Reading is not normal

Speaking is normal. In fact, it is so normal that it is automatic. If you take young children before they speak and separate them from adults they will invent their own language. It is well known that identical twins often invent their own language.

Speaking a language is so typically human that one never finds groups of humans without language. They’ll invent one, if necessary. That’s why we have pidgins and creoles.

Ghanaian woman reading the Bible in her language

But reading is not normal. Put a bunch of children together without a teacher and they won’t learn to read all by themselves. In fact, some human societies existed for thousands of years without inventing reading and writing. They are not less human for that. There is nothing innately human about reading and writing. No matter how long we have schools, children won’t start learning to read on their own. Every child in every generation has to learn the skill. It’s not natural, not spontaneous.

Even though Europe had reading and writing for a very long time, it is only recently that it has been widely practiced. You probably wouldn’t have been able to read this had you been born at another time in history.

But today most of us take reading and writing for granted. It is so much a part of our lives that we think that it is normal. But for many marginalized and bibleless peoples, not reading and writing is normal and reading is the exception.

Wrong question

I some places I have lived in Africa, a building has collapsed. Of course, people wanted to know why. In fact, immediately after the collapse the radio, newspapers and ordinary people were speculating on the cause. Most everyone thought that the collapse was due to shoddy construction done to save the owner money. Some introduced a bribe to a corrupt building inspector into this thesis. A few speculated about malevolent unseen forces such as witchcraft or sorcery. Almost no one speculated that the collapse might have been due to an engineering error or oversight.

Decades of working in different cultures has convinced me that our cultures guide which questions we ask when bad things happen. Sometimes it guides us to the wrong questions.

If a structure fails in the US, we mostly look for an scientific or engineering answer. But my African friends mostly speculated about witchcraft, unethical building contractors and corruption. But looking for a witch when the cause is an engineering error won’t get you an answer no matter how diligently you look; neither will looking for an engineering problem when corrupt contractors and officials are the problem.

Jesus pointed out that people in his day were following their beliefs to the wrong questions.

“And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.” (Luke 13:4-5)

The people with Jesus thought that the building collapsed because of the sins of the people in it. They had a cultural belief that bad things happen because people sin. So they didn’t look for an engineering error, or a corrupt building inspector or even a witch. They just blamed the people in the building for their sins. Jesus rejects their explanation.

I’ve read a number of explanations for the coronavirus. Depending on the person, it is the fault of :

  • The President
  • The Chinese
  • Dr. Fauci
  • Mother earth (we polluted and she struck back)
  • Climate change
  • Population growth
  • Sin (It is God’s judgment on sinful people)

You can probably guess what kind of people gave each answer. That’s because people are directed to an explanation by their culture, their ideology, their political preferences, their religious beliefs or even their emotions (Who are they mad at?). Laugh at them if you will, just don’t forget to laugh at yourself too, after all, you are probably letting your culture, or beliefs, or emotions dictate what questions you ask about the coronavirus.

Jesus turns the arrow of blame around.

“No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.”

Jesus is saying that calamities and disasters reveal something that should have been obvious before – that life is fragile and our encounter with the Just Judge is right around the corner. It’s better to prepare for that than to spend time figuring out what others did wrong.

Your culture, politics, or anger will try to get you to lay blame on their favorite boogie man. Read the Bible. Let God direct your thoughts.

Discrete combinatorial system

Language is the quintessentially human activity. It is quite amazing yet so natural that we don’t notice how fantastic it is. It is built on two simple yet profound facts.

The first is that we randomly assign meaning to sequences of sounds. The word duck does not look like a duck, walk like a duck, or quack like a duck, but it means “duck” all the same. It means duck because we all think that it does. Other people think that canard (French) means duck; or idada (Zulu), or oli (Korean), or thousands of other words, but English speakers know that duck means duck. Anything could mean duck, but only one word actually does.

The second profound fact is that we combine words together in an almost infinite number of ways. Language is a kind of “discrete combinatorial system.” It is discrete because it is made of a limited number of discrete pieces. English has only 26 letters in its alphabet and only a few thousand words. (The Oxford dictionary lists about 200,000 words, but the average person knows between 20,000 and 40,000.)

Language is combinatorial because we combine the letters and words together and different combinations give different results. The meaning of “man bites dog” is different from the meaning of “dog bites man” in spite of the fact that the two sentences contain exactly the same words and letters. Our limited set of letters and words can be combined into so many sentences that you regularly say sentences you have never said before. With some regularity, you even say things that have never been said before by anyone.

In his book The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker wrote:

Go into the Library of Congress and pick a sentence at random from any volume, and chances are you would fail to find an exact repetition no matter how long you continued to search.

The number of potential 20-word sentences is so great that if you said a different 20-word sentence every five seconds it would take you 100 trillion years to say them all. When you finished you could start on 19-word sentences, or 21, or…

God gave us complexe language so that we could communicate with each other and with Him. It would be a shame to neglect cand tell God about something that bothers you, or that you are thankful for. You never know, maybe you’ll say something to God no one has said to him before.

