"If your God is so mighty, why doesn't He speak my language?"

A Cakchiquel (Guatemala) man to SIL founder William Cameron Townsend

Welcome to the Language and Culture Learning department

SIL Cameroon encourages personnel to develop their language skills to an appropriate level in order to most effectively carry out their primary assignments. This may require fluency in English and/or French, the two official languages of Cameroon, as well as learning to understand and speak one of Cameroon's more than 270 national languages.

To work under SIL Cameroon, personnel are generally expected to already be capable of communicating in English in order to function well within the organization. Those who will be working in either the anglophone or francophone regions of the country are also generally expected to already have the necessary level of language fluency to carry out their primary assignment. This means that non-anglophone or non-francophone workers may need to do language study before working under SIL Cameroon. Resources and support, however, are available within the Branch to continue developing English or French fluency as self-directed learners - while also carrying out a primary assignment. As SIL Cameroon continues to become primarily a training organization, fluency in French or English is especially important since national and regional training events, with students coming from many different language groups, are conducted in either of these two official languages.

Personnel are assigned to a language cluster in order to work in anthropology, linguistics, literacy, or translation. However, high priority is given to learning one of the cluster languages to a level adequate for effectively carrying out anticipated roles in the various domains. Therefore, personnel are first given a primary assignment of Language and Culture Learning.. The recommendation is to aim for a 2+ level (limited working proficiency plus - see attached comparative chart by Lonna Dickerson) by the end of two years of focused language and culture learning. Individualized time lines and levels of achievement are negotiated with supervisors, taking into account a person's aptitude for language learning (speed and ease), anticipated roles in the project, and factors or circumstances that may slow down the process, such as parents homeschooling their children, developing community awareness of the language project, or involvement in Branch events. Once the allotted time and desired level have been reached, Language and Culture Learning ceases to be the primary assignment, however, it is encouraged as an ongoing process for the duration of one's ongoing role in the cluster.

The Language and Culture Learning assignment takes place within a village context where speakers tend to speak a purer form of the language, less influenced by outside languages, although contact with speakers in urban areas also takes place. In most cases, the languages being learned have not yet been written down, meaning that formal classes, dictionaries, grammar books, textbooks and recordings are not available. Learners must be self-directed, applying previously studied principles and strategies effective for language and culture learning in predominantly oral societies. Appropriate training is offered by SIL institutions around the world, including the mobile Africa Training Program (held to-date in Cameroon and Burkina Faso).

The Language Programs Director assigns a coach to personnel whose primary assignment is Language and Culture Learning. With limited guidance from their coach, they write up individualized Language and Culture Learning objectives for the annual SPAR - Strategic Planning and Review; four times a year they report to the Language Programs Director on progress towards the achievement of these objectives. Their coach, who also receives copies of the quarterly reports, provides encouragement and suggestions through e-mail, phone, or personal contact.

Coaches also work together to organize Language and Culture Learning training events within the SIL Cameroon Branch. Coaches, generally engaged in language and culture learning themselves, have attended the Triennial International Congress on Language Learning in Colorado Springs or other events especially geared for training coaches. SIL International provides support to coaches through the International Language and Culture Learning Coordinator in Dallas, Texas.

Questions that may come to mind

Since many of our Cameroonian colleagues already speak French and/or English, why not just use these as the mediating languages in the work of anthropology, linguistics, literacy, or translation? Why bother to spend two years learning a national language?

When an outsider moves to a community to learn the local language, he or she is demonstrating the value of that language and more significantly, the value of the speakers of that language. Achieving a certain level of fluency lends credibility to SIL Cameroon and its personnel working in leadership and training roles in language development projects. Learning the language and culture also helps in building relationships and mutual understanding, increasing the effectiveness of working together. Successful language and culture learning may also increase a sense of belonging, of being accepted, and feeling fulfilled or job satisfaction. For these reasons, a two-year opportunity for language and culture learning is considered an essential and worthwhile investment.

Why is "culture learning" attached to "language learning"?

Language learning is inextricably linked to culture learning. Language reflects and shapes culture; culture reflects and shapes language. For example, the words "chairperson" or "chair" are replacing the word "chairman," reflecting and effecting a cultural change where women are now also leaders of boards and committees.

Illustrating well the inseparability of language learning and culture, Howell uses the metaphor of woven cloth to represent a community: the vertical threads are the language and the horizontal threads are the ideas, beliefs, and values of the people (p. 4). One learns the culture "to make friends, to understand the rules people have, to learn about problems and issues, and to introduce things people need to know" (p. 9). This last step can only be undertaken after a good degree of integration into the community has earned the language learner the right to be heard or accepted into any significant decision making processes (Larson & Smalley, 1972, p. 22).

How is "culture learning" in the phrase "language and culture learning" different from anthropology?

Linguists may have extensive knowledge about a language, without being able to communicate in that language. Similarly, anthropologists may have extensive knowledge about a particular ethnic group, without being able to function well as an integrated member. In the same way that linguistic knowledge can be gained apart from language learning, anthropological knowledge can be gained apart from culture learning. SIL Cameroon encourages academic excellence (linguistics and anthropology) as well as practical excellence (language and culture learning) for personnel to be effective.


Dickerson, Lonna J. Comparison of Proficiency Levels: FSI/OLR Scales, ACTFL \proficiency Guidelines, Canadian Language Benchmarks. Resources for Second Language Learners, Version 2.3 (2004) Institute for Cross Cultural Training.

Howell, Allison M. (1990) A Daily Guide for Language and Culture Learning, Baraka Press and Publishers Limited, Kaduna, Nigeria, p. 195.

Larson, Donald N. & Smalley, William A. (1972) Becoming Bilingual : A Guide To Language Learning. New Canaan, Conn. Practical Anthropology, p. 426.