The Immorality of the Promotion of Non-Indigenous Languages in Africa

By Jim Harries, December 2008.



Difficulties in translation between Western and non-Western languages are identified in this article as contributing to corruption, incompetence and hence growing poverty and dependency of much of Africa on the West. The problem with Western languages arises because African people are expected, for the sake of international credibility, to use them in the same way as they are used in the West. This forces the African populous, including their scholars, to function formally in respect to an absent and unfamiliar ‘culture’ while disregarding their own history and traditions. Political and economic pressures that ‘force’ African people to operate formally using Western languages are here decried as immoral; leading to the proposal that mission from the West should take the lead in encouraging policies based on the use of indigenous tongues.



Many of life’s normal and abnormal processes are associated with certain language uses.  Changes (or developments) in ways of life often result in changes in the way language is used. Such ‘normal’ parallel development of life and language is interrupted if a people become dependent on a language the roots of which are foreign and which they do not and cannot understand.  Forcing communities to depend on such a language that is not their own is enforcing part-knowledge and reduced competence.  This is the debacle facing much of Africa today.  This is a problem which this article suggests Christian missionaries should not aggravate.

Languages in Use and Problems of Translation in Intercultural Context

Some language difficulties are well illustrated by taking the example of time. While clocks mostly do not vary, people’s understanding of time does.[1]  In the UK an employee who is told to report to the office at 9am knows that he must be there a few minutes in advance of this time.  The same person being invited for dinner at 7pm may know that it is appropriate to arrive fifteen minutes late.  Time in many contexts in East Africa is understood very differently.  There may be just three main times for events during the day.  One after early morning ‘chores’ at 10 or 11am.   Another after lunch at 3 or 4pm, another is after the evening meal, about 9pm.  Advertising a meeting at 8am (using language in East Africa) means (something like) 10am (as time is expressed in the UK). A 10am start in East Africa can mean between 11 and 12 noon English time. 2pm is around 3.30pm. Anytime between 6pm and 8pm may well be 9pm, and so on.

In this African context there is really no way of saying that a gathering will be at 7.30pm (British time) because 7.30pm is a time for waiting for or eating a meal and not for having a gathering. In the British context there is really no way of saying that a gathering will begin at 10am, but that people should keep coming until 11.45am – as often happens in church services in East Africa.[2] Translation is no simple matter.  In fact – it would be correct to say that because in the above examples what is said in one language cannot be said in another, so translation can be impossible.

Such translation difficulties have little to do with language itself.  They have much to do with the context in which language is used.  If one asks “can 10am (as used in Britain) be translated into Kiswahili”, the answer at one level is a straight forward – yes.  But if one asks “does Kiswahili as used amongst native Kiswahili speakers have a word which has the same ‘impact’ as ‘10am’ has in the UK” – the answer frankly is no.  Even if one asks “can one express in the Kiswahili language the impact of the English 10am to the Swahili people” – the answer must again be no. While the meaning of ‘10am’ can perhaps be translated into Kiswahili as ‘saa nne’, the impact of 10am as used in British English will not translate to Kiswahili.

The above applies because the way of life of the Swahili people is different from that of British people, and because language is largely a product of someone’s way of life, and not causative of someone’s way of life.[3] So someone living life according to scientific principles tends to use scientific language, whereas someone living life according to principles derived from prior generations of ancestors would talk about what they do in a different way. Someone whose life is guided by ancestors but who is confined to the use of scientific terminology would certainly meet a number of difficulties, as also in the reverse case.

Language translation alone cannot tell someone anything new. To illustrate this, let us take the instance of African people who know lions but not tigers.  Telling them “I saw a tiger” does not reveal what a tiger is, it only reveals (presuming that the speaker is telling the truth) that there is something called a tiger. They could then be told “it ran towards me, and it was just like a lion.” On hearing this the listener becomes better informed as a ‘tiger’ is clearly something that runs and resembles a lion.  What the listener is doing, is generating an understanding of “what is a tiger” on the basis of their prior understanding of things that can be seen, that run, that resemble lions etc.  Words alone can bring ‘new’ knowledge to a person only in-so-far as they re-arrange pre-existing knowledge. Words carry neither meanings nor thoughts. Rather, they could be said to register existing meanings or thoughts, much as a typist’s finger does not carry letters, but the letter appearing on a piece of paper depends on the place at which a typewriter has been struck by a finger. So then, the use of the English word 10am does not in itself tell the Swahili speaker about British notions of punctuality.  The latter is extra-lingual – it must be seen in action or experienced in some other way for it to be ‘known’.

