Laughter

We laugh when things are funny. Right? Doesn’t everybody? Well, actually …

I was at a press conference in Ghana where one the speakers went far too long. The audience expressed its disapproval of the long speech with soft laughter when he opened a new chapter to his talk.

In another instance, a person was bringing greetings from one church to another, but it turned into a speech. A titter of laughter started running through the congregation showing disapproval with the amount of time the person was taking. The person bringing greetings even apologized when she heard the laughter.

I was in a vehicle belonging to an African and the air-conditioning was blowing on me in an uncomfortable way. I tried to change the direction of the vent, but we hit a bump and I ended up messing with the settings. The driver and owner of the vehicle thought that I had changed them on purpose and laughed lightly while looking at me disapprovingly and putting the settings back.

In Ghana and some other places in Africa, laughter sometimes means disapproval.

Language Cloud

This is a language cloud of the names of the languages spoken in Ghana. The size of each name is relative to the number of people who speak the language as their heart language, or mother tongue. Click on the image to bring up an interactive version of the cloud. Click here to download or enlarge.

Languages of Ghana - HL Colors

Scare avoided

While teaching literacy in Dallas one summer in the 1980s, we attended Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, the church of Dr. Tony Evans. We were among the few whites in the congregation. Our first Sunday there, we put our two boys, then 2 and 4, into Sunday school during the worship service. After the service we went to pick them up. A very helpful man was making sure that kids got with their parents. It was pretty obvious that the only two white kids were ours! As we took them, the man looked at me and said in a surprised voice, “Your boys fit right in!” I just said, “They’re used to it.” But I thought, “Boy, did we ever unwittingly give those Sunday School teachers a scare dropping off two white boys and then disappearing.”

One of the advantages of raising our children overseas is that they are very comfortable with many different kinds of people.

Matthew and Mark with playmates in Ouagadougou

Matthew and Mark with playmates in Ouagadougou

The Moral Tongue

I have read several times that experiments show that people are more likely to use vulgar, profane, or insulting speech when they speak in a language other than the mother tongue. This finding does not surprise me in the least. I have always been shocked and dismayed by the ease with this educated Africans, including Christians, sprinkle their speech with vulgarities and oaths in English or French. It is obvious to me that such language does not have the emotional import for them that it has for me. I have long suspected that a good part of the reason for the absence of that emotional reaction is due to the fact that English (or French) is not their mother tongue. So the research confirmed years of personal observation.

Last year, the New York Times took this issue to a whole new level when it published a fascinating article entitled “Our Moral Tongue“. The article is about moral dilemma known as the trolley problem. The trolley problem works this way.

Trolley problemYou present a person with the following scenario and ask him or her what they would do. The person is standing on a footbridge over a trolley track. The trolley is rolling out of control and will pass underneath it in a few seconds. A short distance further on it will kill five innocent people. The only way to stop it is to push a large man onto the track. The person cannot jump onto the tracks himself as he is not big enough to stop the trolley. What would the person do?

There is an ongoing debate over which action is the most moral – kill the man to save the five, or let the trolley kill the five. The purpose of this blog post is not to solve that moral dilemma. Whatever choice you would make, everyone agrees on some things. For example, the choice people make should not be related to something ethically insignificant, such as the color of the large man’s shirt, the day of the week, the weather, what you ate for breakfast, or that language you speak. What if your choice was affected by one of those?

Researchers tweak the scenario in various ways to test peoples’ sense of right and wrong. One tweak got surprising results. Researchers presented the trolley problem to 1,000 people whose language was Spanish but who were studying English or whose mother tongue was English and they were studying Spanish. A random sample of half of each group was presented the trolley problem in their mother tongue and the other half go the problem in the language they were learning. The surprising result? In their mother tongue, only 18 percent said that they would push the large man, but when presented with the problem in the other language, 44 percent said that they would push him.

