Your language doesn’t go far

Night literacy class in Ghana, photo courtesy of Paul Federwitz

A Christian from a smaller ethnic group in northern Ghana told me that he told the district pastor of his church that he was enrolled in a literacy class in his language. The pastor responded that what he was doing was useless because he could not go far with his small language. If he traveled even a short distance he would quickly be outside the area where the language is spoken, so it would not serve him any more. According to the pastor, he was leaning a skill with very limited range. 

Any psychologist will tell you that a person only learns to read once. Its just like math – if you learn it in any language, you know it. The skill of reading can be transferred to any language with much less time and effort than learning the skill in the first place. So enrolling in a literacy class in any language will give a person a skill they can use in any other language. Being able to read will go a long way, even if the language won’t. So the pastor was focusing on the wrong thing – language instead of literacy.

Woman teaching literacy class

Besides, it is the end that matters not the start. A primary school education cannot take you far, but you cannot get more education without it. It would be silly to think that primary school education is worthless for those who get high school diploma’s and university degrees. Literacy in a small language might not get you far in one sense, but in another it can be the start of something that goes a long ways. Tens of thousands of primary school dropouts in Ghana have gone to literacy classes in their small languages, gained skills, then returned to school with success becoming nurses, teachers, pastors and even a university lecturer!

In addition, there are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians who have had their lives transformed through reading the Bible in their languages, even though they never went to school. That wouldn’t have happened if they had not enrolled in a literacy class in their small language. Then there are the many Ghanaians who would never have even considered the claims of Christ and the Gospel except they enrolled in a literacy class and then read the Bible in their language.

But the pastor’s point about the language is true. The language is only used in one small part of Ghana which is an even smaller part of the world. The usefulness of a language over large geographic areas is important for commerce, politics, etc. Nevertheless, the pastor has another problem. His own language, while many times larger than the smaller language, is a very small language by world standards. Yet he reads the Bible in his language because people who speak a really important language like English or German came to Ghana and did not think his language too small or trivial to translate the Bible and teach people to read. They did not dismiss his language as one that wouldn’t take people far.

It turns out that people often think that languages smaller than theirs are too small to be worth it but their own language is worth it. An ethnocentric viewpoint like that does not square with God’s own sense of mission. He could have easily dismissed us because being human doesn’t take you far in this universe.

What are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them? (Psa 8:4 NLT

This post is made in honor of International literacy day which is tomorrow.

Impact in the Volta Region

Ghana’s Volta Region borders the neighboring country of Togo. The veneration of the python is practiced in the Volta region and extends east through Togo and Benin. It is even thought that it formed the origin of the practice of Voodoo in the Caribbean through slaves taken from the area. Even today, there is a voodoo festival in Benin  and a Python temple. The most widely spoken language in the Volta Region is Ewe (pronounced Eh-Vay). It is the language of church, commerce and relationships between peoples, in addition to the being by far the largest mother tongue in the region, extending into large parts of Togo. Christianity came to the Volta Region with German missionaries in the 1800s.

They worked in the Ewe language, including translating the Bible. In this language map you can see that the embedded in the Ewe people and language there are a number of smaller languages that Ewe is surrounded by smaller languages. Ewe became the de facto church language not only for the Ewe people, but for the people speaking those smaller languages as well. While the work of missionaries had a dramatic impact on the Ewe people and in some other places, it did not displace the veneration of the python in some of the smaller language groups. In fact, the influence of the python actually grew in the mid to late 20th century, in some cases pushing back advances that Christianity had made. Women are the most affected. They are inducted as young women. Placating the spirit of the python can even deplete a woman’s financial resources. One of the effects of the veneration was the there were few women in churches in areas of the Volta Region where smaller languages were spoken.

The first Bible translations (just the NT to be precise) in the smaller languages of the Volta Region were finished in the 1980s, with more completed in the 1990s and even more started since 2010 and a few with no translation work yet. Research done by a colleague of ours, Naana Nkrumah, focused on the impact of those translations on the veneration of the python. They were summarized in an article in the Journal of African Christian Thought and at a conference I attended. One of the marked changes since the translations were published is the number of women in the church, which has increased dramatically. Other results include:

  • Very few young women are now inducted into the veneration. In some areas, none has been inducted for over a decade.
  • Women report significantly improved financial status as a result of not spending resources placating the spirit of the python
  • The veneration has lost prestige and power. In past confrontations with Christiantiy, Python priestesses did powerful miracles which convinced women to stay away from Christianity and stay faithful to the python. Now such miracles are rare and when they do occur many women have the courage to stay with their Christian faith in spite of them.

Naana Nkrumah

What is interesting about these findings is that the Bible and preaching in an African lingua franca (trade language) was unable to compete with devotion to the python. This was in spite of the fact that the language in question, Ewe, is widely spoken and understood in the area. On the other hand, the translation of the Bible into smaller local languages resulted in dramatic change. It is my contention that understanding a language is often not enough to produce all the benefits of the Gospel. Instead, the Bible and preaching must be in the people’s heart language (mother tongue) – the language that touches their deepest center. Only then can deeply-seated beliefs and traditions be changed.

This blog is the 4th in a series on why we translate into small languages.

Small languages: part 3

A friend of mine who has been to Israel several times asked me if I had been. I haven’t. She then said that the first thing that struck her when she arrived was how small the place is. The total land surface area of the earth is more than 57 million square miles. Israel’s land area is 7,847 square miles. (8,019 total minus 172 square miles of inland water). So Israel’s percentage of the world’s land is 0.0137% – a little more than one hundredth of a percent or 14 parts in 100,000.

We might ask why a God of infinite power would give his chosen people such a small bit of real estate.

But that’s not all. There are an estimated 14 million Jews in the world Today, down from a peak of almost 17 million in 1939. Against the world population of almost 7 1/2 billion, that makes Jews 0.188 percent of the world’s population. We might ask why God has not caused his chosen people to grow to be more numerous.

It seems that numbers and land surface are not that important to God. What we might use to measure the prestige and value of a people or a nation are not the measures God uses. We shouldn’t be surprised. God told his prophet Isaiah exactly that:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8 ESV)

In Corinthians, the Apostle Paul develops this idea further:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are (I Corinthian 1:27-28 ESV)

God often works through the small, the despised, the marginalized, those no one considers important. It is a theme throughout the Bible.

  • When God sent his son he arranged to have him born during a trip forced by the taxation order of a foreign, pagan invader. He had him born in a trough for animal fodder.
  • When God wanted to overthrow the corrupt regime of Elie and his sons Hofni and Phineas, he chose the lowliest person in the society of that day – a childless married woman. He gave her a son who became a just leader. (I Samuel 1-7).
  • Jesus illustrates God’s methods with the parable of the lost sheep where the shepherd goes looking for the lost 1% of the sheep.

Why do we translate for small languages? Because we are following our God. We are trying to be like him. Because to be valid, our mission has to reflect his heart, his mission, his values and his methods.

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.