A debate has now long raged about the extent to which the impact of a word is contained in semantics, and the extent to which it is expressed in pragmatics.[4]  In other words, is it the ‘inherent meaning of’ or the context of the use of a word that is primary in determining its impact? We can experiment with this question in various ways. If on entering into a room someone finds a word or set of words written on a piece of paper on the floor, can those words be said to have meaning aside from any context? If the word that is written is ‘cat’, then I suggest that such a word is meaningless if it does not connect to something happening in the lives of the people involved in that time and place, i.e. the context. In the absence of a context, ‘cat’ could mean an infinite number of things, and so nothing at all.[5] A word without a context (taking context in its broad sense) then is meaningless. But on the other hand, what about a context without a word? Let’s imagine that a scene in a room is that of a cat standing next to a milk-jug lying on its side. Someone’s exclaiming ‘uhh’ is probably sufficient for a listener to realise that they are disappointed because the cat has tipped over the jug causing the milk to spill. In fact, many other combinations of words that may appear semantically to be irrelevant to cats and jugs can be interpreted as meaning ‘oh no the cat has knocked over the jug’. That is, even if someone should say ‘elephants eat grass’ to a colleague on entering the room while pointing out what has happened, the meaning of ‘elephants eat grass’ can be taken as being much the same as ‘the cat has spilt the milk’!

So we find that words cannot have ‘meanings’ that stand alone of contexts, and contexts are determinative of meanings. So-called ‘meanings’ such as those found in dictionaries may make only a small or even no contribution to the impact of a word.  For example, if you are in a crowded street and someone else has their hand in your pocket you may well shout out ‘thief’!  But quite frankly, whatever word you shout that draws people’s attention can have much the same impact once they see where that other person has put his or her hand. The so-called ‘meaning’ of a word is only one of the many factors that contribute to its having its particular impact.  Much of its impact will arise from the context of its use (said while someone else has his hand in your pocket, or in the case of the example of time above, said in East Africa amongst Swahili people).  It is the impact that counts and not the so called ‘word-meaning’.  That 8am means two hours after sunrise is not that important if meetings are known not to start at the earliest until four hours after sunrise.

Such examples of ‘language in use’ could be repeated many times.  They illustrate an important point – that language which has an impact in one context may have a very different impact in another context.  People can to some extent allow for context:  “I am in Kenya and it is cold” is assumed to be a different temperature from “I am in Siberia and it is cold”.  The possibility of so ‘allowing for context’ only applies however if, or in so far as, the context is ‘known’.  If it is not known, language can be having unknown impacts and can entirely miss or even negate intended impacts and replace them with others. For example, telling someone “I am in Kenya and it is cold” if the person does not know that Kenya is on the equator may have them think that the person speaking is standing in a foot of snow. Language needs to be used in a context and is used in a context.  Forcing people to use language that is appropriate for an unfamiliar context is forcing them to do something that is unnatural and unhelpful.  It is treating them as if they are less than human, and mandatorising incompetence (that in turn generates ‘corruption’[6]).   But who is being forced to use someone else’s language, my reader may be asking?

How Foreign Languages are Forced onto Africa

No-one (that I am aware of) is threatening to shoot African people if they do not use English. So how can we say that African people are ‘forced’ to use a language other than their own?  I want to show below that the notion of forcing African people to use a language, at threat of death, is not as obscure as might at first seem.

British colonial policy in what is now ‘Anglophone Africa’ was to operate a central administrations in a country operating in English, part of the role of which was to ensure that ‘local people’ were left in control of their own communities using their own languages except “whenever they were considered repugnant in light of European conceptions” (Deflem 1994). In countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe and Zambia as late as the 1950s – it was anticipated that the period of colonial rule would be long, with perhaps handing over to independence being some generations and many decades away.[7]

Use of English in the ‘centre’ ensured that the most powerful circles in colonial Anglophone Africa operated in English.  The ‘colonial dream’ was rudely interrupted, leading to a spate of ‘independencies’ in Africa in the 1960s.  At this time effective power remained in English, which was at the time accessible to only a small educated elite. Those elite became the default candidates for taking over the reigns of government.  They were very soon faced with amongst other choices, that of which language they were to use to rule their newly formed independent states.  But was this a choice? Use of anything but English would have left the ‘real power’ outside of government!  The elite had little to lose and much to gain using English.  It enabled them relatively easily to maintain the already established (oppressive and extractive?) colonial system of government.  It gave them constant access to overseas nations much wealthier (materially) than any others the world had hitherto known.  There was, frankly, little ‘choice’ but rather a “cruel dilemma” (Alexander 1999) resulting in an inevitable decision made almost across the board on the continent to plum for European languages as ‘national language’, regardless of the wider implications of such a choice.

