African Terminology

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The Use of language or African terminology is a key learning point for anyone wanting to do mission work in this continent. There are many factors to consider. Here Randy Rhoades gives some advice from his own experience in working in Africa. This entry forms part of the Africa Files.

International Trade Languages

This is your starting point. Almost every area of Africa has an international trade language that is used for official communications and/or tourism. These languages are good for brief visits and many types of short term mission trips that are organized by local missionaries. In some countries the international trade language is well used throughout much of the country. In some it is barely known by an educated or elite few. Most countries fall somewhere in between. The good side of this is that young people, looking for opportunity and a future often gravitate toward the international language. This opens doors for our international teams. The dominant international trade languages of Africa are: English, French, Portuguese, and Arabic.

Local languages

This is the preferred way. Even where international trade languages are dominant, conversations may quickly revert to local languages both for casual conversation and cases where people really wants to express themselves. Any missionary spending more than a year in a location would be advised to learn the locally dominant language. Among YWAM teams the need for local language is minimized due to our mix of nationalities where the trade language becomes the default choice for communication. This may skew our perception of what the country or area is really like, for our YWAM teams are a hybrid leaning toward the international. However, most meaningful discipleship and impact is likely to occur within the use of the local language. There are almost four thousand languages spoken across Africa. Except in remote rural areas, most Africans speak multiple languages even where their own family language is preferred.

Regional languages

This is key. There are also regionally dominant languages that cover vast areas. Some are “parent” languages that embrace many local languages and dialects, like the Bemba of Zambia that spills over into south eastern DRC and western Tanzania. Others are more internationally embraced across several countries like the Swahili of East Africa, or the Fulani or Hausa of West Africa. Unless a missionary is working in an isolated rural area, where one local language is predominate, it is advantageous for a missionary to become fluent in one of these widely recognized regional languages.

Language learning

This is a priority. An international missionary, whether from within Africa or abroad should consult with ministry leaders in their chosen area of service as to the language or languages that will best serve their God given calling and objectives. While we in YWAM can easily keep ourselves busy among our international teams speaking trade languages, we minimize our effectiveness if we don’t become fluent in a local or regional language.