Researchers concluded that the emotional repugnance associated with pushing a man to his death was stronger when dealing with the issue in the mother tongue, while the learned language had less emotional connection to our sense of morality.

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

For me, the results are not surprising, but they are illuminating. Africans wonder why African countries with a high percentage of Christians also have high levels of corruption. But their people are educated in languages other than their mother tongues (English and French mostly), and they carry out their official functions in those languages which, according to the experiment, have less connection to a sense of morality than would their mother tongue. Leading Ghanaian linguist and churchman Rev Professor Gilbert Ansre, speaking about the advantages of education in a student’s mother tongue, said:

The sense of the true, the just, the the beautiful and the holy are best inculcated in the best language of the pupil

Lelemi people buying Bibles in their languages

Lelemi people buying Bibles in their languages

Wycliffe often states that Bible translations are needed in many more of the world’s languages because the people do not fully understand other languages in which there are translations. That is probably true for many people. But might there be a more important reason – we translate the Bible into the mother tongue because that is the moral tongue what connects God and his righteousness most fully to our conscience? Perhaps we translate not just for understanding, but also, and more importantly, for the connection to Jesus through the mother/moral tongue that really allows us to become more like Him.

For me, we translate the Bible into people’s mother/moral tongues because we want Christians whose faith connects to their emotional and ethical hearts, so that they can love the Lord with all their hearts, souls and minds. We translate not just because we want the Bible understood, but because we want people to connect to it in a way that produces moral, ethical and other transformation in their lives.

It seems that science may be “proving” that our first language, which some call our mother tongue and which we call the heart language, is an issue missionaries and churches cannot ignore if they want faith to go deep.

Day-borns

In Ghana and many other parts of West Africa, every child is given a name according to the day of the week on which they are born. Here are the seven boys’ and seven girls’ names corresponding to each day of the week.

Monday boy: Kwadwo, girl: Adwoa
Tuesday boy: Kwabena, girl: Abenaa
Wednesday boy: Kwaku, girl: Akua,Akuba
Thursday boy: Yaw, girl: Yaa
Friday boy: Kofi, girl: Afua
Saturday boy: Kwame, girl: Amma
Sunday boy: Kwasi, girl: Akosua

Until I went to Africa, I did not know that I am a Kwabena. I had to look that up on the calendar on my phone, in a hurry, during a church service.

Saturday bornsAmong the Akan people of Ghana, a child is given several names, in rare cases up to 10, but 4 is not unusual. One of those names is the day of the week on which they were born. Some people might not know their birth date, and in times past they might not even be sure of the year, but everyone knows the day of the week on which they were born. We have a friend in Nigeria whose name is Friday, in his language. One of my favorite Ghanaian Christian authors shares my day name – Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu.

Churches use these groupings in various ways including raising funds for projects. I took this photo of a banner at a church in the city of Ho. It is announcing that all those born on Saturday (Saturday borns) in the church have undertaken a project to raise funds for a chapel for the church’s Sunday School. I have been in church services where the congregation was asked to sit in “day born” groups. So I went and sat with everyone else who had been born on a Tuesday.

Thurs and Fri offering basketsSpecial offerings can be the occasion for competition between “day borns”. It happened to me just a few weeks ago. The ushers set up offering baskets at the front of the church, each labeled with a day of the week. Everyone danced to the front in vibrant worship and put their offering in the basked corresponding to the day of the week on which they were born. The ushers then busied themselves counting the amount in each basket. Later in the service, the results were announced.

The Wednesday-borns, the Kwakus and Akuas, had given the most followed by the Friday-borns, then Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. The Monday-borns gave the least – about 1/5th of that the Wednesday-borns gave.

You can find the day of the week you were born on here: http://www.onlineconversion.com/dayborn.htm

Mesrop Mashtots

Painting of Mesrop Mashtots with his alphabet

Painting of Mesrop Mashtots with his alphabet

Every year, Armenian Christians celebrate Mesrop Mashtots who passed away on this day (February 17) in the year 440. He was an Armenian theologian, linguist and hymnologist, best known inventing the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD.

