Heart Language


Dictionary.com list 17 definitions for “heart”. The first two are biological, then next three are:

  • the center of the total personality
  • the center of emotion
  • capacity for sympathy; feeling affection; spirit, courage, or enthusiasm

When the right information is in the heart language, transformation can occur. On January 9, 2009, an article appeared in one of France’s leading newspapers, Le Monde, in which Henry Tourneux, who has been associated with development projects in Africa for many years, tells of how development efforts have failed because they did not take the language of the people into account. In one example, a family planning program translated “contraception” as “close the road to children”. As you can imagine, the message was not well received. They could have used a metaphor well-known to the culture of “space out sorghum plants in the field”. Henry Tourneux has many such examples, which is why he is trying to get language recognized as a key issue in development

Development or coersion?

Development implies a positive transformation. It also implies that the changes are fully understood and voluntarily adopted by the people. Otherwise, it can be coercive even if unintentionally so. It is difficult, if not impossible, to create voluntary, permanent, and positive change without communicating fully. But many development programs promote change without taking into account the languages and the cultures of the people.

We work with Africans to harness the power of their sometimes neglected languages to bring about the transformations they want for their families and their society.

Change at the heart level

The organization we work with is translating in African languages books on many helpful subjects. The photo is of the recording of a story giving information about AIDS and HIV into the Mangbetu language. That is a bit of a challenge. Translating terms like “seropositive” requires some work, but it can be done. All languages have the capacity, even if unused, to say anything that can be said. In one case, the newly translated books were used in training church people about HIV and AIDS. After the first day they said, “We need to repent because we have abandoned those with AIDS”. They prayed and immediately went out and started caring for those with AIDS. That is the kind of transformation working in the heart language can produce.

The Gospel

The endeavor of bringing God’s Good News to people encounters the same issues. The Bible presents a radically new and different way of approaching life and God. When one tries to communicate that in a language which does not go all the way to the “heart” of the person, the understanding and the transformation are inadequate. Many have pointed out that the spread of Christianity in Africa has not been accompanied by a corresponding positive transformation. The fact that many Africans do not have a Bible in their language, or if they do they do not know how to read it, is a good part of the reason. Rev. Alo (pictured at right), the Dean of the Bunia School of Theology, now deceased, said:

If we have problems in our country, it is because the Gospel is not in peoples hearts. If it is not in the hearts, it is because it is not in their heart languages.

The heart language is about the right words. But transformation is also about the right message. That means the message of the Bible. William Tyndale, an early translator of the Bible into English and martyr wrote,

““I had perceived by experience, how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text.”

The truth of his observation can be seen today in Africa.

Be part of real transformation

Join with us in helping Africans harness the power of their own languages for the transformations of their families and their society. Pray, give, or advocate with your friends or in your church. Let us know what you plan to do.

Missionaries destroy culture

If you have heard that missionaries destroy culture, or have questions about the value of Bible translation, we recommend:
A Justification for Translation, by Tyler Kennedy of Desiring God
Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex, by Lamin Sanneh of Yale
The Linguistic Creed of SIL International

Why not “Mother Tongue”?

We use “heart language” because the term “mother tongue” sometimes has other meanings. For some, it can mean their ancestral language which they have never spoken. For others, they no longer speak the language of their childhood.

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