Languages vs. Understanding (sometimes contrived!)

Communication and understanding implies correct interpretation of what is being communicated. Often, when one learns another language and feels a certain proficiency in it, they may think that the listener’s hearing of what is said is sufficient and they forget that maybe real understanding has not been done. Here are a few examples.
Case in point:
The missionary who is working on a project with an African and the workspace becomes crowded. Some tools or other things are no longer needed and he tells the helper to “take these things away”, indicating the clutter and meaning to remove them to another place. Later, the missionary finds some things missing, discovers that the African has them at home and accuses him of stealing. Outcome – he was told to “take them away” and he did! No stealing was done; he just fulfilled what was expected. (Or, did the language just give an excuse for him to get something he wanted?)
Case in point:
The missionary who told the local church congregation, “You build the church and I will help you with the roof”. Meant was, “I will ‘kumugunanha’ (help you) you with the expenses and work with you as you put on the roof. We will work together on it”. Understood was, “If you build the walls I will put on the roof and at my expense”. Outcome – a misunderstanding that had ill results for years. The church (mud brick) fell down 2 times in the rainy seasons, waiting for the missionary to fulfill his promise of putting on the roof.
Case in point:
You are going to town (70+ miles away) tomorrow early and an African asks to go with you. You say, “I will leave when the sun comes up” (expecting a cloudless morning!). You are ready to go at sun-up and he hasn’t arrived. Later he arrives, having caused a delay in leaving. Understood by him was that if he left his village “when the sun comes up”, no matter how far away it was, that he was fulfilling the expected. Outcome – In order to make sure I left my house “when the sun comes up”, I had to tell him departure would be “when the rooster crows” – but I had to soon modify that to “we will leave at the first crowing of the roosters” since they crow twice in the early morning – the first maybe a half-hour before the second. That way I could be sure that my passenger/s were “on time” for the early “sun-up” departure for town!
Case in point:
The African Central Church Council is meeting over a thorny issue. They ask for advice from the mission Field Council. After deliberation, the Field Council has a recommendation to offer the Church council. The offer is presented as “we think (“niganika” in the Sukuma language) … you should take the following course”. The Church Council exploded! The word “niganika” (I think) indicates that one has no fixed view, not a recommendation for action, and that you can change that thought at a moment’s notice. “We were asking for advice; you gave us nothing”, they said. Outcome – hard feelings and, for a long time afterwards, the Church Council did not seek advice from the Field Council for local church administrative matters.
Case in point:
The missionary family had been given beautiful set of crystal drinking glasses. They were rarely used and mostly seen as decorative things. One day they had notable guests for a meal and the wife used them at that time. The family had “house-help” and, after the meal and as things were being taken to the kitchen for clean-up, the wife told the young lady to “chukua hizi” (Swahili, “take these”), indicating the glasses since the wife’s hands were full of other dishes.
Go forward a day or two. My wife and I were visiting Nairobi, Kenya where this all happened. That family was going away and invited us to use their house. We did, for about a week, and left before the family returned.
Sometime after they returned, it was noticed that the glasses were missing. They asked the “house help” what happened to them and were told, “the guests using your house broke them”. The family was upset (naturally) but mostly because we had said nothing to them.
A week or so later, after a set of other circumstances, the police searched the house-help’s family home and found the glasses. Since they were unusual, the police asked where they came from. The young lady said the missionary lady had told her to “chukua” (take) them so she did – took them all the way home!
After the police visited the missionary lady and learned the real story, the “house-help” young woman was questioned and finally confessed. “Yes, I took them. I knew it was stealing”. The missionary forgave her since she readily confessed, but … Outcome – that young woman lost her job and reputation but also experienced forgiveness without which she would have landed in prison for a time.

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