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Vulnerable mission 2: working in English

‘Does it matter when we arrive?’ I ask.
‘Oh, be free, be free!’
‘Is it OK?’
‘Of course. Be free. We will enjoy.’

My friend and I are speaking in English. ‘Be free?’ It makes perfect sense to him, and it’s not hard for me to work out what he means from the context, but what sort of English is it? Is it Tanzanian English? It’s certainly ‘non-standard’; is it incorrect?


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Jim Harries says that words carry associations, but meaning lies with people. People can use words while modifying the prior associations of those words.

In other words, language itself doesn’t convey meaning, but is used by people to create meaning. Be free!

One of the implications is this: people can use English without being adept at what Westerners recognise as standard English. When I speak in English with a Tanzanian friend, his thinking connects with his English in a way foreign to me, and my thinking connects with my English in a way foreign to him. When he talks about giving or receiving a ‘jift’, all I can see is a mispronunciation of gift. And if I give a typical Aussie abbreviation of common words, like ‘uni’, it throws him.

But even if he and I shared a perfect grasp of ‘standard English’, it’s no guarantee of clear communication. People use language pragmatically and functionally, not formally. For example, ‘Can we talk?’ can have a variety of positive or negative connotations which are only tangentially related to the apparent meaning of the phrase.

The important thing in communication is what Harries calls the total context, in which words can play only a minor role, or may even be optional! Think of a long-married couple: how much of their communication is direct, or even verbal? Even if you are part of their culture, you might not pick up all their communication! Imagine the complexities of communicating across cultures.

The fact that two people are both using English does not mean they’re communicating as well as they could be.

In majority world countries, many Western workers arrive with a task in mind, and the task may be paramount, with method, mode, and even relationships taking a back seat. And because English is widely used, and is often honoured as an ‘international language’, we might assume it is appropriate to work primarily or even solely in English.

In chapter 2 of Vulnerable Mission, Harries gives a rapid-fire snapshot of academic conversations, including the debate about language of instruction (LOI) in educational settings, especially in Africa (Harries is based in Kenya). He concludes, ‘The maintenance of English as language of governance and instruction is widely recognised as problematic,’ and he draws attention to scholars who argue that ‘it is essential for the future of Africa for its people to guide themselves through their own languages.’

Here’s the pointy end of all this: the fact that a country uses English for official or formal purposes is not a good reason to work solely or primarily in English. My own context is Tanzanian universities, where many student fellowships use English to varying degrees, partly because tertiary education is formally conducted in English. Does that mean it’s OK to stick to English? The common language is really Swahili, and that’s certainly the medium for informal conversation. Almost all students are more fluent in Swahili than English, so it makes sense for all fellowship participants to be fluent in Swahili — even if everyone will also use English from time to time. In this situation, who has the right to say that Swahili is optional? Students? Missionaries? How would we work out what is acceptable, and what is best?

Questions for discussion: In the settings you’re familiar with, to what extent is language learning not only useful but vital? How does language of instruction impact an outsider’s task?

This series explores the book Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission by Jim Harries. Vulnerable mission is a way of talking about working within the language and resources of another people.

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

1 reply

  1. In my experience of learning languages, I find that it helps me understand how people who speak that language view the world, therefore helping me to understand them better even when they are speaking English. I have also found that even when I am only in an area for a short time, attempting to learn and use the local language is well received by (and amusing for) the locals. It helps in building relationships. By spending time learning about and from the locals, they are willing to spend time in return learning about and from an outsider.

    This sounds like a very interesting book! I’ll be trying to find a copy to read as soon as possible! I look forward to reading more of your posts about it.

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