He was born to a noble family and had a classical education, but left his privileged position to preach the Gospel in Armenia. He had great difficulty establishing people in faith because Syriac was the only language used in church services and few Armenians understood it. Mesrop wanted to minister in Armenian, the language of the people. There was a problem; the Armenian language did not have an alphabet. It has never been written.

Mesrop enlisted the support of the King for this endeavor to create an alphabet for Armenian. As soon as he finished the alphabet others translated the Bible into Armenian using the new alphabet. He then started schools in Armenian to drive learning down to everyone.

Armenian alphabet carved in stone

Armenian alphabet carved in stone

The very first sentence written in the new Armenian alphabet was the first verse of the Book of Proverbs: “To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding.” Even today, Armenians consider Mesrop’s creation of the Armenian alphabet one of the most important events in their history. Not only did it enable the translation of the Bible, it also caused an explosion of writing in Armenian. Literature abounded.

Such was the religious, social and cultural impact that there is hardly a town in Armenia which does not have a street named after Mesrop.

Statue of Mesrop Mashtots

Statue of Mesrop Mashtots

It is odd to think about Europeans as illiterate peasants speaking languages without writing – people needing to climb the tall hill of learning another language to get education or have access to the Bible. But it was really like that. In that context, which is the same as that or most bibleless peoples today, Mesrop did not see developing an alphabet as an academic exercise. Rather he saw it as fundamental to anchoring Armenians in the faith and to having an informed society. It is this same motivation that even today keeps people developing alphabets for unwritten languages, organizing literacy and translating the Bible.

Driving information, and the ability to store and process information, down to the grassroots is not a paternalistic endeavor where the missionary seeks to “civilize” local people. Rather, it is a way to give people the tools that enable them to make their own decisions and promote the changes they want. It is a missionary method that believes that the through the Bible the Holy Spirit will guide new converts to make the right choices. It is quite different from an approach where the Christians at the top expect people at the grassroots to learn the language of those at the top to get access to the Bible. Or one where the VIPs tell people at the grassroots what they should believe and do.

This table shows the codes for using the Armenian alphabet on computers. In a few short clicks I put the Armenian keyboard on my computer and typed this: աբգդէֆքհիճկլմնոպխրստըվւցեզ. Mesrop would be pleased.

Table showing how the Armenian alphabet is encoded on computers

Table showing how the Armenian alphabet is encoded on computers

Respect

When he was about 4 or 5, our son Matthew was at our neighbors house in Ouagadougou – a wonderful Burkina Faso family who befriended us. They had an outhouse and indoor plumbing. He needed to use the bathroom, and he chose the outhouse. But he opened the door to find the man of the house inside. He quickly closed the door and went back to play and wait.

When the man came out, he scolded Matthew for opening the door without knocking. Matthew followed our careful instructions about what to do when an adult talks to him –stand there, look the adult in the face and listen. The man was furious with his behavior and complained.

In Burkina Faso, we had often seen children running from parents reprimanding them. We had taught our children “better”. And that was the problem.

When the lady of the house brought Matthew’s behavior to our attention, we learned something – that when a child runs from an adult, that child is showing respect; but when a child stands there, looks the adult in face and takes it, that child is defying the adult. Matthew’s behavior, which we had carefully taught him, was perceived as defiant and disrespectful.

Matthew with Morelle and Susanne, the lady mentioned in the story

Matthew with Morelle and Susanne, the lady mentioned in the story

As I have noted before, we tend to think of culture as the stuff you can see – the food, the houses. But culture defines behavior. The same action that is respectful in one culture can be disrespectful in another. Respect and disrespect are universal – every culture has them. But what actions and words show them is anything but universal. The greatest commandments – that we love the Lord our God and our neighbor – are universal, the things we do to show that love are culturally determined. Being a Christian in another culture means loving and respecting people on their terms, not on mine.

