearth’s paper, much that he writes applies also to mission.


Bearth has found that “specialists of development communication have generally shown surprisingly little interest in the possible relevance of language to their field of inquiry,” with the exception of some African authors. So Bearth sets out to “to highlight the positive role local language can play as a source of empowerment and as an ally in the quest for sustainable results”.


Clearly the use of official languages tends to exclude people from participation in matters concerning their communities. Although many African people are multilingual, their knowledge of outside languages is restricted in scope. Use of European languages in [mission] in Africa, will inevitably exclude many people from close participation.


How to bridge the gap? “Ever since the early colonial days, translation from the dominant language into the local idiom has been the strategy for communicating the messages of change and innovation to sub-Saharan African audiences” says Bearth. But Bearth suggests that “that the prevailing attitude of trust in the translation paradigm as the panacea to cross-language development communication, eloquently expressed through the almost total silence of the literature on this issue, is …  totally misplaced.”


Here is a key paragraph from Bearth:


“The few studies devoted to the issue of translation in development communication generally focus on questions of terminology and transfer of concepts.(18) Two types of shortcoming are identified: (i) terminological underdevelopment of the target language, and (ii) pitfalls inherent in the translation process itself. Among the latter, one might mention (a) the failure to readily access a communicatively equivalent expression, resulting in makeshift equivalents being used that fail to convey innovative concepts to the target audience; (b) lack of attention to, or awareness of, mismatches between “false friends”; and (c) quite generally a lack of contextualisation of the message due to the tendency of most translators to focus on form rather than on content. One might conclude from all this that once problems of equivalence of terminology and lack of mastery of translation procedures are overcome by providing training and enforcing standards, the problems associated with translation as a tool in development communication would be solved. However, this is not the case, for the fundamental problem with translation is neither translatability nor training but translation itself. It is not the transfer of the meaning of words and sentences, but the “meaning” of translation as a socio-cultural practice which is at stake. Paradoxically, the act of translating, particularly in face-to-face communication, while reducing linguistic difference, tends to maintain or deepen the communication gap by reinforcing social, cognitive and epistemic differences typically associated with ethnolinguistic diversity in the South.”


Bearth goes on to say that translation “reinforces perceived socio-cultural asymmetry” and it “tends to reinforce cognitive and social distance in terms of inferential control and interactional rapport”. Translation also carries an “anti-dialogal bias” as translation is “geared towards one-way communication”. Translation “limits the possibility of addressing live issues, some of which might have been relevant to decision-taking on development action”. “Dialogue as a prerequisite to participation (see Kievelitz, 2.1 above) can hardly be achieved satisfactorily through trichotomic communication, which, by its mere implementation, conveys the notion of two distinct, not mutually controllable discourses linked by a third discourse, that of the translator, which is itself not mutually controllable by the participating parties” adds Bearth.


As a result of the above, a foreign message “will continue to be perceived as fundamentally alien”. It is the indigenous discourse that will be determinative of the success of whatever project, “whose link with the initial exogenous discourse on which the project continues to depend for its material survival is at best tenuous”.


On the basis of the above and further insights (for example, see some of the articles at I think one can conclude that the issue of language on the African continent is under-addressed. (I encourage people to read the full article by Bearth.) I suggest that this is such a serious situation for mission to or in Africa, that major emphasis should be placed on encouraging missionaries from outside of the continent to operate in African languages, and locals to value and use their language as widely as possible in church as well as development contexts.


Jim Harries

Editor / Author