Small Languages: Part 2

I’m in the middle of a series of blogs on why we bother translating the Bible into smaller languages. This is an important question because the overwhelming majority of languages still without a translation of the Bible are spoken by 10,000 people or less and some are spoken by less than 1,000. In Ghana, there are 18 languages with fewer than 10,000 speakers each. The languages without translations in Ghana are mostly smaller languages. So this is a very relevant question.

If 10,000 is too few to translate, then is 50,000, or 100,000 enough? Perhaps one million should be the limit. To answer this question we need to back up and ask why we translate at all. That leads us to ask what God thinks of the fact that there are many languages in the world. Is that part of his plan? Are they a curse? Should we be trying to get rid of them? What place, if any, do these languages have in the plan of God?

Tower of BabelThese questions lead us inevitably to Genesis chapter 11 where we have the story of the Tower of Babel.

At first everyone spoke the same language, but after some of them moved from the east and settled in Babylonia, they said:

Let’s build a city with a tower that reaches to the sky! We’ll use hard bricks and tar instead of stone and mortar. We’ll become famous, and we won’t be scattered all over the world.

But when the Lord came down to look at the city and the tower, he said:

These people are working together because they all speak the same language. This is just the beginning. Soon they will be able to do anything they want. Come on! Let’s go down and confuse them by making them speak different languages—then they won’t be able to understand each other.

So the people had to stop building the city, because the Lord confused their language and scattered them all over the earth. That’s how the city of Babel got its name.
(Genesis 11:1-9 CEV)

Some read this story and come away with the idea that the multiplicity of languages is a curse. And if the diversity of languages is a curse, then maybe we should be trying to get rid of languages and return to all speaking the same language. I believe that thinking springs from a misunderstanding of God’s judgment. Jonathan Martin, author and pastor, wrote:

I do not believe God’s judgment is about retribution, but a manifestation of hard-edged mercy. Judgment is an illumination of the ugliness that lurks within us, bringing to the surface all that we would otherwise bury so that it might be acknowledged, named, repented of, and ultimately healed.

Even if we understand the Tower of Babel as judgment, that does not mean that it is punishment or a curse. Our God is all about redemption, about bringing good out of bad. If people are drifting away from God, he does not punish them to make them suffer for it. No, he does things designed to draw them back. Martin further writes:

sometimes mercy must take on a violent, apocalyptic form

This understanding of God’s judgment shows us a better way to understand the Tower of Babel – not as a curse but as redemption. Dividing mankind into pieces by causing us to speak many different languages is not punishment, but rather a way to help us, to bless us. But how on earth might the multiplicity of languages be a blessing? The Apostle Paul answers that question Acts 17:34 where he is addressing a gathering in the city of Athens. He told them (emphasis is mine):

“From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 34-26-27 NLT)

Remember that when Paul uses the word “nations” he does not mean countries but rather peoples. So God’s purpose in having us live as different peoples with different languages is not to thwart our efforts, but rather so that all peoples would “seek after God.”

The experience of missionaries and of churches shows over and over again that local languages and cultures are wonderful vehicles for faith and redemption. Where they have been seen as a problem – as in some mission efforts to native North Americans – missions has often had little result. Where the church has tried to promote a common language, as was the case for Latin in Europe, the result has been weak and distorted belief. Paul’s teaching that we are divided into different peoples and languages so that we would seek God works itself out in evangelism and missions every day and year after year. God s purpose, that the division of people into many peoples and languages would help them find him, is more than a theoretical bit of theology. It works in practice, on the ground, in the real world.

Why do we translate into smaller languages? Because it works. It works because God made those languages so that the people who speak them could find him through them. Can a language be too small for that to be a good thing? 

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.

Ten Thousand

A Bible translation organization in the US, The Seed Company, has launched a new initiative called The Least of These, for smaller languages. About 500 of the languages of the world have the whole Bible, many more have the New Testament. But 340 million people speaking 2,000 languages do not have even one verse of Scripture in their language. More than 70 percent of the people groups without the Bible have fewer than 10,000 speakers. Amazingly, 600 are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people.

Wait! Translate the Bible for only 10,000 people?! Isn’t that a waste of resources?

Traditional dwelling

Traditional dwelling in northern Ghana

That is certainly a fair and important question. Especially as you may have heard that many languages are dying out. Why translate the Bible into a language which shortly will not be spoken any more? But having only a few speakers does not necessarily mean that a language is dying out. Some languages stay alive and vibrant even with few people speaking them.

I might not do a translation in a language with 50,000 speakers that was dying, but I might do one for a language of 10,000 that was growing in numbers. So, the question is not about dying languages, but rather about small but alive languages.

So, back to our question. Translate the Bible for only 10,000 people?! Isn’t that a waste of resources? I will let you answer by asking you two questions.

  • If a pastoral couple moved into a town of 10,000 near you without a church, spent 20 years there, and planted a vibrant and growing church, would you say that they wasted their time on a small community?
  • If you lived in a town of 10,000 and the only church had no pastor, would you consider it a waste of resources to call a pastor to that church? Even if the church only has 100 believers in it?

If it is legitimate for at least one pastoral couple to serve a town of 10,000 then dedicating one missionary translator couple to serve an ethnic groups of the same size must also be legitimate. Besides, many towns with populations of 10,000 or less in North America have more than one church and one pastor. In addition, the translator would serve in the language group for a limited time, but a town of 10,000 will need a pastor forever.

One of the implications of the Golden Rule is that we should not wish for others what we would not want for ourselves. So, if you would want a full-time pastor if you lived in a town of 10,000, then don’t say of a people group of 10,000 that they don’t need to have someone translate the Bible for them.

If you liked this, you might also like Patois or Heart Language.