Articles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home
Series Menu: How to Learn a Language and Culture

How to Learn a Language and a Culture

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Transfer of Language Experience

The obvious features of a new language are its differences.  Comparative linguists, however, have long since discovered that languages all over the world share a high degree of similarity.  Analysis of languages has indicated groupings by "genetic" similarity.  Germanic languages are more alike than a Germanic language like English is to a Romance language like Provencal.

Most people realize that to live in most foreign countries they will need to learn one new language.  The question of multiple language often come up, however, for mission agencies and NGOs, who work extensively in the field, at ground level with local people.

Beyond the City

French gets you around only the small international sphere of the Congo, or the educated elite.  At least Swahili or Lingala, common intertribal trade languages, are need to do much outside the cities.  But then you are still out of direct communication with most locals at a very deep personal level.

After learning one language, a missionary may feel the task is done, no more language!  They have made good progress, can make their way comfortably around the society, and interact with many people at a certain level.

Worldview and Language

But what about interaction at the level of basic worldview?  Like explaining AIDS and cholera to people whose worldview informs them that spirits or spells are responsible?  What about implementing change at the basic level of life commitments, which a missionary might address?  In what language do the thoughts occur, and the deliberation take place, that result in decisions at this level?

What about a country like Nigeria, with an estimated 450 languages?  In Rivers and Cross Rivers states, people in one village cannot even understand the people in the next!  Foreign workers commonly need two or three languages just to be there!

Do the missionaries limit themselves to only one narrow geographical range?  Or put forth another 18 months to move into the language of a second cluster of homes?  One district every four years, perhaps?  Can agencies afford the time or money to enable their personnel in more than one language?

Family Resemblance

The demonstrated family resemblance among languages seems to ease the learner's task in moving from one language to another.  This means it might not take as long to learn the second related language as it did the first.

This also eases the group task for an international agency. As a person learns a certain language, materials and analysis from that language can be applied to a neighbouring related language.

Bantu Family Transfer

The extensive Bantu (Bantoid) family of languages includes 548 languages (Ethnologue).  This is in the group called Narrow Bantu.  With the broader related group called the total becomes 701.  Bantu is a major sub-group of the Benue-Congo group (987 total languages).  (Some classifications call this group Niger-Kordofanian.  The Ethnologue includes 23 Kordofanian languages under Niger-Congo.)

It is said that the Bantu group makes up about 2/3 of the languages South of the Sahara, and cover about 2/3 of the land area.  Though extensive in number and geographical extent, these languages are much more closely related than the European languages. Learners usually make an easy transfer to the second Bantu language.

Agency Requirements

Could this make it viable for a missionary to move into a second language more easily?  Could missionaries increase their effectiveness and personal satisfaction by learning a second language?

Should the missions or NGOs have a requirement, or at least provide opportunities, for learning two or more languages in a country or region?  The anecdotal evidence says "yes."

Common Development

In 1987, I worked with my friend Dr. Donald Larson as he led a workshop to simultaneously develop his book Guidelines for Barefoot Language Learning in four languages.  In this process, Don and several European cross-cultural communicators worked with African informants fluent in the target languages.

Comparisons could be made on the spot, and corrections were sometimes indicated for one language by data in another.  A fifth one, Barefoot Shona has been developed from one of the originals.  A similar approach had been followed in Kenya with a non-barefoot guide.

Modification of Previous Learning

The learning may mean making modifications rather than starting over.  This is happening in languages in Zambia, Namibia and South Africa.  Missionaries learning Xhosa were able to use Zulu grammars and reading material because they are sparse in Xhosa.  The case is similar to Spanish and Portuguese.

Learners find Afrikaans easy because it is so similar to English, except for some sounds.  In order to extend his work in international aid and development, a European worker in Kenya went through several languages.  He had already learned two Bantu languages.  He then proceeded into the Cushitic family of languages used in Kenya and countries north in the Horn of Africa.

He built on his previous experience in language learning, even though the earlier languages, being Bantu, were not related to the Cushitic tongues.  Boran (an Oromo Cushitic language) served as an entry into the Somali group of languages (also in the Cushitic family).

After learning Boran with no printed materials, he then proceeded to learn the sister Cushitic language Somali, working with personal informants and his presence in the Somali community for practice.  All the formal resources he had were the Somali Bible and some basic learner helps.  His main resource was his previous experience.

Language learning experience does transfer.


Based on an paper originally presented in October 1992 at a Workshop for Entry Orientation Coordinators, facilitated by Dr. Donald Larson in Richmond, Virginia
Published October-November 1992 in ENONet Notes, a Newsletter of the Entry Orientation Network, Nairobi, Kenya
Rewritten and posted on OJTR 30 May 2006
Last edited 17 January 2024

Copyright 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Articles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home
Series Menu: How to Learn a Language and Culture

Filename: transferofexperience.html