One notable exception was Tanzania. Prior to WW1 Tanzania was not a British but a German colony.  Unlike the Brits, Germans had no great vision of spreading their language around the globe.  Instead they assisted Tanzania in its development of its own language Kiswahili.  This the British took over when given the mandate of ruling Tanzania.  Then in due course president Nyerere, contrary to enormous international pressure and out of exceptionally deep heart-felt conviction, led Tanzania into governance by Kiswahili.[8]

Elsewhere including in Kenya, there was rhetoric in favour of African languages (Bambgose 1991: 113). But instead of its power declining, the power of English continued to rise. This rise in power came on the back of ever burgeoning economies in the native English speaking world (UK, USA etc.), combined with a communication revolution that continues to date.  One hundred years, or even fifty years earlier – withdrawal of European rule would have meant leaving East African people subject again largely to their own traditions, governance and issues.  By the 1960s, however, things had changed.  Despite official withdrawal, Britain maintained a strong interest in East Africa, increasingly joined by other Western nations.  African people continued to be indoctrinated regarding the superiority of the West. Aid flows and development projects plus dependencies of every kind kept the interests of major power brokers in favour of English.  Foreign subsidies and interventions of all sorts into communities that had never previously developed more than the barest subsistence economy totally over-awed the African populace.  Because aid went to places and people that could communicate in English, incompetence with English and dependence was more productive of day to day prosperity than was competence, initiative, independence and local languages. Foreign intervention ensured that English continued to be a very lucrative language to know, independently of whatever success or a lack of success it was producing in the way it was being used internally to Africa.

The same imbalance of power continues today, and in fact seems to be ever increasing.  Power and success in Anglophone Africa in today’s globalised world comes to those who are versed in English. Who cares if it does not make sense, if it is constantly generative of ever greater levels of corruption, if it is effectively incompetence in action …  the economic equation in Anglophone Africa falls massively in favour of Western languages, (in the short-term) even or despite (and of course sometimes also because of) corruption. Aid plans are such as to have hoodwinked a continent into accepting that the use of a foreign language for its official functions is a positive move.

Depriving People of Responsibility for their own Lives

Depriving people of responsibility for their own lives should always be done with caution.  It may be natural, as when a man marries a woman and makes her dependent on his care while she rears her children.  Such is an ancient in-born relationship invariably invested with mutual obligations, commitments, rewards, incentives, and penalties for those who contravene it.  Most employers in the West are careful to restrict the dependence of their employees.  There is always an option to resign or be fired and some alternative source of income, at least for subsequent generations. (If one generation’s task specialisation is no longer useful, then education is such as to enable the next generation to change course.)  For example, following the collapse of the coal mining industry in the UK, some of the older workers probably simply went to retire, but many younger ones and their children could seek alternative careers. But the dependence we nowadays find in Africa is of a different order.  It is unnatural (enabled only by modern technology).  Given the lack of choice of African people, it is akin to a hijack or kidnap or even enforced slavery of a workforce.  It is cruel in its potential for its rendering incompetent of vast communities, at the whim of a few.[9]

Someone so little responsible for their own life and prospects is in a peculiarly vulnerable position.  A bit like a blind driver manoeuvring his car according to the directions given by a passenger: (“right a bit, left a bit, indicate, faster, change gear …” and so on)! The putting of a person, or even whole peoples into such a position, I suggest is immoral.  The church should have no part in this.

Some may argue that making someone dependent is acceptable as long as one is then willing to fulfil ones obligations – as is of course done by a good husband and father in respect to his family.  But the kind of dependence we are here talking about is of an entirely different order.  It is not a short-term dependence that is ‘in the nature of things’, but an ongoing dependence arising from the having made it impossible for people to ‘do for themselves’ without first hitting catastrophe![10] This kind of dependence-creation begs the counter-factual case; where might people have got to using their own minds, brains and languages if they had not been bought up (‘hijacked’) against their better judgment by distorted (aid-driven) short-term economic incentives?  Will this case ever reach the international courts?[11]

Finally in this section I would like to refer to magic.  I understand belief in magic and the practice of magicians to be condemned by the Scripture.[12]  What is magic, if not faith in that which is not reasonably possible? Human beings are prone to such beliefs – hence the great (destructive) power of witchcraft in many human societies around the world, especially Africa.[13] It is not such a big stretch for African people to accept blessings from white men instead of (or as if they are) gods or ancestors.  Westerners also show their proclivity to magic in their approach to language – the implicit assumption underlying efforts at Third-world development that words carry meanings that underlies recent decades’ ‘development’ efforts, is no less than faith in magic.  Such ‘faith’ is inappropriate for Christians.  “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” says Jesus (Matthew 4:7).

