Why so many languages?

When asked to talk about what we do, I often give the number of languages spoken in the world today. That number stands at 7,105. In response, people often ask me why there are so many languages.

EthnologueUnderlying that question might be doubt that 7,105 is an accurate number. After all, it seems quite high. You can find the full list of all 7,105 languages at ethnologue.com. That list, by the way, is recognized by the International Standards Organization. It contains information about each language, including where it is spoken, which would make it easy for anyone to verify by going to that place. So there is good reason to believe that 7,105 is a valid and accurate number.

There are lots of theories about why there are so many languages and they are still being debated. I hear people say that it might be because of geography. Mountains or rivers might cut people off from each other, leading to the development of many languages. That might explain why there are so many languages in mountainous areas like Papua New Guinea or the State of Oaxaca in Mexico. But it does not explain why there are so many languages on the plains and plateaus of Nigeria.

Painting by Marten van Valckenborch the Elder

Painting by Marten van Valckenborch the Elder

For those of us who take the Bible seriously, it holds the answer. The book of Genesis contains the story of the tower of Babel. In that story we learn that God thought that it was better for us to speak many languages, even though it might seem to us that speaking one is much more practical.

In the book of Acts, we are told of the Apostle Paul speaking to the people at Athens. In that address, he said:

“From one person God made all nations who live on earth, and he decided when and where every nation would be. God has done all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him.” (Acts 17: 26-27 CEV)

The word translated “nations” could also be translated “peoples” because it is the word εθνος (or ethnos), from which we get our word ethnic. So Paul is saying that God made all the different peoples (ethnic groups) so that they would look for him, reach out to him and find him. Apparently, all the different linguistic and ethnic identities people have, help us to search for, and hopefully find, the one true God.

Now that is a really good reason to have lots of languages.

If you want to read more on this topic, I recommend the article “Why We All Should Care About More Tongues” by Ed Stetzer. If you liked this post, you might also like The Will to Read, Language Policy to Live by, or Translation and Democracy.

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.