This is an article from the May-June 1994 issue: Native Americans

Whose Culture Contains The Real Communication Barriers?

Whose Culture Contains The Real Communication Barriers?

God uses various ways to overcome cultural barriers--and a personal discovery about one's own culture may be one!

When my wife Kathleen and I were enjoying field work among the Florida Seminoles, a survey was devised to learn more about the preachers' backgrounds, their involvement and vision for the Christian church. Forty-eight questions were prepared and a questionnaire administered on a one-to-one basis with each pastor.

Because of the lack of Scriptures in their Mikasuki language and their difficulties with the English Bible in the church services, I thought the suggestion of a Mikasuki translation would be universally welcomed. After all, a couple from Wycliffe Bible Translators had been working on the language for almost twelve years. So, Question 43 was, "What is your feeling about the need for a Bible translation into Mikasuki?"

The first preacher interviewed had limited English-speaking ability, so it took several promptings to this question before I received a muttered, "Mmm--it'd be o.k."

Puzzled, but still optimistic, I approached the question in the second interview, which again resulted in a passive shrug, "I guess it'd be all right."

When the third and fourth interview resulted in an exact repetition on Question 43, I knew I was seriously missing something.

By now I was eager for interview No. 5 with a promising, better- educated young lay preacher whose family we knew well. His answers contained the somewhat richer insights that I expected. But, to my surprise, his answer to Question 43 was a totally dispassionate, "I guess it would be a good thing."

His face showed troubled puzzlement at my now open questioning. Finally he remarked, "Well, if we did have it in Mikasuki, nobody could read it. "

I was stunned with the sudden realization of the great cultural gulf separating the working knowledge of reading which meant the difficulties of English, and reading letters representing the easy pronunciation of their own language!

Was it possible that for twelve years no one had successfully communicated the Wycliffe couple's ultimate objective. What would be my next step?

Phonetic word lists! I quickly dug out some of the Mikasuki vocabulary sheets left by the Wycliffe couple, spread them out on the picnic table before my young friend and his very capable wife. Pad and pencil in hand, I copied one word after another in bold symbols and carefully pronounced the phonetic sequences.

"That means 'tree,'" he said immediately. "That means 'tiger,'" she said with a grin. But after several more words, the wife's arm shot over my shoulder, her finger pointing at the paper as she observed, "But them aren't Indian letters; they're White Man's letters!"

I had met the second cultural gulf, that between recognition of letters in English words, and as symbols for Mikasuki sounds. It dawned on me, I was not so much baffled by their culture as we were both baffled with the presumptions of mine!

The sequel to the story is that this young couple became the Wycliffe translators' helpers who later had the thrill of assisting at the first reading of the Mikasuki scriptures from the pulpit. Its reception was dramatic as first the people listened in almost unbelieving awe, then in gradual recognition, and finally in joyous comprehension bordering on hilarity!


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