Tag Archives: language development

WHEN (Cameroon Timeline)

So, when are we leaving for Cameroon? This is the top question we get right now; the short answer is “spring and summer 2019, God willing”.

First, recall that we’ve accepted an assignment with the Linguistics Services Team (LST), based in Yaoundé, Cameroon, but serving the Central African Basin in Francophone Africa. We will continue to use participatory research methods to develop writing systems in language communities that need them, so Bible translations will be read with fluency and power.

So when will we begin that assignment? While there is lots to do to make that happen, there are two main issues we are working on right now. The question of James’ schooling I address in another blog entry; the other is our financial readiness. Recall that Wycliffe has a policy that we must be receiving 100% monthly financial support to start a new assignment (which is a good thing). Since we are currently at 74%, that represents a non-trivial difference.

In the mean time, we have plenty of work to do. We are praying and talking to people about our work, individually and in small and large group meetings. But each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver (2Cor 9:7 ESV). We are also making plans and preparations for the move to Cameroon, trusting that God will provide us the right ministry partners at the right time. If you’d like to hear more about our work, either individually or in a small or larger group, please just let us know. If you have decided to join our Wycliffe ministry in financial partnership, you can do so here.

We currently hope to visit Cameroon in March. There is a linguistics conference one week, and a branch conference the next. In addition to these conferences, a March visit would help us plan and prepare for a move as a family, hopefully in June or July (between the end of school here, and the start of school there).  Our kids could meet some of their classmates for the following year, which could really help them transition. And we could see housing and transportation options first hand, as well as the kinds of things that are locally available (and thus unnecessary to ship).

A March trip is something of a bold plan, though. Logistically, in order to buy affordable airfare, we need to buy them in advance. This means we would need to have enough support to justify the trip by about Christmas, or perhaps January at the latest. But such a trip would be worth it; a family move (over the summer) would go much better, as each of us would have more realistic expectations of where we will be moving to.

Whatever comes of this March trip, I (Kent) should be ready to start on my LST work as we have our full budget coming in and get released to our assignment. Some of that work can be done at a distance (I attended a meeting virtually last week!), in addition to the work of selling/storing/packing up our house and preparing for the move.

As we plan this next transition, it feels like we have more questions than answers. How will the presidential election in Cameroon affect stability for this next year? What should we do with the stuff we left in DRC (is any of it worth trying to transport across Africa?) What will we need to make the move to Cameroon (e.g., a vehicle, household setup), and what will that cost? We hope most of these will be settled by the end of a trip to Cameroon in March.

Please join us in prayer that God would provide monthly financial partners for our Wycliffe ministry, such that we would have 100% of our monthly budget by Christmas, so we can make plans for March and June, and get back to serving the Bibleless peoples of central Africa, one alphabet at a time.

Participatory Research Methods

I just realized I don’t have an article to refer to on this topic, while I’ve been using and talking about these methods for some years, so I’ll briefly describe what I mean here.

The term comes from “Participatory Research in Linguistics”, by Constance Kutsch Lojenga (1996). Others have used it, but the basic idea is to involve people in the analysis of their own language, as much as possible.

While this may seem a weird thing to have to say, many Field Methods courses in linguistics involve asking a naive speaker how to say things (or if saying something is grammatical), while the researcher takes notes. Those notes are not typically shared with the speaker, and it is relatively unimportant whether the speaker has any idea what is going on.

This is the paradigm that we are turning on its head, when we want to involve as many community members in the analysis, as much as possible.

Involving as many people as possible is good for our data, because it means we aren’t basing our analysis of the language on what just one person says. I join many in believing that language is a community property, not that of a single person. Yet it is not uncommon to have claims about a language made on the basis of a single person’s production. Involving more people can only increase our confidence that our data represents the language as a whole.

Involving as many people as possible is good for our analysis, as well. When I sit on the other side of a clipboard, and leave the “naive speaker” out of my thinking entirely, I’m looking at only half the problem. Sure, I can see how things look from the outside (etic), but I cannot see how things look from the inside (emic) anywhere near as well as can a native speaker of the language. Even if my analysis could be completely right without that inside perspective, its presence can confirm the rightness of that analysis. But working from both inside and outside the language allows more perspective to push the work forward faster, and on a more sure footing.

Involving as many people as possible is also good for the community of people who speak the language. I have no interest in finding out a lot of cool things about a language, publishing them and becoming famous (as if), and leaving the people who speak that language ignorant of the work. On the contrary, I think the community is best served by being as involved in the work as possible, so that as the work progresses, those who are most closely involved in the work can explain it to those around them —and typically in terms that might escape my attempts to do so. This accomplishes two things: it builds a cadre of people who are able to teach the analysis to others, and it increases the number and kind of people within reach of that teaching.

Consider the implications for literacy work. The above might not mean much to you if I’m dealing with some obscure syntactic phenomenon that you couldn’t even point out in English, like “Successive Cyclic Movement and Island Repair” (which is a real topic of conversation between some linguists, btw). But if I’m producing a booklet that should help literacy teachers teach people how to read, but no one understands the booklet, how will they teach people to read? On the other hand, when I finish a workshop, anywhere from three to fifteen people have a good idea what we’ve done, and could explain it to someone else. Maybe they’re not ready to be literacy teachers yet, but they are at least on their way there.

So involving as many people as possible is good for our data, for our analysis, and for the people we work with. Because I am strongly invested in all of these,  I use these methods almost exclusively.

