Small Languages: Part 2

I’m in the middle of a series of blogs on why we bother translating the Bible into smaller languages. This is an important question because the overwhelming majority of languages still without a translation of the Bible are spoken by 10,000 people or less and some are spoken by less than 1,000. In Ghana, there are 18 languages with fewer than 10,000 speakers each. The languages without translations in Ghana are mostly smaller languages. So this is a very relevant question.

If 10,000 is too few to translate, then is 50,000, or 100,000 enough? Perhaps one million should be the limit. To answer this question we need to back up and ask why we translate at all. That leads us to ask what God thinks of the fact that there are many languages in the world. Is that part of his plan? Are they a curse? Should we be trying to get rid of them? What place, if any, do these languages have in the plan of God?

Tower of BabelThese questions lead us inevitably to Genesis chapter 11 where we have the story of the Tower of Babel.

At first everyone spoke the same language, but after some of them moved from the east and settled in Babylonia, they said:

Let’s build a city with a tower that reaches to the sky! We’ll use hard bricks and tar instead of stone and mortar. We’ll become famous, and we won’t be scattered all over the world.

But when the Lord came down to look at the city and the tower, he said:

These people are working together because they all speak the same language. This is just the beginning. Soon they will be able to do anything they want. Come on! Let’s go down and confuse them by making them speak different languages—then they won’t be able to understand each other.

So the people had to stop building the city, because the Lord confused their language and scattered them all over the earth. That’s how the city of Babel got its name.
(Genesis 11:1-9 CEV)

Some read this story and come away with the idea that the multiplicity of languages is a curse. And if the diversity of languages is a curse, then maybe we should be trying to get rid of languages and return to all speaking the same language. I believe that thinking springs from a misunderstanding of God’s judgment. Jonathan Martin, author and pastor, wrote:

I do not believe God’s judgment is about retribution, but a manifestation of hard-edged mercy. Judgment is an illumination of the ugliness that lurks within us, bringing to the surface all that we would otherwise bury so that it might be acknowledged, named, repented of, and ultimately healed.

Even if we understand the Tower of Babel as judgment, that does not mean that it is punishment or a curse. Our God is all about redemption, about bringing good out of bad. If people are drifting away from God, he does not punish them to make them suffer for it. No, he does things designed to draw them back. Martin further writes:

sometimes mercy must take on a violent, apocalyptic form

This understanding of God’s judgment shows us a better way to understand the Tower of Babel – not as a curse but as redemption. Dividing mankind into pieces by causing us to speak many different languages is not punishment, but rather a way to help us, to bless us. But how on earth might the multiplicity of languages be a blessing? The Apostle Paul answers that question Acts 17:34 where he is addressing a gathering in the city of Athens. He told them (emphasis is mine):

“From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 34-26-27 NLT)

Remember that when Paul uses the word “nations” he does not mean countries but rather peoples. So God’s purpose in having us live as different peoples with different languages is not to thwart our efforts, but rather so that all peoples would “seek after God.”

The experience of missionaries and of churches shows over and over again that local languages and cultures are wonderful vehicles for faith and redemption. Where they have been seen as a problem – as in some mission efforts to native North Americans – missions has often had little result. Where the church has tried to promote a common language, as was the case for Latin in Europe, the result has been weak and distorted belief. Paul’s teaching that we are divided into different peoples and languages so that we would seek God works itself out in evangelism and missions every day and year after year. God s purpose, that the division of people into many peoples and languages would help them find him, is more than a theoretical bit of theology. It works in practice, on the ground, in the real world.

Why do we translate into smaller languages? Because it works. It works because God made those languages so that the people who speak them could find him through them. Can a language be too small for that to be a good thing? 

Small languages: Part 1

The August 9th is the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. So I’m going to post some blogs about small languages.

Sometimes, people ask me how big a language has to be for us to translate the Bible into it. You may be surprised at my response – how many people speak a language is not an important criteria for whether we translate into it. Don’t get me wrong, it is a valid criteria, just not a very important one.