PS: We managed to smooth the waters with our neighbors, in fact, we are great friends to this day.

Why Cyrillic?

Have you ever wondered why the alphabet for Russian is not called Russian, but rather Cyrillic? Well, that is because it is named after a missionary name Cyril who died on February 14 in the year 869.

Cyril and Methodius

Cyril and Methodius

In 862 Cyril and his brother Methodius moved from Rome to Moravia to evangelize. They were not the first missionaries to Moravia. But, they are the most remembered because they did things differently. They wanted worship and preaching in the language of the people, instead of Latin. Some in the church opposed that. They wanted everyone to learn and use Latin because that was the language of unity, education and progress.

But Cyril and his brother were not deterred, but they did run into a problem – the language had never been written. Cyril set out to produce an alphabet that suited the language. He did not finish, but those working with him did. That alphabet fit the language really well. In fact, it fit other Slavic languages as well. It was later modified to become the Cyrillic script which is still used in many Slavic languages, including Russian.

Places using Cyrillic Script

Places using Cyrillic Script

Eventually the objections to the use of the local language were overcome and the liturgy Cyril and Methodius developed was formally authorized for use in the churches. Cyril died in Rome on February 4, 869, but he and his brother are still celebrated every year on May 11 in Bulgaria. That celebration includes spelling bees.

Cyril was one of the first in what has become an important, if unnoticed, contribution of missionaries. Did you know that missionaries developed the alphabets of most of the languages in the world? But Cyrillic might be the only one named after a missionary. Writing is probably the most foundational element of learning and transformation, and Christians have promoted it for all languages, even in places where others have opposed it. The benefits are so pervasive that it seems unjust to call the development of an alphabet a “by-product” of Bible translation. Let’s not forget that Cyril’s alphabet documented the discoveries and engineering of a successful  space program.

Cyrillic alphabet

Cyrillic alphabet

It is ironic that the Cyrillic Script, having been developed by a missionary was then used as a tool for an atheist political philosophy, Soviet communism. But that did not last, of course, and Bibles printed using the Cyril’s alphabet now flow freely throughout Russia and other Slavic countries.

About 70% of the worlds living languages have alphabets, most developed by missionaries working in the tradition of Cyril. But there are still about 1900 languages without an alphabet. It looks like people motivated by Christian faith will develop alphabets for those in the coming two or three decades. Time is running out for anyone with Cyril’s holy ambition.

Sustainability and Language

This week, I continue with observations about the Northern Outreach Program. If you missed the introduction, you can read it here.

At least two Ghanaians and an Australian have done research into the impact of translations of the Bible into the languages of northern Ghana. One Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa wrote a doctoral thesis on the topic and another, Dr. Thomas Atta Akosah, produced several papers.

Rural church

Rural church

To understand the results of their research, we need to understand the context they studied. The peoples of northern Ghana have low levels of education. Those who do receive an education, then leave the area to find work. So rural churches in northern Ghana often have few members who have finished high school or even primary school. Where there is no translation in their language and no literacy, discipling local believers into leadership roles is a long task. Many do not know how to read. Even if they learn to read, the Bible is only in a language they do not know. Everything depends on a pastor as few others can lead a Bible study or teach a Sunday School class. The most foundational tool for Christian growth, the Bible, is inaccessible to most believers. Their context is full of information about their traditional beliefs, but it is meager in information about their new, Christian faith.

Dr. Sule-Saa research reveals that where there are translations of the Bible in the language, churches sustain themselves and even expand of their own initiative, but other churches where there is no translation in the language of the people need constant help from outside and even then they might stagnate. I have noted this result in other blog posts.

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Dr. Atta Akosah’s research explains one of the reasons why this is the case. He shows that the translation of the Bible in the heart language (mother tongue) results in the emergence of effective and widely respected local church leadership; something that does not happen where there is no translation. When local people start reading the Bible in their language, some of them emerge as leaders. Applying their literacy skills and using the Bible as their textbook, they begin answering key questions – questions they ask themselves and questions being asked in their communities. They become known as sources of good advice and help.