More on Corruption

Before moving on, I want to take a more detailed look at ‘corruption’ – especially of the kind said to be widespread in Africa. I want to suggest that there are two roots to this corruption: 1. putting people into a position where dishonesty is advantageous and 2. failing to take linguistic / contextual issues into account in the course of inter-cultural communication.

The former is certainly widespread in SSA.  Whereas in countries like the UK access to enormous wealth is carefully regulated, controlled and supervised, wealth-generating processes once ‘farmed out’ to Africa find themselves in contexts where the command of legal rule is severely limited.  Unthinking transfer (‘it can happen in the UK so why not in Africa?’) can easily be exposing people to enormous levels of temptation with almost non-existent mechanisms for upholding of procedure. (For example local pastors of African churches may receive vast funds for ill-devised projects.)  Many more examples could be given.  Surely this is immoral?

The latter takes us back to translation.  Transplanting the British legal system to Kenya (and other African countries) may not be what it seems, because the understanding of legal (and other) terms will be influenced by the vernacular terms and procedures (of African languages) that they are seen as translating.  Outside of legal circles, this is certainly the case.  To ‘borrow’ implies that money will be returned, but ‘kukopesha’ may not (Maranz 2001:52).  To say “I will come tomorrow” may imply in the UK an event that will occur, but in parts of Africa a statement of good-will (Egner 2002). “He is sick” may in the West imply the activity of a virus or bacteria, but in Africa that a witch has been involved.  An African need have no evil intent in order to break apparent protocol leading to accusations of ‘corruption’;  just applying his own understanding to his inter-relations with outsiders will have him accused of corruption, abuse, misappropriation of funds, lies, defrauding etc.  Add this to the human tendency for self-interest, and we have a tinder box!

The Way Forward

Lip service to ‘helping people to help themselves’ is often given in mission and other circles.  It has been insufficiently realised just how hard this is to do from a distance.  Knowing how someone can ‘help themselves’ requires a knowledge of their (economic, social, theological and other) contexts.  Then a working from within the parameters of such a context.  This means at the very least being able to use the language of the people being reached as they use it.  It means being accessible to them in a way that donors with their fingers on purse strings never are.  It must be, in other words, by working with people from a position of vulnerability and not strength (Luke 10:3-4).

There is little that makes one as vulnerable to a people as having to use their language in interaction with them.  To learn to be able to use a language as native speakers use it is a major undertaking, requiring careful listening and becoming in many ways ‘subject’ to the people concerned. Until that point, abuses of language can quickly reveal one’s lack of competence and preclude intelligent interaction with a complex community of some ‘other’ people.  A close corollary to this language learning is the need to postpone the holding of ‘powerful’ positions in a community, the operation of which one is not familiar with.  Having a powerful voice and influential position is a good way of silencing those people who could otherwise give good advice, should any of it appear to clash with that of the powerful outsider.

The forced promotion of Western languages in Africa has been shown above, by looking at the instances of economic and social development, to be immoral. The church representing as it does God himself and not any national or commercial interests, perhaps more than any other organisation; it should not be engaged in such. The church calls people in a community to sacrifice their time, wealth and very lives not for a profit margin, but for the great creator God.  The same God also cares for every aspect of people’s lives, wants his message to reach all nations in all languages (Acts 2:6) and expects no less than a new birth for his followers (John 3:3).  For people to take that message on board requires its being deeply understood; which can only realistically be achieved in a language that ‘runs with’ someone’s way of life.  Failing these things, the church can easily become (or remain) a foreign implant used as a means to acquire donor money, through a process sometimes known as ‘miracle’, which is rather akin to magic, and enormously creative of unhealthy dependency on the West.


Whereas a process of translation can substitute words and phrases of one language for those of another, because doing this does not result in the transfer of the peculiar ways in which words are used in respect to the original context, and because word impacts arise from the contexts of their use, such translation results in changes in the impact of language usage. In other words we could say that because words do not carry their contexts, but their contexts are usually essential in determining their meaning, carrying words (whether or not they are ‘translated’ between languages) from one context to another causes a change in the nature of their contextual-impact or meaning, that is usually consequential and often negative.