Language Vitality in Africa

That is because other criteria are more useful, especially the criteria of language vitality. Language vitality asks the question whether the language is being passed to the next generation, in other words whether there are signs that it is dying. To understand this, let’s imagine a situation that is and has been quite common in the USA. Say Swedish immigrants, a married couple, arrived in Minnesota in the early 1900s. In their home, they speak Swedish, but they learn English through contact with their neighbors and others in the community. When they have children, they continue to speak Swedish in their home, but the children quickly learn English through their friends and at school. In fact, the children speak English better than their parents. As the children graduate from high school and move out of the home they speak Swedish less and less, perhaps only when they visit home. Then the children get married. One or two may marry the children of other Swedish immigrants in the community, but others have spouses who do not speak Swedish. In any case, the couples speak English together, not Swedish. So when they have children, they speak to them in English. So the grandchildren of the immigrants no longer speak their language.

This imaginary story shows a typical case of the interruption of transmission of a language from one generation to the next. This process typically takes three generations. While my imaginary story concerns one migrant family, the same thing can happen to a whole community without migration being a factor. The same process can be found in communities of Native Americans where one generation speaks the language at home, the next learns the language at home but has as much or more contact with English and starts using English as its preferred language, then the next generation does not learn the language from those parents. Or they may learn only very limited parts of the language.

Language Vitality in North and South America

So, a crucial criteria for translating the Bible into a language is the language’s vitality – whether the language is being transmitted to the next generation. A simple survey can determine if the language is being passed to children in the home. When we know that, we can project the number of people who will speak it in 30, 50 or 70 years. If that projected number is increasing because of population growth and children learning the language in the home, then a translation might be warranted even if a smaller number of people speak it today. On the other hand, a language with more speakers but low vitality and hence a projection of decreasing numbers of speakers, might not get a translation. Vitality is more important than number.

While I was in Côte d’Ivoire, language surveys were being done to assess language vitality and other relevant factors, so that resources for translation can be allocated wisely. While some languages in Côte d’Ivoire have low vitality, most of them them are alive, well and growing.

All bad, all good, or

There are three approaches that missionaries take to traditional religion:

  • It’s all wrong
  • It’s all good
  • There’s truth in failure

Many missionaries to Africa took the first approach. Mission documents show the widespread belief that African traditional religion was all wrong. Some held that the religious practices came from Satan himself. Some even condemned all African customs – religious or not.

The second – that it’s all good – is relatively new. It’s part of total cultural relativity. I remember a group of French academics warning us Bible translators against telling people to destroy their idols. For them, idols were good and should be retained. The people doing wrong were missionaries who taught otherwise.

The third approach – that there’s light in the darkness – says that Jesus Christ is the only way, truth and life; that no one gets to God except by him. So all other religions fail in their primary purpose. People following them may sincerely try, but their religion cannot do what religion is supposed to do. Nevertheless God puts slivers of truth in their failed religious beliefs which validate the Gospel when it comes. Don Richardson’s books The Peace Child and Eternity in their Hearts present dramatic cases of this approach.

Depending on the place, it has been decades or even centuries since missionaries came with their approach that African traditional religion was all wrong. That has given plenty of time for African pastors and theologians to evaluate the missionaries’ efforts. First, they almost always commend the selfless work of missionaries. But they also go on to propose ways it could have been better. I just read an article showing some of the mistakes missionaries made in Ghana including how they misunderstood traditional religion. It shows the inaccuracy of the it’s-all-wrong approach; but more importantly, it shows how that approach limited Gospel impact and missionary effectiveness. For the author, it hindered dealing effectively with the issue of ancestors and other spiritual powers (the Abosom).

That mirrors a book a read by an African church leader in which he states that the missionaries’ wholesale attribution of traditional religious practices to Satan actually strengthened witchcraft and sorcery, making it more difficult for the church to deal with and leading to a situation today where some church members continue to dabble in it and many more fear it.

One would think that the it’s-all-wrong approach would be the safest. It does feel like an uncompromising stand for the truth. In its effects, however, it can be counterproductive. Besides, the Apostle Paul took the truth-in-failure approach in dealing with idolaters in Athens, (Acts 17:16-31) taking time to study their different idols. He obviously thought that it was good to learn about their religion even though idolatry is condemned by the first two of the Ten Commandments and the idolatry of Athens troubled him greatly. Then he made the claim that one of their forgotten deities is the true and living God. Today, many Africans Christians take the truth-in-failure model in dealing with their traditional religion. One leading theological seminary in Ghana has even taken as its motto a traditional Akan sayiing: Nsem Nyinaa Ne Nyame (God is the primary reality in all things).