There is a caveat: I’ve put “as much as possible” hedges above intentionally. I have a couple graduate degrees in linguistics, and I shouldn’t assume that everyone can understand everything I have figured out in a language, or even what I’m trying to figure out, or why. There are times where I have to accept the limits of the people I’m working on, and use what I can get from participatory methods. There are lots of things in my dissertation that I wouldn’t bring up with almost anybody, without some serious background conversation (and for some not even then). Rather, as I consider what is possible, I seek ways to simplify and explain what we’re doing so a subsistence farmer might be able to grasp it. This is why we use papers in workshops, rather than computers. This is why we stack them in piles, organizing them visually on a surface to show the differences between them. To invite and enable more participation, will only increase the value of our work.

Africa Night!

Have you ever wondered how people make their first alphabet?

Starting this summer, we are giving people a taste of Bible Translation work in Africa, through small group meetings designed to be interactive and engaging. We introduce people to the language work we do with Wycliffe Bible Translators, in three parts (total 90 minutes):

  1. An interactive exercise for anyone who can read short English words. See what it’s like to discover your vowels for the first time!
  2. African foods typical to many of the places we have worked
  3. Testimonies, videos, slides and information from Wycliffe Bible Translators and our own experience. Q&A as time allows.

We have worked so far with groups of 6-25 people; we’d like to keep them small enough to allow everyone to participate. If you have a small group or Sunday school class that would be interested, or if you would like to join or host a group, please let us know, and we’ll get you on our calendar.

That said, if you have any questions about Africa, Wycliffe Bible Translators or our work, please don’t be shy; we’d love to discuss it over coffee, too. 😉 🙂


I just finished drafting the line “good progress on dictionaries for each of the languages” for the newsletter we’re hoping to put out in the next couple days, and I realized I’m not sure that it is clear to all why that is a good thing.  So here’s a bit of a rationale.

From what I understand of the history of dictionaries in English, one of the main reasons people do them is to help standardize the writing system.  Have you ever asked how to spell a word, and been told to look it up in a dictionary?  Perhaps that doesn’t happen so much anymore, but in any case, dictionaries can be an authoritative source for spelling information. I have even understood that one of Webster’s goals was not only the standardization of American English spelling, but also the creation of a distinctly American English. Have you used the words colour, litre, practise, paralyse or programme? If so, you’re probably British (or learned your spelling from a Brit). Nothing against the Brits; it’s just that spelling is one way of saying “this is who we are”. While I’m hoping that the communities we work with in the DRC won’t spend much time distinguishing one dialect of their language from another, I do hope they will spend time clarifying their identity in their writing system.

I want this for two reasons.  First of all, a lot of Bible Translation is about identity.  If we are going to help someone translate what will be seen as a foreigners’ Bible, then we might as well stop today, since these people already have second and third language Bibles. Additionally, this is not the promise of the scriptures. Rather, it promises “…a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages… crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God…'” (Rev 7:9-10 ESV). I don’t see this promise as just lots of different Christians, but people from each of the 6,000+ languages of the world seeing God as their own God, and worshiping Him as such. We don’t want to just translate and print books; we want to see the impact in individuals and communities of the Holy Spirit working through the written Word of God. This impact is hampered if you’re reading a Bible that continues to tell you that God is talking to someone else, not you.

The second reason I’m in favor of standardization has to do with fluency.  I’ve seen a lot of non-fluent reading of the scriptures, and I personally find it painful. And I imagine it must be difficult to have the kind of impact I mention above if the reader stumbles often in the reading, and/or has to read something multiple times to get the meaning. As a result, one major motivation for my work is to see people reading fluently. I want them to read without stumbling, and to get the sense the first time they read. I want pastors to be able to read the scriptures in the middle of a sermon without creating a major break in the thought flow. And I want to do everything I can to remove any barriers to fluency which arise as a result of the writing system. That normally starts with getting the consonants, vowels and tone correct, but it also includes people knowing how words are spelled, and identifying the correct word and its pronunciation quickly as they read.

There are two other arguments for dictionaries as part of language development, one of which is sociological, the other linguistic. Related to the identity question above, many peoples I’ve interacted with don’t see their language as valuable, and this opinion is often shared by outsiders. I once heard a “real language” as “you know, one with books”. I think I know what that person meant, but if it takes a book to give a language respect, then I want to be a part of giving them their first book. And people get this. Seeing someone look at the first booklet in their language (as little as 15 pages, with lots of pictures!) is an amazing sight. They immediately get that someone does finally care about them.

The linguistic argument is that in order to do good dictionary work, you need to do a lot of other things which you already should be doing anyway: collecting and analyzing texts, checking pronunciations, helping the community decide how words should be spelled, including diacritics, spacing, and punctuation. All of this analysis helps build not only the dictionary, but our understanding of the language more generally, perhaps more particularly how the sound and writing systems will interact. I hope it is clear why one would want to do this before publishing much in the language; anything you publish without really understanding how the writing system will work may need substantial revision, and anything you publish creates a precedent that you will have to fight against in making later changes (and if you don’t see how precedent can trump sound reasoning for spelling changes, just look at English).

So our ultimate goal is life transformation through the Bible, but to get there, we want to see that the community is well placed to have and use a Bible that is theirs, that can and will be read fluently and with power, and dictionary work helps further all of those goals.