Language is impossible

Noam Chomsky is arguably the world’s greatest linguist. He has done more to advance our understanding of human language than anyone alive today. He contends that the greatest challenge to understanding language is understanding its infinite creativity.

Knowing a language, says Chomsky, means being able to produce an infinite number of sentences never spoken before and to understand sentences never heard before.

It is a fact that you say sentences you have never said before with regularity. A surprising number of them have never been said before by anyone. Yet the people around you mostly understand when you say something never said before. That’s rather astounding, if you think about it.

I use this feature of language when I read to my granddaughter. To spice things up, I stop and ask her crazy questions. If there’s a bear in the story, I might ask: “Is the bear going to come in the house and climb in the freezer and go to sleep?” Even though she’s only 4, she immediately understands this question she’s never been asked before. I’ll bet no one has ever asked you that question. Yet you understand it. My granddaughter will simply answer no, or say I’m being silly, or tell me no more questions, just read the story. The never-asked-before question doesn’t throw off her 4-year-old brain, not even a teeny, tiny bit. (That last sentence has probably never been written before.)

Knowing a language means being able to produce an infinite number of sentences never spoken before and to understand sentences never heard before.

We take the God-given and breathtaking creativity of language in stride. We don’t even notice it. But those working on artificial intelligence (AI) notice because it’s a huge problem for them. To be realistic, a robot would have to regularly produce never-said-before sentences and understand them when others said them.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make a prediction. AI won’t reach that level, ever. Well, at least not for a very long time and certainly not without a revolution in computer technology. I’ll make a shorter term prediction. No publisher will use computer translation for its best selling novels in any of our lifetimes. The human translators they hire will use computers to help them. AI isn’t even close to good enough to translate artistic or elegant prose, let alone poetry.

God is the ultimate creator, but he gave us some of his ability to create. Everyday, you exercise that creativity effortlessly when you speak. Every person does, even the uneducated and illiterate. In fact, we can’t stop being creative with language. That’s one part of what it means to be made in the image of God.

Source: unknown

God’s agent(s)

The big religious question in the West is whether God exists. But that is not the issue in Africa. Everyone knows that God exists. An Akan proverb says that you do not need to show God to a child. By this proverb, the Akan people mean:

God is everywhere and we can know him through his creation which even children can see. Hence, even children don’t need anybody to point out that there is a creator (obooadee) who is the Supreme Being. This is a pervasive Akan world view that is so strongly held that it is the rare Akan who does not believe in God. Saying that even children do not need anybody to tell them that God exists suggests that it is foolish for an adult to claim He doesn’t.

But the belief in an almighty Supreme Being who created all we see is not the end of theological questions. Quite the contrary. Many African cultures believe that God has withdrawn. He is no longer directly involved with the world but is instead like an absentee landlord. The theological question of importance, then, is not whether God exists but rather whether he is to be invoked directly (the Christian teaching) or instead contacted through his agents who act on his behalf (traditional African teaching). God’s agents include various spirits and ancestors who are actually running things in God’s place, according to traditional beliefs.

The traditional teaching has a strong foothold. A Ghanaian friend told me that his uncle was an upstanding member of a prominent church, yet he also did traditional religious sacrifices. His uncle explained that he was covering all the bases just in case. His case is hardly unique.

Unintentionally, the missionaries who first translated the Bible into Akan reinforced the traditional view. Finding no plural for God, they invented one. The history of translation is littered with disasters where translators invented words where one supposedly did not exist. The invented plural “gods” in Akan is one such disaster. Had the translators used the plural for lesser divinities (abosom) Christians would probably have learned not to go to these lesser divinities instead of going directly to God.

In any case, defending the existence of God is useless in most of Africa because it is answering a question people don’t ask; wouldn’t even think to ask. It would be more faithful to the Bible to talk about the role, or lack of role, for God’s agents, a question we in the West don’t ask much.

It’s all there

Because I’m a Bible translator, so I do strange things. For example, I actually read the prefaces to Bible translations. The preface usually addresses how and why the translation was done The original preface to the King James Version deals mostly with criticisms and objections. For example, the King James translators tackle the perennial question “Why on earth are you guys doing yet another translation? Of course, the question was phrased more eloquently in that day.

I’m interested in a different question – is a translation the Word of God? Purists say that they are not: that in order to truly read the Word of God one has to read the Bible in the languages in which it was first written. The King James translators reject that point of view. They wrote:

… we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, every where.

So they maintained that every English translation is the Word of God even if it is not a particularly good translation. (I’m sure that they would not have included fraudulent translations.)

A colleague of mine addressed a similar question:

A common assumption about reading the Bible in the original languages is that by “reading the Greek” we’re actually finding out information that isn’t available to people who are reading a translation.