If you have friends or acquaintances who follow another religion, I suggest you try the truth-in-failure approach in witnessing to them. We promote Bible translation that takes seriously the culture and language of the people; seeking the expressions and word-images that are the slivers of truth God has placed there so that people can understand and believe.

The most dangerous animal

This week is national mosquito control week in the US. Worldwide, controlling mosquitoes is a big deal because they are, in fact, the world’s deadliest animal. Every 40 seconds, a child dies of malaria transmitted by a mosquito. Dayle and I have had colleagues whose children died of malaria. Here in Ghana, our Ghanaian colleagues in Bible translation regularly take sick days because of malaria or take time off work to go get tested. Some of my African friends involved in Bible translation spend days every year in hospitals with children, spouses or other family members who are very ill with the disease.

In a 2011 survey, 72% of companies in sub-Saharan Africa reported a negative malaria impact, with 39% saying the negative impact was serious. Malaria not only kills, it reduces productivity. Translators’ work suffers when they are extra tired because malaria is depleting their strength but not yet making them sick. Malaria affects the education of their children.

One survey found some poor households spend as much as 25% of their income on malaria treatment. The link between malaria and poverty is widely recognized with malaria being the cause and poverty the result, whereas for many other diseases poverty is the cause and the diseases are the result. T. H. Weller, a Nobel Laureate in Medicine in 1958, wrote:

It has long been recognized that a malarious community is an impoverished community.

In Sri Lanka, an outbreak of dengue fever, another mosquito-born disease, infected tens of thousands and killed hundreds. Dengue is a debilitating illness. When I contracted it, I was not able to work for two months.

When you pray for national translators and others, pray for protection against malaria and other mosquito-born illnesses.

Vowel symmetry

This is a cross-section of the human articulatory apparatus. It consists of your mouth, nasal cavity and parts of your throat. All sounds in human languages are made by manipulating this apparatus in specific ways. They have all be studied in detail by linguistics and phoneticians. I learned studying linguistics that there is amazing symmetry in the sounds in human language. The symmetry is striking when we look at the place in the mouth where vowels are produced. Different vowels are produced by varying the position of the tongue in two principle ways – the height of the tongue and how far forward or back it goes. If we make a chart using those two axes and then we plot the principal vowels we find in human language on that chart, we get a V.

Not only do we get a V, it is almost always symmetrically filled. That is, if the language has i (the ee sound) it will have a u – the sound of oo in boot. If it has only five vowels, they can’t be just any five; they have to fill the V in a regular way. So Spanish has i, e, a, o and u, making a perfectly balanced V. If I am studying a previously unwritten and unstudied language and I find the sound ɛ (like the e in get), then I know that I have too look for ɔ (like the ough in sought) because if there is a vowel on the front of the V in the language, it will have its corresponding vowel in the back of the V at the same height and vice versa. There are similar symmetries with consonants. This makes the job of a Bible translator working on an unstudied language a lot easier because we know in advance that the language will not contain just any random selection of sounds.

There are explanations for this symmetry that don’t involve God and there is much more to vowels than I have presented here. Nevertheless, I find it a big leap of faith to conclude that human language with such symmetry was created solely by a long accumulation of random events.

The culture gear

A while back, I read an article in a Western newspaper saying that those combating FGM have now discovered that laws alone are not enough; cultural beliefs must also be addressed. I had to laugh because it has been obvious from the beginning that the practice would not go away without addressing cultural beliefs. I remember a highly educated man in Burkina Faso telling me that FGM would never be eradicated among his people because all the women believe that it is necessary for sex and procreation. It may seem incredible to many of you, but FGM continues in part because some women want it. In fact, four married women in Kenya were arrested for voluntarily undergoing the procedure which had been “denied” them in their youth. Women who do not have the procedure may be considered unmarriageable whereas marriage may be a woman’s best chance for economic security and social stability.