Learning to read

Learning to read

In one area, an illiterate young man came to a Bible translator, asking to learn to read his language. So the translator taught him. He used his skill to read the Bible in his language. He went on to learn English, and become a pastor. He stayed in his home area where he started a church where he preaches in the his language. The church is composed almost entirely of converts from another world religion. He has a reputation in the community for answering the questions people have, so much so that other local pastors and even the leaders in other religions call him “the teacher”. People of all faiths come to him for answers. He even has a Bible question and answer program on a local FM radio station in his language.

The rise of empowered lay leadership also happened in the Northern Outreach Program. The emergence of this new level of lay leadership, reminds me of Jesus disciples who were called “uneducated, common men“. It is certainly a very good sign for sustaining the relatively new churches stated among the peoples of northern Ghana whether in their home areas or in the cities.

Man reading the Gospel of Mark in Krakye

Man reading the Gospel of Mark in Krakye

When I attended the celebration of 25 years of the Northern Outreach Program, I found a large hall full of representatives of churches established by the program, few educated, all with their Bibles in their languages.. When we spoke to them about the rise of local, respected lay leadership through literacy and the Scriptures in the heart language, we got a chorus of verbal affirmation, as we did when we told our observations of other results. We were not telling them anything new, just affirming what they were experiencing.

One of the reasons we are involved in Bible translation is the sustained results it achieves. That is why the byline for this blog contains the words “lasting impact.”

You did not choose me. I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last. (John 15:16)

Coverdale and transformation

Coverdale Bible

Coverdale Bible

Today in 1569, Myles Coverdale died. His translation of the Bible into English was the first complete Bible in English to be printed thanks to Gutenberg’s invention. Previous translations were hand copied.

While Coverdale was known as a translator, translation was his method, not his goal. Like many reformers of the time, he wanted wholesale changes in the church, in politics and in society. It was an era were church services and Bibles were in Latin, the language of education and the elite. Politics was controlled by a few. Coverdale wanted to break down the language barrier and give the Bible and all sorts of information to ordinary people in their ordinary language, English. When that happened, he believed that change would come from the grassroots.

It took decades to see the beginning of the changes he wanted, and longer to see their full conclusion. The flight of believers to the New World is a testament that the grassroots changes were underway and that there was opposition to them from above.

One Ghanaian researcher has noted that through Bible translation, biblical interpretation ceases to be the property of professional theologians. People begin to question prevailing teachings and practices in the light of the mother-tongue Scriptures. That is exactly what Coverdale wanted for England and what eventually happened. Through translation, people cease to be pawns in their religious and political systems.

Girls reading Bibles in their languages

Girls reading their Bibles

In the end, Bible translation is not about translating the Bible. It is about creating an environment ripe for transformation – one rich in the information people need to decide for themselves, one where the Holy Spirit illuminates them individually and empowers them to produce changes. Evaluations have shown that where Bible translation and literacy has been carried out in Ghana, people take more individual initiative and start movements to undermine harmful traditional practices. In addition, church leaders have noted the emergence of a new level of local church leadership which is solidly grounded in the communities and in the cultures, but also solidly grounded in the Bible. The changes are slow, as some measure speed, but they tend to be permanent.

Woman seeing the new Bible presented

Woman seeing the new Bible presented

At the dedication of the Bible in Lelemi (Buem), as the new translation was being read. Dayle heard someone behind her exclaiming with deep emotion,

“Ooooooooooh, so sweet. (pause) So sweet!”

One speaker, Dr. Elias Kwaku Asiama, a lecturer at the University of Ghana, said:

The launch of the Buem Bible is a turning point in the history of the Buem people.

When translation is over, the sweet revolution begins! That’s why I’m in Bible translation.