He rejects this idea. He points out that a person needs a very deep knowledge of Greek to get more out of it. In fact, a doctoral level is needed. Those translating the Bible into English have spent their lives studying the original languages. Unless we are willing to put in that same investment, we’re better off piggybacking on their knowledge by reading their translations.

If you are reading any of the major Bible translation, you are reading the Word of God. You are not missing out. God is not hindered in any way in guiding, instructing, or encouraging you through that translation.

Page from first printing of the King James Version of the Bible

Elevating the ordinary

In 2017, PBS released a video documentary entitled Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World. It notes that not only did Luther start a great religious change, he also started political and societal changes. When his teachings landed him in trouble with the church, we argued his case before the court of public opinion, bypassing the clergy and experts in theology. He circulated his ideas widely using the recently-invented printing press.

He took the same approach to the Bible. He wrote: “I wish that this book could be in every language, and dwell in the hearts and minds of all.”. He was not willing to reserve the Bible for experts, but rather delivered it the common man. He even consulted ordinary people when doing his translation. He wrote: “To translate, we must listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. I sometimes searched and inquired about a single word for three or four weeks.”

I am an heir of Luther’s approach. We translate the Bible into African languages because we trust African Christians to interpret it with the Spirit’s guidance. Our translation process includes a step where we “listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace” and where we are “guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly.” So we trust Africans with the translation process.

This elevation of the common man and woman, and Luther’s practice of bypassing those in authority, “set in place cultural changes that led to democracy in America and Europe”, according to the documentary. We see similar changes in Africa where ordinary people empowered by the words of Scripture question and change cultural practices they deem backward or harmful. Normally Those changes are more profound and longer lasting than changes ordered by some authority, because they flow from the heart.

Crottin de chèvre

Crottin de chèvre

There’s a French goat cheese called crottin de chèvre which often served as a starter in France. But you probably wouldn’t order it on your next trip to France if you were using Google Translate to help you decipher the menu. Because if you put in “crottin de chèvre”, Google will tell you it means goat dung!

Computer translation can be very useful. In fact, humor is one of the things it produces. Seriously, computers help speed all kinds of translation including Bible translation. But they need strict supervision. In fact, the best use of a computer in translation is as an assistant to a human translator. It can tell the human translators how they translated a word or phrase last time, or link them to articles discussing the translation of difficult words and phrases, for example.

I predict that computer translation will do very well at translating literal documents like user manuals and scientific papers. It will be great for travel where mistakes are corrected in face-to-face communication, gestures and pointing. But when it comes to translating things like literature, poetry and philosophy, computers will struggle for a long time. The Bible, of course, is full of literature, poetry and philosophy. I predict that no publisher will use computer translation for its best sellers in any of our lifetimes.

In our day, it would be silly to do a translation of the Bible without a computer, even in a very remote area. But it would be even sillier to think that a computer can replace a properly-trained flesh-and-blood translator.

Missionary technology

The first commercially-available computers could only display or accept English. That was a problem. By the time I first started using computers, we had a few more characters available because of something called “extended ASCII”. This allowed the computer to display and accept keyboard input for most European languages. But it still didn’t work all that well. Specialized technicians had to fiddle with the computer to get it to accept and display the characters in the alphabets of African languages we were working on, But every language had its own system, making archiving and computer support a mess.

Technical details for unicode for one specific language

Fortunately, the tech companies wanted to sell their products everywhere, so they were interested in solving this problem. Missionary-linguists got involved in a worldwide consortium working on the issue. We jumped in so that the smaller languages wouldn’t be left out. Besides, we were often the only ones who had thought about what they needed. In the end, we got unicode; a world-wide standard for accepting, displaying and printing all the characters of all the languages of the world, even Tai Lue, wherever that is.

Your smart phone has unicode, your computer has it, your TV has it, maybe even your car and your refrigerator. Someday your doorbell might have it. Actually, I think some already do. You use missionary technology every day. So do atheists.

Now, anyone who wants to read the Bible in his language, no matter how strangely it is written, can see it displayed on a smart phone, tablet or computer. Because of unicode, the Bible in any language can be sent across the internet or put on small chips and carried anywhere. Whatever electronic device receives it will display the strangest characters correctly. Unicode, hidden the background, makes it happen automatically.

Blessings spill out

Students who learned to read

The approximately 30 different people groups of northern Ghana are faced with real difficulties. Their land is semi-arid, they have few economic opportunities, and their children have to go to school in a language neither the students nor their parents know for the most part – English. In one school, only 2% of second and third graders could read.

But, using the alphabet for their language and a reading method developed by missionaries, primary school students from some languages in northern Ghana have started learning to read in their own language. A year ago, these school children could not read a single word. Today almost all reading short stories. Having mastered reading in their language, they will now bridge to Ghana’s official language, English. Experience has shown that they will be more successful in English after starting in their mother tongue. Not only that, they will be able to read the Bible in their language.

The blessings brought by missionaries have spilled over into education. That will, in turn reduce poverty and misery.

(Photos courtesy of J. Yacubu, GILLBT)

Celebrating a successful program