Yet despite the obvious and entrenched role of cultural beliefs, those combating FGM have mostly chosen to promote a legal approach. That has not worked very well. A number of countries including Nigeria have banned FGM. Even with enforcement of the laws the practice continues because it is driven by powerful cultural and social forces. The Guardian newspaper ran an article entitled “Criminalization will not stop FGM in east Africa“. It cites a study by Oxford University that found that criminalization has not come close to eradicating FGM, that it leads to dangerous underground procedures, and concludes that social norms need to change. A World Vision study found that as FGM decreases, girls in Somalia are more at risk of being married young and leaving school. Cultural beliefs are driving FGM and the law cannot change that.

Dr. Sule-Saa

Moves to eradicate FGM hold a lesson for Christians that is bigger than FGM – there is a force in human societies that is much more powerful than the law. That is the culture and its embedded beliefs. Compliance with laws is very difficult where the laws run contrary to culture. But these facts hold hope for Christians. Change the culture and either the laws will change to follow or the laws will become unnecessary. Which is better, continually enforcing laws that are being undermined by cultural beliefs, or changing the beliefs and the culture so that the laws are easily enforced and not needed very often? Real, genuine, pervasive and lasting changes come from changing the culture. The Apostle Paul said that announcing the Gospel is the “power of God“. The culture can be changed and the Bible’s message is a powerful force for changing it starting with beliefs and moving on to behaviors. Dr. Sule-Saa who has studied the impact of Bible translations in Ghana says that Bible has become the framework through which people understand the world. That is the foundation of a profound change in the culture. Already, it has reduced conflict among many other benefits.

I don’t want to change the world. I want to leave behind the start of change in various cultures what will keep on changing things long after I leave.

Beyond aid

His excellency the President of Ghana

Ghana elected a new president a few months back – Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo. He has announced a new agenda for the government – Ghana Beyond Aid. Here’s what he said to business leaders in Ghana on March 20 of this year:

“We want to build a Ghana beyond aid; a Ghana which looks to the use of its own resources. We want to build an economy that is not dependent on charity and handouts, but an economy that will look at the proper management of its resources as the way to engineer social and economic growth in our country.”

Many African countries rely heavily on international aid. Right now, I have colleagues helping with a program to increase the quality of primary school education in Ghana financed by USAID.  Kenya just opened a new, 3.6 billion dollar railway 90% funded by China. The link between the words development and aid is so strong in Africa that that many Africans assume that all programs of economic, industrial or other development are funded by some other country. Front page or leading newspaper articles in Ghana newspapers regularly report that this or that country is granting Ghana a large sum of money for something. I have sometimes wondered if some Africans believe that their continent can only progress by the efforts and inputs of others.  So the idea that Ghana will get to a point where it will not depend on outside funding for its own development can rightly be called “a big idea.”

The president’s Ghana-beyond-aid mentality comes at a time when Ghanaian Christians had already been discussing the same thing for Bible translation. On the one hand, they are deeply grateful for the missionaries who left their homes and suffered deprivations to translate the Bible into their languages and for the Western missions who continue to send people and money. On the other hand, they believe that the time has come for Ghanaian Christians to supply the funds needed to translate the Bible into the languages of Ghana. The are a bit ashamed when they learn that a very small percentage of the funds for translation are coming from Ghana. This idea had been spreading among church leaders, Christian business people and others well before the President announced his Ghana Beyond Aid agenda. It might be the first time politics has imitated missions.

Piggybacking on the president’s phraseology, Christians are now talking about Bible Translation Beyond Aid, a phrase that captures the idea they already had; and which expresses their deepest motivations for both their Lord and their country. It looks like the President has, inadvertently, given a big  boost to the movement to have translation in Ghana funded from within Ghana. However inadvertent from a human standpoint, I believe that I see God’s hand in this turn of events.

Go north

When I go to missions events in Ghana, the mission speakers call for missionaries to “go north.”

The mission events are held in the South of Ghana because that is where the churches are. The southern half of Ghana is very different from the northern half. The south has many churches and Christians, the north has few. The south is much more prosperous; a much higher percentage of its people are educated; it has better health care, roads and schools. In addition, the north has had some highly-publicized ethnic conflicts, making some people from the south fearful of going there.

