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.

Endangered Languages

Endangered languagesYou may have heard that many of the world’s languages are dying. That might lead you to ask why translate the Bible if languages are dying. It’s a good question. The answer is simple. But let’s back up a bit before answering it.

A while back I heard one of Ghana’s leading linguists, a man who spent decades helping to translate the Bible into 13 language in Ghana and neighboring countries, Professor Gilbert Ansre, speak about Ghana’s languages. Here’s what he said:

‘The numbers of speakers of most of the indigenous languages are on the increase and the vast majority of our mother-tongues are not about disappear or “die”. They are here to stay for a long time and need to be reckoned with…’

Dr and Mrs Ansre with portrait

Prof and Mrs Ansre with portrait

Professor Ansre was talking about Ghana. In other places language are dying in significant numbers. Those places include the Americas and Melanesia. The situation simply is not the same in Ghana. In fact, in all of West Africa few of the hundreds of languages are dying. Most are increasing in number just as Professor Ansre said that they are in Ghana. Data gathered independently by governments, churches, linguists and others all lead to this same conclusion.

Why are most of Ghana’s languages growing? Because of population growth. The population growth rate in Ghana is 2.5%. At that rate, the population in Ghana will double in 29 years. Since almost 100% of the native population of Ghana speaks at least one Ghanaian language, the number of people speaking those languages increased by 28% during the last decade and doubled in the last 29 years.

Children in the street

Children in the street

The evidence of population growth is everywhere. When our son Matthew visited with his fiancée who had never been to Africa, she keep commenting on all the young children she saw. They are with their mothers who sell food or vegetables by the road or in the market. Children are everywhere. The church we attend has an attendance of about 500. There are about 100 children in Sunday School, in spite of fact that many who attend are unmarried university students without children.

To see the effect of population growth on keeping languages alive, let’s take an imaginary case of a language spoken by 100,000 people where two thirds of its speakers stop speaking it in the coming 50 years. Here are the numbers using Ghana’s annual population growth rate of 2.5%.

Number of speakers of the language today         100,000
Number in 50 years (2.5% compounded)           335,000
2/3rd stop speaking the language                       -224,000
Remaining 1/3rd                                                      111,000

Children in the street

Children in the street

As you can see, even though 2/3 of the people stopped speaking the language, there were still more people speaking it at the end of the 50 years than there were at the start. Besides, it appears that very few of Ghana’s languages will lose 2/3 of their speakers in the coming 50 years. On the contrary, the number of people speaking Ghanaian languages will probably double or triple.

Back to the original question – why translate the Bible if languages are dying. The simple answer is that we do not translate the Bible into dying languages, but rather into languages that are not only alive; they are growing.

If you liked this, you might also like Dying Langauges or Ten Thousand.

Dying languages

You may have heard that a large number of the world’s languages are dying. That may have caused you to wonder if it might be a waste to translate the Bible into those languages. That is a very good thing to wonder about! As you might expect, the answer is not a simple “yes” or “no”.

First, how many languages are dying out? Well, UNESCO has an Atlas of Endangered Languages (Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. Paris, UNESCO Publishing)  which you can find on line at http://www.unesco.org/culture/languages-atlas/en/atlasmap.html.
For Ghana, it lists five languages as endangered. There are five degrees of endangerment ranging from vulnerable to extinct. Languages not endangered are listed as “safe”. Here is the UNESCO language vulnerability scale definitions for each degree of endangerment.

Degree of endangerment

Intergenerational language transmission

Vulnerable

Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g. home)

Definitely endangered

Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home

Severely endangered

Language is spoken by grandparents and older generations while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves

Critically endangered

The youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the languages partially and infrequently

Extinct

There are no speakers left

None of the Ghana languages are extinct. Only one gets the next-worst ranking – “critically endangered”, and three get ranked as having the least severe degree of endangerment – “vulnerable” – where most people still speak the language. So it is far from certain that all of the five languages listed as endangered will die out. Even if they did, because there are more than 60 languages spoken in Ghana, at least 55 languages will continue. They are in no danger of dying out in the foreseeable future. In fact, almost all of them will probably even continue to grow. The situation is similar to this is much of Africa. On the other hand, many languages in other parts of the world seem to be headed toward almost certain extinction, as the following chart shows.
Chart of languages in danger of dying worldwide

Chart of languages in danger of dying worldwide

Before we translate the Bible into a language, we do some research to find out if the language is dying, and other facts about it. This assures that we make a good investment of God’s resources. We also make the decisions by taking into account the situation for each language, not on the basis of global trends.
Lastly, some language trends are not developing the way many predicted. For example, it was thought that the Internet would cause the spread of English and the consequent death or marginalization of other languages. But according to a recent analysis of languages used on the Internet:
In 2009, it only took 37 languages to reach 98 percent of people on the web, but in 2012 it takes 48 languages to reach the same percentage
So it might be that the Internet is actually making a way for smaller languages to survive, perhaps even extend themselves. Trends in human society are rarely linear or easy to predict. What seems obvious, sometimes turns out to be false.
Rest assured that we pay special attention to the question of language death in our planning and decision-making. Our agenda is to serve people who speak languages that are very much alive.

If you liked this, you might also like Teach Them English.