Ethnos360 is sometimes seen as “old school” among missions organizations working in Bible translation, since we still see the importance of the missionary learning the language and not just facilitating mother tongue speakers as they translate into their own language. And that’s one of the factors that has drawn me to Ethnos360 and continues to draw me after all these years. Yes, learning a language is a whole lot of work, gives a whole lot of headaches, takes a whole lot of time, and is so very worth it. I am convinced that getting to that point of being able to talk freely with the people you’re working with makes the task go quicker in the long-run; makes it much more fun along the way; helps promote a sense of being at home and so helps keep the missionary on the field; and also helps make sure that the Bible translation and accompanying teaching are accurate and actually make sense to the people. Let me give you one example lately where, by understanding the language (at least in the broken way I do currently), I was able to realize where there was misunderstanding.
Now that misunderstanding wasn’t anything especially important or needing to be fixed, but it was still a message that didn’t communicate correctly. And if it had been an important message, and I hadn’t realized, it, yikes!
Last week we were talking about cockroaches, so I told my language helper *Adama about the story of my mom with a cockroach:
My mom is a substitute teacher, and one day she was working in a kindergarten class on science day. On that day, a “bug guy” was in her classroom. Unbeknownst to her since her class didn’t get to sit in on the teaching of the bug guy, one of the kids who was allowed to hold the cockroach got scared and the cockroach flew out of his hands and disappeared in the room. On the way home from school that day, my mom looked down and saw a huge cockroach crawling up her leg! Long story short (though I told Adama the longer version), she got home and killed the cockroach.
After recording myself telling the story, I played the recording for Adama. We do this regularly now to help correct errors in my speech. He listened to the whole recording, then we went through it sentence by sentence. We also stopped and explained cultural things, like that substitute teachers go in to sub for teachers if they are sick or have a meeting, and that on science day different experts come in and the classes change classrooms throughout the day as they learn from the different experts. I thought that, even though it was different culturally from what he was used to, he had finally understood. The next day he listened to my original recording one more time, then went ahead and told the story from my point of view. (He also told it as if he we were telling it to his wife in a separate recording, since that uses a whole other set of pronouns. Craziness!)
At that point in time, if I hadn’t understood the language and all the discussion we had done up until that point were in the trade language, I would have assumed that the story he told was the same story that I had told, since we had spent hours discussing it. But I would have been wrong. And if it had been an important story, it could have been dangerously wrong. (Though, of course, there are layers of checking in most Bible translation organizations that would have caught the errors way down the road.)
When Adama told me back the story, he said first of all that my mom was a substitute teacher. If the teacher was sick, or had a family meeting, or a family baby head-shaving party, she would go in and take the place of the teacher for the day. He later said that the kids all came to school and that since it was science day there were a bunch of experts who had also come in. Each kid could wander around the school, learning from whichever one they wanted as they wanted. The kids in her class, since they knew the bug guy was in their room and so it was no rush to listen to him, all decided to leave him for the afternoon as they wandered around to different classrooms that morning. Then, when they left to go home for lunch, my mom found a cockroach on her leg. . . .
Yeah, as much as that makes sense here, do you see the three glaring mistakes in his story, based on missed cultural differences? When I said that the teacher would be gone for a meeting, I had meant a school meeting, not a family meeting (or baby head-shaving party, for that matter!). I can’t imagine all the kids of a school being able to wander around as they wanted at a school back home. And I also know that they didn’t go home at lunch, to come back again in the afternoon.
Like I said, not a big deal in this story. I never even told Adama that he got it wrong. But it reminded me of the importance of knowing what is being communicated, especially if it’s culturally foreign to them. And so I continue the struggle (and joy!) of learning this language. (Now what were those crazy tones doing . . . . ?)
*Name changed for security reasons.