Because the northern areas are poorer and lack the roads, schools and other infrastructure of the southern areas, sending someone to the north is seen as a punishment. Indeed, it has been used that way. A government primary school teacher who does something wrong might be transferred to a school in the north as punishment. I read in a news paper article that a good percentage of government doctors assigned to clinics in the north never show up to take up their positions. I interviewed a job applicant in Ghana who said that in the past she had been offered a job in the north and was so afraid and unsure that she went to look without even packing a suitcase. But she liked it and stayed. Her family had to ship her things to her. “The north” has an undeserved aura of remote desolation.

West Africa

When we factor in the recent attacks in the countries just north of Ghana’s border, and the ongoing skirmishes in parts of Mali (a country north of Ghana), we add hostility and danger to the north’s aura. But “the north” is also a place where there are not that many churches or Christians. If we go far enough north we reach countries on the southern banks of the Mediterranean where Christians and churches are very far and few between. North is also where there are still languages without a translation of the Bible.

As in many cases for Christians in other places, Ghanaian Christians face an challenging missions call because going to where the Good News is scarce also means going to places less advantaged, less comfortable, less inviting and sometimes less safe than the places Christians already are.

Operation Cover the Land

The organization I work for in Ghana has adopted something they call Operation Cover the Land. The name is loosely based on Habakkuk 2:14

For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14)

The “earth” in this case means the land of Ghana. Covering it means making sure that all the languages of Ghana have the Bible.

After all, it is difficult to imagine how a place can be filled with true knowledge of God’s glory without people having access to book that covers that topic in depth – the Bible.

Operation Cover the Land asks Ghanaian Christians to imagine what it would be like to be part of fulfilling Habakkuk’s 2,600-year-old prophesy and, even more, seeing that happen soon. And it could be very soon indeed because Operation Cover the Land envisages having translations ongoing in all the languages of Ghana without the Bible by 2020. After that, the scope  will increase to include all of Africa with Ghana providing resources for Bible translation across Africa. It is very ambitious, but then so is Habakkuk’s prophesy.

Outsider churches

I used to think that the meaning of “missions” was clear. I have learned that different people mean different things – very different things. Some months back, I asked someone who teaches missions in several Bible schools and a seminary in Africa, what new students thought of missions when they started the course. The answer did not surprise me even though it dismayed me. Those from one particular denomination often think that missions means going to a place where there is no church of that denomination but to which people who grew up in that denomination have moved, and starting a church of that denomination by gathering them together.

imageLet’s back up a bit. Some churches have been limited to some parts of some countries. The Southern Baptist Convention is a good example in the USA. The same thing happens in Africa, but there it causes something else. Africa has at least 1,800 languages and ethnic groups. So if a church is found only in one part of a country, it will necessarily be associated with the ethnic group(s) in that part of the country.

Let’s say that church CH has become associated with ethnic group EG because that church was started by CH missionaries in the EG area. It has church services in the EG’s language and its pastors necessarily come from EG. Now lets say that some people who are members of church CH and who are also part of the EG move out of the area. Perhaps they are government officials or teachers and they are assigned to another part of the country. Or maybe they move to another part of the country because of economic opportunities. Anyway several move to the same town where there are no Christians and no church. So, they ask church CH to send a pastor. The church does, and of course the pastor is from the EG. He unites the displaced members of EG into a CH church with services in the EG language.

This new congregation has been established by outsiders to resemble the churches in the place the outsiders came from. Services are conducted in the language of the outsiders. The church and its members have very little connection with local people. This kind of church has very little hope of bringing Christ to the community around it. It is quite good, on the other hand, at giving people from EG living far from family and friends a taste of home every Sunday.

exclusiveNaturally, this new congregation becomes known in the community as something for people from another ethnic group. After all, only people from ethnic group EG are members and the services are conducted in their language. If this situation is repeated in several towns in one part of the country, and no churches are established that reach out to local people or use the local language, local people will eventually conclude that church and therefore Christianity are not for them.

Once that happens, it is very hard to reverse. The people have been inoculated against Christianity by a church that effectively excludes them. This the challenge of some places in Ghana. By translating the Bible into the language and working with national church offices wanting to plant churches that are part of the community, we are starting to see a breakdown in the misconception that Christianity is only for others.