Why Not Just Teach Them French? Revisited

We have now been back in the US for over 10 months. Traveling around, talking about Bible translation, we occasionally get asked the question, “Why not just teach the people French?” I have asked this question myself. If the people could read French well, it would open them up to a wealth of resources: multiple translations, commentaries, sermons, and pastoral training materials. And Stacey has a great article examining some reasons HERE.

But along that line, I was recommended a book called The Finish Line, by Bob Creson, the current President of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Before arriving in this current position, he worked in Cameroon in various roles. He tells several stories in the book that are very encouraging. One such story is of a man named Léonard Bolioki, a Cameroonian who helped with the Yambetta translation project in Cameroon. Mr. Bolioki describes how he got involved in the translation project:

“I stepped to the front of the church I attended and began to read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Always before, this passage from John’s Gospel had been read in French, but this time I was asked to read it in my own language, Yambetta.

As I read, I became aware of a growing stillness; then some of the older women began to weep. At the end of the service, they rushed up to me and asked, ‘Where did you find this story? We have never heard anything like it before! We didn’t know there was someone who loved us so much that He was willing to suffer and die like that – to be crucified on a cross to save us!’

I pulled out my French New Testament and showed them the passage in the Gospel of John and said, ‘We listen to this Passion story every year during Holy Week.’ But they insisted that they’d never heard it before.

That was what motivated me to translate the Scriptures into the only language my friends and family can really understand – Yambetta!” (Creson 2014: 15-16).

The Gospel came to Cameroon over 100 years ago, and now there are thousands of churches. But most of these churches are conducted in French (or English for that part of Cameroon). And what many people are hearing there is not the salvation of Jesus, but instead incomprehensible words in a foreign language.

It is hard for those of us who only grew up speaking one language to understand, but, even though the Bakoum speak French, they speak it only in certain domains. So, they can trade and deal with the government in French. But they do not speak French like they speak Bakoum. You could imagine if you only had mastered the vocabulary for the grocery store in another language, church would be very confusing. And not only confusing, but foreign, strange, and empty. We heard recently that reading the Bible in a language you have not mastered is like eating soup with a fork. You can get the taste, but it does not nourish you.

But the question remains: “Why not teach them French?” If the Bakoum would be nourished with a mastery of French, it seems like a better option, doesn’t it? But, you will notice that this was not the response of Mr. Bolioki. Instead, he was persuaded that his people needed the Bible in their mother tongue. I think there are a number of reasons for that. One of the strongest of these comes when you understand the history of Cameroon. Cameroon was originally colonized by Germany in 1884. However, with the defeat of Germany in the First World War in 1916, Cameroon was divided between Britain and France. These colonizing forces used extreme force at times in order to govern their new colonies. My friend Simon can point to the tree on which his grandfather was hanged for non-compliance.

And to those Cameroonians we would say, “You must learn French to know God”? For the Bakoum the French language represents the people who killed their grandparents. Could you imagine if the Germans had won WWII? And if they colonized America, then told us that they had a text though which we could know the true God. The only thing is, we have to learn German. How effective would that message be?

What is fascinating is that the very oppression of the Bakoum gives them an opportunity to understand the New Testament in ways that I never will. Jesus was born into an occupied society. The Jews were living in their own land, but they did not have the right to govern themselves. The Romans ruled them, taxed them, and killed them when they did not comply. And the freedom and victory that Jesus preached to his oppressed people could have such deep meaning for my friends and neighbors in Cameroon. But they do not know this freedom. They do not know the salvation of Christ.

The reality is that if French was sufficient, the old ladies in my village would already be weeping for joy. God Word is effective, it is like a two-edged sword that pierces to the division of soul and of spirit. The Word of God is like the rain, which gives life and without it we cannot survive. But it has none of those effects unless it is understood. Without the Bible in a language they can understand, Jesus just becomes another name they can use in their traditional religion. So, we translate, prayerfully, pleading that the Spirit would both aid our work and use it to convict hearts. And we trust that one day, we will be able to finally see recognition in their eyes, and that this would lead to genuine Bakoum worship.

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Author: David M. Hare

Dave is currently still engaged in language learning and analysis of the Kwakúm language. His focus is grammar and discourse analysis. The Kwakúm language committee is planning to begin translating the Bible in the summer of 2019. At that point Dave will focus on translation.

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