Eddie and Sue Arthur

Heart Language Problems

Someone recently said to me that they thought it was great that I had a vision to see the Bible translated into everyone’s heart language. At which point I found myself thinking, “Do I?”

The thing is, languages are tricky things and terms like “heart language” are pretty well meaningless in situations where people speak more than one language – which is most of the world.

My complacency about language was first challenged when I realised that in three Kouya villages (out of 12) most people didn’t actually speak Kouya. They were Kouya people, lived in Kouya villages, but spoke another langauge, Gouro. Over a number of generations, the people of those villages, had made a choice (conscious or unconscious) to use a different language.

We naively think that language is about communication, but there is far more to it than that. The language we use and the way that we use it defines us in relation to other people. If I were to write, “Hello to Jason Isaacs”, most readers of Kouyanet would think that I was (for some strange reason) greeting a star of screen and television. However, a small number of initiates, would understand the true meaning and realise that they we are members of the same select group (if you don’t know what I’m going on about – I’m sure the answer will turn up in the comments).

This phenomenon extends beyond the use of catch phrases in English to the way in which people use whole languages. The Kouya people of three villages used Gouro because it was a better way to communicate with neighbouring people and with the increasing number of Gouro women who married Kouya men. The functionality of communication was more important than their ethnic identity as Kouya.

Other people choose to use a language because they want to adopt a new identity. Many educated, people in the developing world will use English, French or another major language in preference to their mother tongue because of the cachet of sophistication that comes with it.

Also, in the growing cities of the world, families will often choose to use a third language because neither husband nor wife speaks the other’s language adequately. In these cases, the children are likely to grow up speaking a language which is not the first language of either of their parents. The term “mother tongue” is of little use in situations like this.

Missionaries and Bible translators often talk about communicating to people in their “heart language” or the “language that they understand the best”. Sometimes, the meanings of these terms are straight forward, but not always. We have to realise that in a changing world, people choose to use languages for a variety of reasons and the language that they prefer to use may not be the one that they understand the best (whatever that actually means). Just to make things more complex; people who speak multiple languages might prefer to use different ones in different contexts.  It is not our job to insist that people use one language or another; that is their prerogative.

What this means in practice, is that mission workers have to do some serious socio-linguistic studies to discern which is the best language to communicate in; especially in cities. It also means that we might have to revisit some of the way we talk about and publicise mission work and translation. Things are a little more complex than easy sound bites might suggest.

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7 Comments on “Heart Language Problems

  1. Let me submit this:

    Key to this issue is the understanding that language is less about notation than it is about connotation: That is, language, whatever its ostensive form, is a stream of data tokens that trigger/stimulate meaning in the mind of the listener. Thus, meaning is ultimately found not in language but in the mind that the linguistic tokens are impacting. It follows, then, that language is a lot less about its ostensive forms than it is about the internal libraries of meaning that the mind stores away in order to interpret the incoming signal stream. The ostensive form of a language is the tip of the iceberg, most of which is well submerged in the depths of the human mind. Thus, for example I could go to Africa and speak English with Africans and yet still be poorly communicating with them simply because I don’t share their huge mental libraries of meaning built up over many years and which the English language tokens are acting as access keys unlocking huge vistas of thought. Those tokens are to meaning as library catalogue numbers are to books.

    If we were less inhibited about some of the results of the enlightenment we might just start to grasp this signal concept of language. True, the enlightenment results have been way over interpreted by some atheists, but the fact is many Christians have wrongly interpreted the enlightenment; an uneasy dualism has resulted.

    • There is a huge literature on this “signal concept of language”, but that is rather to miss my point. Language is not just about communication, it is also about identity. People don’t always choose to use a particular language for communicative reasons, they also choose them because the language reflects the person they want to be.

  2. *quote* Language is not just about communication, it is also about identity. People don’t always choose to use a particular language for communicative reasons, they also choose them because the language reflects the person they want to be *unquote*

    Compare also: Clothing isn’t just about keeping warm. Housing isn’t just about shelter. Driving a car isn’t just about getting from A to B (at least for some). All these things can be used as ways of dressing up and sending out signals which may be used to tell people who we think we are. At the receiving end these signals trigger a cascade of proprietary thought which, needless to say is where the real action happens; Ultimately language is about how the hidden mind receives it and processes it.

    “Who we want to be” is unlikely to independent of social context: It will in all probability be bound up with who we would like others to think we are! And that entails signalling – and to signal successfully entails an ability to read other minds to some extent.

    • I was making a limited point in my blog post but you seem to want to drag it into another area of linguistics altogether. I’m not sure what you point is.

  3. Why the singular “language”?What this means in practice, is that mission workers have to do some serious socio-linguistic studies to discern which is the best language to communicate in; especially in cities.”

  4. Many African cities are not homogeneous. They contain communities and niches. The heart language may be relevant to communicating the Gospel and bridging identities for some of them. The assumption that the heart language is relevant or not relevant are both dangerous and unmerited.

    • My question is not weather the ‘heart language is relevant’ but whether it is a useful concept in the first place. I’m far from convinced that it is.

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