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. People use it to mobilize Ghanaian churches to get involved in translation. It works; because few people know all the languages of their country, nor do they know that some Ghanaian languages don’t have a translation.

500 2000 3000 then 2000 again

Townsend-2000-Composite

There are perhaps as many as 500 languages in the world. At least that’s what Wycliffe’s founder William Cameron Townsend thought when he started the organization in the 1930s. The number increased to 1,000. Then by the time I joined in the 1970s, it was over 2000. By then, Wycliffe had published a book entitled Two Thousand Tongues to Go.

Gradually, the number kept increasing. Why? Well, we kept discovering more languages. In the 1990s that stopped. Oh, we still might find a new language here or there, but nothing like the thousands being discovered in the middle of the 20th century. One of the little-heralded scientific achievements of that period was the cataloging of all the languages of the world, largely achieved by people interested in translating the Bible into more languages.

As the number of known languages increased – eventually to over 6,900 – so did the number without a translation of the Bible, reaching 3,000 in the 1990s – a far cry from the estimated 500 of only 60 years earlier.

But even as the number of languages stabilized around 6,900, the number still needing a translation was only decreasing by 25 per year – translation work was starting in about 25 languages every year. Imagine trying to save $3,000 by adding $25 to a cookie jar once a year. Even stalwart supporters of translating the Bible into all languages wondered if it was doable or worthwhile.

Enter John Watters. He had an idea called Vision 2025 which called for starting translation in all languages by 2025. A nice motivational goal, I thought, even if it can’t be done.

Well, Wycliffe just released the latest statistics. You can see them here. The number of languages without the Bible has dropped to less than 2,000 for the first time since we knew how many languages there are! Better, the rate of starting translation in more languages has increased way beyond 25 per year. The current pace has translation in the last language starting in the 2030s. Of course, that requires that giving, going and praying continue at the same pace. On the other hand, if God’s people were to pick up the pace a bit, 2025 is very possible.

This means that my children will see the last translation started and probably finished! Time is running out to be part of this historic moment. Don’t show up at the end of the world, see how proud our God is of those he asked to be involved and regret that you didn’t invest some prayer, money or time in this great thing God is doing.

Worse than you thought

When I tell people that there are over 6,900 languages spoken in the world today, it get a lot of good questions. Really? Don’t you mean dialects? And so on.

A figure of 7,000 languages does indeed sound unbelievable. It is a number that begs for justification. That justification comes in the form of the Ethnologue, a book which lists all the languages in the world . It is highly respected. Even the International Standards Organization recognizes it. Its latest edition lists 6,909 living languages. The location and number of speakers of each language is listed. So its claims can be verified. In addition, anyone with information can submit it to the editor. Here is a sample page showing a map of the languages of Guatemala: It turns out that 6,900+ languages is a reliable figure.

But, the situation is actually worse than that.

You might imagine, for example, that half of the world speaks English, another 40% other major languages such as Chinese, Spanish, German, Arabic, French, etc; and that 10% of the world speaks very small, isolated languages. In this imaginary situation, most people would speak some major language.

How many people speak what languages?

Alas, it ain’t so. Here’s a graph that shows how many people speak which languages. The nine largest languages account for only about 40% of the world’s population. 60% of the world’s people speak the other 6,900 languages. (These figures are for people’s first language, or mother tongue.) In many places, if you want to communicate effectively about anything – the good news about Jesus, how AIDS is spread, how to avoid water-borne diseases – you will need to communicate across languages. Otherwise, your important information will just touch a few.

We might wish that the language situation were simpler. But pretending that the diversity of languages does not exist leads to all kinds of dysfunction in evangelism, church growth, education, health care, etc. Besides, God himself thought that diversity of languages was a good idea. See Genesis 11.

Boring stuff

Exciting. I hear that word all the time especially in church. I wonder if we are addicted to it because of our entertainment culture. But, some stuff that really matters is mind-numbingly tedious.

In the 1930s, when William Cameron Townsend founded Wycliffe Bible Translators he thought that there were perhaps 500 languages in the world. He found out later that his estimate was way off. Fortunately, he knew that he needed hard information, so he started a positively lackluster arm of Bible translation responsible for finding out how many languages there are. Back in the day, we called it “language survey”. I even did a little in Burkina Faso in the late 1970s but most is done by specialists. One of my friends, Douglas Boone (right), has spent his whole missionary career in this endeavor. I’ll bet he has never had a conversation that went:

Person in church: What kind of mission work do you do?
Douglas: I count languages.
Person in church: Wow, how exciting!

I could go into a lot of narcolepsy-inducing details about language survey. You might be interested in some facts about languages which are dying. But a discussion of a question like “What is a language?” might cause you to recommend me to your local sleep clinic – as a therapist!

Early on, those doing language survey started publishing a book cataloging the languages of the world, the Ethnologue. For years, every new edition of the Ethnologue would have about 400 more languages than the earlier edition. While we were in Burkina Faso, some of my colleagues discovered two previously unknown languages. They appeared in the next edition of the Ethnologue.

The number of languages in the Ethnologue stabilized in the mid 1990s at around 6,900, meaning that the list was finally very accurate. That is hardly exciting, but it is very significant. Most Bible translations in new languages published for the last 30 years were done because the languages were identified and cataloged in the Ethnologue. Otherwise, those languages might never have gotten a translation. In one man’s lifetime, we have gone from a wildly inaccurate estimate of 500 languages to a highly reliable catalog. In fact, the Ethnologue is so reliable that it has become an official standard of the International Standards Organization. For the first time we know how many language still need a Bible translation and we can project how much time, money and energy that will take. Church leaders, like the ones in the photo pouring over a language map from the Ethnologue, have information they need for their ministries. It might be a little exciting because it is a sign of the end times, if only a minor one.

I don’t know what we would do in Congo if we did not have a language map like the one below to tell us where each of the 223 languages is located. Knowing where the languages are and how they are related also allows us to add some time and money-saving ways of working.

My hat is off to all those who have cataloged languages, including the young woman I knew who died in an automobile accident in Africa while doing her “uninteresting” work.

So, let me know what you think. Do you think that “exciting” has too much attraction for us? Might  our fascination with the exciting sometimes keep us from the important?  Would you pray for someone doing language survey, or give financial support?

Update: Someone else wrote about boring stuff: We Need Boring Christians. Check it out.

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