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? 

Mother tongue day 2014

Painting by Marten van Valckenborch the Elder

Painting by Marten van Valckenborch the Elder

Today is International Mother Tongue day. That is a good thing for believers to celebrate. Why do I think so? Follow this link for the answer.

https://heartlanguage.org/2013/02/21/mother-tongue-day/

Mother Tongue Day

Tower of BabelToday is International Mother Tongue Day which gives focus to minority languages. But we all have a mother tongue even if it is not a minority language.

Of course, the Bible has something to say about the fact that we all speak different languages. Everyone knows the story of the tower of Babel. As a reminder, here is the passage:

God 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. (Gen 11: 6-9 CEV)

I have heard quite varied interpretations of this story. According to a common interpretation, this is the story of a curse. Those who hold this interpretation also hold the view that the multiplicity of languages is a curse, or at least a hindrance. This interpretation, however, does not square with other parts of Scripture. I’ll come to that in a minute. But even if it is true that the multiplicity of languages is a negative thing, that does not make it a curse. God’s actions to correct us are not curses! They are loving attempts to get us back on the right track. So if speaking many languages helps us to follow God, that would be a good thing.

Wait! The Apostle Paul pretty much said that:

From one person God made all peoples who live on earth, and he decided when and where each people would be. God did all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him. (Acts 17:26-27)

So the Apostle is saying that

  • God made all peoples, and
  • He decided where they would live and when, and
  • He did this so that they would search for Him and find Him.

These verses do not mention language, but language is an integral part of the identity of a people. The verses are clear. God divided the human race into ethnic groups (most with their own language), so that they would seek and find him. Making it easier to find God is not a punishment! If God says (through Paul) that the multiplicity of ethnic identities leads to more seeking of God, then we should listen to that carefully and allow that to influence our view of language. Too often, we let our views on language diversity be determined by our politics or our patriotic sentiments, and not by the Scriptures. Because our linguistic and ethnic identities are designed by God to help us seek and find him, we dare not disdain, neglect or ignore them in any sphere but especially not in the ministry of the church or in missions.

Number of languages spoken in the world today

Number of languages spoken in the world today

That there are multiple languages on the earth is not a disorder. It is not an aberration, a problem to be solved, nor a hindrance to human development. It is part of God’s purpose to bring people to know him. Interestingly, people from major languages do not get this. But those from minority languages often do. When their language is written and translated, they feel recognized and elevated. See my blog Counted for one example.

We who speak international languages often do not know what it is like to speak a language others consider unworthy or useless. The thing is, that is never God’s opinion. He created our languages and cultures for a purpose. As my colleague in translation, Eddie Arthur, wrote:

The God who was not ashamed to be born to a peasant woman and laid in a manger is not ashamed to speak Kouya, Jamaican patois or even modern-day English.

Whatever the reasons others celebrate Mother Tongue day, let’s celebrate the good gift of our mother tongues and our ethnic identities. And let’s use that good gift the way He intended – to seek Him and find Him and to help other seek and find him.

PS: I often use the phrase “heart language” instead of “mother tongue” because some take “mother tongue” to refer to a historic or ancestral language which they sometimes no longer speak.

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.