Economic and political pressures in post-colonial Anglophone Africa having made the adoption of European languages as official languages in much of Africa practically unavoidable, has created high degrees of incompetence amongst African people who are forced to imitate Western ways of using European languages even in relation to their own contexts. This is immoral in having deprived people of the capacity to be responsible for their own lives. The implementation of such policies has in this article been traced to magical beliefs on the part of both Westerners and Africans.

Rampant corruption that is found to be troubling Africa has been found to be (in part at least) generated by the forced usage of Western languages by people whose ways of life are far from Western. This author advocates that Christian mission take the lead in disassociating itself with the practice of imposition of Western languages and encourage the use of indigenous languages in mission and ministry efforts, including those initiated and / or funded from the West.




Alexander, Neville, 1999. ‘English Unassailable but Unattainable: the dilemma of language policy in South African Education.’ Paper presented at the Biennial Conference of the International Federation for the Teaching of English (University of Warwick, England, UK, July 7-10, 1999). (accessed 28.08.08)

Bambgose, Ayo, 1991, Language and the Nation: the language quest in Sub-Saharan Africa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p113.

Deflem, Mathieu. 1994. “Law Enforcement in British Colonial Africa: A Comparative Analysis of Imperial Policing in Nyasaland, the Gold Coast, and Kenya.” Police Studies 17(1):45-68. (accessed 9th December 2008)

Egner, Inge, 2002, ‘The Speech Act of Promising in an Intercultural Perspective.’  SIL  International. P2002-001.pdf  (accessed 8-01-03)

Haar, Gerrie Ter, (ed.) 2007. Imagining Evil: witchcraft beliefs and accusations in contemporary Africa. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press Inc.

Maranz, David, 2001. African Friends and Money Matters: observations from Africa. Dallas: SIL International

Muthee, Joseph, 2006. Kizuizini. Nairobi: Kwani Trust

Santos, Pedro, nd. ‘Sly Pete, Semantics and Pragmatics.’ (Accessed 1st October 2008).

Sapir, nd, ‘The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.’ (WWW) (accessed 30.03.02)

[1] An exception to this rule in East Africa is that when the time is told, in vernacular language it begins at 6.00 a.m. as 0.  So for example ‘3 o’clock’ in African languages is translated as 9am (or 9pm) in English.

[2] The generalisations that I make about East Africa I believe to be broadly true. Whether or not they are accurate is not critical for the argument made in this article. They only have to be different from norms in the UK.

[3] Sapir and Whorf are renowned for their suggestion, almost certainly partly true, that the structure of a language can be determinative of a people’s way of life (Sapir nd.). But that this is not entirely true is evident because someone’s learning of another language does not automatically ‘make them’ follow the ‘culture’ of that people.

[4] For an example of this ongoing debate, see Santos (nd.).

[5] It could mean ‘I want a cat’ or ‘you want a cat’ or ‘I saw a cat’ or ‘there was a cat’ or ‘a tiger is a cat’ or ‘the cat has eaten the mouse’ or ‘Chris Adrian Theodore (CAT) was here’ and so on to infinity.

[6] Someone from one cultural context communicating using words to someone in another cultural context is very likely to be misunderstood if the second person is not aware of the context of the first.  That second person’s interpreting according to their familiar culture may, I suggest according to my understanding of the use of the English term ‘corruption’, be accused by the first person of practicing ‘corruption’.

[7] Hence colonial opposition to Mau Mau articulated by Muthee (2006).

[8] Even in Tanzania, almost all formal post-primary education officially functions in English.

[9] Politically, Africa’s dependence puts it into a position effectively of being a sub-community to the West, with privileges but few rights. One ‘political solution’ to the current dilemma, which may still arise, is to give African people voting rights in powerful Western democracies like the UK, USA etc.  I will not consider this option further, as it goes beyond the scope of this article.

[10]  The degree of dependence of Africa on the Western world is such that it would seem almost inevitable that were the rug to be pulled, massive chaos and death would ensue.  Of course, in today’s world all nations are independent but generally they relate through trade from a position of strength and not receiving aid from a position of weakness, as in Africa.

[11] Against their better judgment in the sense that people would not voluntarily ditch their language and replace it with that of others, unless under significant pressure to do so.

[12] See for example Acts Chapter 8 and 13 that examine confrontations between God’s apostles and ‘magicians’.

[13] Amongst recent publications that point to the wide spread and destructiveness of witchcraft beliefs in contemporary Africa is Haar ((ed.) 2007).