Trilingual Encounters

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When I was in high school years ago, the most popular foreign language to study was French. Since I turned out to have outstanding linguistic skills, I studied a lot of French in those years. I soon got involved in Quakerism and then the struggles for civil rights for minority groups in the United States, and decided that I ought to switch my primary foreign language to Spanish. Years later in college, I majored in Spanish.

I took some years away from Quakerism, but eventually returned to the fold. With my language abilities, I soon found my way into Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC). Crossing linguistic barriers with them, I found that most of the Quakers in the so-called “developing countries” were Evangelical Friends and had a rather strict interpretation of the Bible. So although I could talk to Latin American Friends, we at FWCC also had to negotiate our way through theological differences. I have great difficulty in both English and Spanish understanding logically what people mean when they say they “believe every word in the Bible.” 

I have had discussions about that with both Cuban and Bolivian Friends, and went on a couple of church construction brigades to Cuba that were organized by Friends United Meeting (FUM). Since I spoke the best Spanish of any of the North Americans on the crew, they asked me to do a guest Bible study. I was at a loss for what to talk about, until somebody suggested that I talk about our Friends peace witness. In my talk, I said that the Friends I associated with definitely considered Jesus to be a pacifist, and that that philosophy was contradicted by the Old Testament stories that taught God mandated wars and even genocide. Cuba Yearly Meeting has a close fraternal relationship with New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM), so they had heard these ideas before and respected what I said. On the other hand, when I once tried to discuss the same ideas with a Bolivian Evangelical Friends pastor, he didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about and considered the Bible to be always 100 percent infallible.


Soon after I got involved with FWCC, I was talking to Bolivian Quakers who invited me to visit their country. A couple of different Quaker nonprofit organizations in the United States have aid projects in Bolivia and send educational groups there periodically, so that was how I first went to Bolivia. 

Once I was there, I discovered that almost all Bolivian Quakers were from the Aymara ethnic group, and traditionally their first language was Aymara, not Spanish. The first Bolivian Quaker who I got to know was the presiding clerk of the yearly meeting, and periodically I would hear errors in his Spanish, such as this one: In approximately 90 percent of the nouns in Spanish, the ending of the word tells you whether its gender is feminine or masculine. The big exception is nouns that end with e, which can be either gender, so that you have to memorize the gender in each case. And once in a while, I would hear my friend give the wrong gender to a noun ending in e.

On these Quaker study tours, we would go up in the country and visit rural Friends churches. Those worship services were usually bilingual, with translation between Aymara and Spanish, and once in a while they were entirely in Aymara. Evangelical Friends sing a lot of hymns, and of course that makes for a cultural difference for Friends like me, for whom silence figures prominently in worship. Here again there is a cultural difference, because there are a few hymns that I object to and won’t sing, such as “Onward Christian Soldiers.” One hymn, written by a Swedish pastor, that is fairly popular among all of us is “How Great Thou Art” (“Cuán Grande Es Él” or “Cuán Grande Eres Tu” in Spanish). 

We had an interesting multilingual experience with that hymn on one of the Quaker study tours. A woman Friend from San Diego who was born in Sweden sang some of the hymn for us in Swedish. Then we North Americans sang some of it in English. Then whoever in that rural church knew Spanish sang it in Spanish. After that, the majority of the congregation sang it for us in Aymara. So we heard the hymn in four different languages.

My own private life here in Philadelphia is trilingual since my housemate and partner, Mark, is deaf. When I first got involved with him, I thought that communicating would be easy, since I could just study American Sign Language (ASL). But once I started, I discovered that ASL was way different from English, and I couldn’t master it very well. What Mark and I eventually put together is a kind of household pidgin language: half ASL signs and half spelled-out English words. There are many long English words that he is not familiar with. 

On some of my later trips to Bolivia, I have had a few interesting experiences meeting deaf Bolivians or people who work with them. The deepest discussion happened when I went out to lunch with a group of people who ran a school for disabled (or differently abled) children, including deaf children. One of the women was a hearing teacher of deaf children, and the two of us talked on and on about what we knew about “the deaf world.”


Crossing linguistic barriers I found that most of the Quakers in the so-called “developing countries” were Evangelical Friends and had a rather strict interpretation of the Bible. So although I could talk to Latin American Friends, we at FWCC also had to negotiate our way through the theological differences. 


In 2012 I went to the World Conference of Friends in Kenya, and had more multilingual experiences. I befriended a young schoolteacher, Fidele, from the Central African country of Rwanda. There are many thousands of Evangelical Friends in Rwanda, Burundi, and particularly Kenya, which is now the number one country in the world for Quakers. Rwanda and Burundi each have two different ethnic groups: the Hutu and the Tutsi. Unfortunately, in 1994 Rwanda went through a horrible genocide, where Hutu extremists tried to kill all of the Tutsi people.

In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda decided to do a cultural change and switch their European-oriented language from French to English. (Information on the Internet says they have been only partially successful.) When I met Fidele, I wanted to speak French to him, but he insisted on speaking to me only in English. Similar to Bolivia, there is a native language in Rwanda, and the European language is language number two. After a couple of days, I had to laugh when I realized: I want to speak to Fidele in my third language, but he wants to speak to me in his third language.


After traveling to a number of different countries, I got in the habit of buying books about the country I was visiting. I have a leg up in Latin America because I can buy books in Spanish and read them with no problem. In time I developed a hobby of finding a world atlas published in the country in question, and reading about the world from that point of view. At many of these big Quaker conferences, we get a free day when people can go off on an excursion to one place or another. During the World Conference, I chose to go on a bus trip that included shopping in the nearby city of Kisumu, Kenya, and Fidele came with me. I hoped to buy an atlas and a T-shirt. While we were waiting for the bus, some Cuban Friends were standing nearby, and I told them that the Friend by my side was named Fidele. We all had a laugh about that, coming from our three different countries.

In Kisumu, there were many merchants up and down the streets selling things on tables. When they saw foreigners coming along, they would want to inflate their prices. I figured that Fidele would be used to the same thing in Rwanda, and that was correct; he was a big help in my getting things at a reasonable price.

Fidele is a schoolteacher in Rwanda, and he was struggling to finish up a degree at a local university. I helped him get in touch with the educational arm of the African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams, and they and I helped him get his degree. A few years later, he moved from Rwanda to South Africa and made friends with the Quakers there. We are still in touch to this day, and have been comparing notes this year about how we are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jeff Keith

Jeff Keith is a retired dictionary editor and member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. He lives with his partner in a house in South Philadelphia, where their primary language is an ASL-English pidgin-type system.

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