Counting languages

Word cloud of the languages of Ghana

Most people are surprised to learn that there are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. Over 800 of those are dying and another 1500 are in danger of dying in a generation. Even assuming that all those will die within a generation, that will still leave upwards of 4,700 languages spoken in this world.

The Ethnologue has a fascinating page showing where the languages are an giving other facts about them. It features a fun, interactive map where each language is represented by a dot at its geographic center. There are clusters of dots into which you can zoom to see the details. There are other facts about languages as well, like a comparison of the number of languages to the number of people who speak them, and which countries have the most languages.

Did you know that it was only in the early 1990s that the number of languages in the world and their location was known with any accuracy and that it was Bible translators who made the effort to collect the information, compile it and make it public?

That is the case in Ghana too. A couple years ago, I worked with a small group of Ghanaians to produce a definitive list of Ghanaian languages. We use it to mobilize Ghanaian churches to get involved in translation. It worked because many were unaware of some of the languages and that some did not have a translation.

Optimism preferred

Decades ago, when we were expecting our oldest, I went to my favorite furniture maker in Ouagadougou and asked him if he knew how to make a rocking chair. He answered “no problem”. But when I went to pick up the chair, it was very clear that there was a big problem – the chair wouldn’t stay upright, toppling over on its back whenever I stood it up. I designed new rockers and had the furniture maker make them to my design. That rocking chair served us for more than a decade until we sold it when we moved.

Many of my colleagues and other Westerners living in Africa have been frustrated by the promises they received from Africans who told them “No problem” but there was a problem. It appears to them that Africans will say anything to get you to do business with them. A number see this as inherently dishonest.

While “no problem” optimism seems to be everywhere, it is not at all universal. I have many African friends and people I do business with who tell me exactly how it will be even if they know that is not what I want to hear. There are also some who say “no problem” intending to deceive.

But for many Africans who say “no problem”, I think that there is a very different explanation. It seems to me that rather than dishonesty or incompetence we are dealing with optimism. I don’t mean wishful thinking. Nor do I mean some conscious attempt to think in “positive” ways.

Rather, I believe that those saying “no problem” are making promises in which they themselves are fully confident. They are sure that they can deliver, even though the results later show that their self-confidence was not warranted. By Western standards, they are recklessly overconfident but I don’t think that they are intentionally dishonest. They have a can-do optimism.

Some of my readers might think that I am just wanting to put the most positive light on what I see because I love Africa. I don’t think so and I have a powerful reason. My interpretation that we are dealing with optimism fits with all kinds of other behaviors including but certainly not limited to:

  • Avoiding bad news (For example, if someone asks about an person who is ill, the answer is always that they are better, whatever their actual condition. In fact, in one place we worked if you said that their condition had deteriorated, that mean that the person died. So you couldn’t say that.)
  • Avoiding negatives (For example talking about HIV and AIDS was difficult because it was not culturally appropriate to say that someone had an incurable illness.)
  • Avoiding the idea of impossible (For example, in many places we have worked, something that was impossible was referred to as merely difficult.)

In all these ways and more, the Africans I know show that they prefer optimistic, can-do assessments. So, rather than engage in complaining or blame, it works better for me to just translate their sureness into my frame of reference by toning it down several steps. I can avoid frustration by realizing that the person I am dealing with actually believes he can and will do what he says. Instead of trying to judge his honesty, I focus on competence. This makes life a lot less stressful and it’s easier on relationships.

Hakuna matata.

Photo: John Vandermeer

Is Development Human?

Once when we lived in Burkina Faso, I made a trip to a rural area. After my arrival, I was told that another westerner had visited earlier that day. He was evaluating some development projects in several villages. If I remember correctly they were water projects, wells perhaps. Anyway, he had left his air-conditioned room in a nearby city with the idea of quickly stopping at each village and being back in his comfortable room the same evening. But the villagers where the projects were located had been other ideas. To express their joy and appreciation, they had prepared food and cultural dances. The man knew that if he stayed to eat and celebrate with the people at each village he could not visit all the villages in one day. So, at each village, he excused himself from the celebrations prepared for him and continued to his next stop. The villagers were devastated.

In Ghana a few years ago, I was in a meeting where a Ghanaian man was talking about the development project he had been hired to lead. It had been designed by a university in the US to improve the soil in northern Ghana, a region of chronic food shortages, so that crop yields would increase. It sounded really helpful. But he said that after being hired he read the entire description of the project – its goals and methods with all the technical details. He found that it contained no component to involve the farmers it was designed to benefit. Their knowledge was not solicited, nor was their feedback on the findings and proposals the project would make. The project was all bout the soil and not at all about the farmers. The Ghanaian man hired to lead the project said that he immediately wrote the farmers into the proposal and got the revision approved.

These experiences and others cause me to ask questions – is it legitimate to “help” people in a way that excludes them from celebrating the help; or from giving their opinion or feedback? Would we want someone to “help” us while they remained oblivious to the impact (good or bad) their “help” really had? Doesn’t the Golden Rule apply? In addition to it being right and good to involve those we try to help, it is also often more effective. A study in the US found that church programs are more effective in reducing homelessness because those involved get to know the homeless personally. Research into the impact of Bible translation has found that it is greater where local people have greater input into decisions about the translation.

Also, if we do help a group of people, shouldn’t we plan to share their joy and recognize their appreciation? If they are Christians, shouldn’t we praise God and celebrate his goodness together? If we send a person to evaluate the help, shouldn’t we plan that they have the time and spend the time sharing the joy (or other reactions) of the people being helped?

Ladies reading a new translation to see if it communicates

Bible translation, and other attempts to make the world better, should never let things or techniques crowd out the people, unfortunately it is not uncommon that they do.