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.

Most asked

FAQWhen we were recently in the US for a few months, I noted the questions we were most often asked. Here they are:

  • Why are there so many languages?
  • You say there are 7,105 languages spoken today. Are those real languages or dialects?
  • Aren’t the languages related to each other?
  • Isn’t everyone learning English?
  • What alphabet do you use to write an unwritten language?
  • How do people learn to read the translations?
  • Are you doing translation? What do you actually do?

I am going to write about each of those questions in the coming weeks. The first is already available. If you have another question, please submit it. I’ll add it to the list – within reason.

Split Teeth

Don Lauber high school graduation photo

Don Lauber high school graduation photo

My dad has a gap between his upper two front teeth. As I child, I never noticed it until I was told that when I was little, I had the same thing and the dentist cut something (the labial frenum) so that mine would not have a gap. Both my sons have the same gap, as we chose not to have the same procedure done for them.

As they became young men in Burkina Faso (we lived there for the first 12-14 years of their lives), the people there would remark on how handsome they were. Sometimes they would specifically comment on that lovely gap between their two front teeth. That is how we learned that a gap between one’s upper front teeth is considered a mark of beauty in Burkina Faso and some other places, like Kenya.

Beauty can be, in fact, less than skin deep. It varies from place to place and time to time.

Family photo, May 2013, L-R: Ed, Mark, Lacy, Dayle, Matthew

Family photo, May 2013, L-R: Ed, Mark, Lacy, Dayle, Matthew


Composing Nkonya praise music under a mango tree

Composing Nkonya praise music under a mango tree

The word for the day is ethnodoxology –  the art of making praise songs in local languages.  Praise should come from the heart, so it is best given in one’s heart language.

Right now,  my friend Joseph Gyebi, worship leader, pastor, aficionado of Ghana Gospel music, and student of engaging culture for Christ,  is helping the Nkonya people of Ghana develop new praise songs in their language.

Ethnodoxology, it’s what will happen in heaven.

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A century of doing without

Centenary celebration (photo B. Modibale)

Centenary celebration (photo B. Modibale)

When Dayle and I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we worked with a group of churches named CECCA/16. They were founded by the intrepid C. T. Studd. Those churches just celebrated their 100th anniversary. It was a big celebration. In keeping with my last post, I want to ask if you think of Africa as having churches 100 years old, or more? But that is not my subject today.

Isiro in CongoCECCA/16 is a regional church in the northeast of Congo in an area with the town of Isiro at its center. There are perhaps a dozen languages in the heart of the area covered by CECCA/16. The thing is, none of them have a useable translation of the Bible. The small minority who know French, the official language, use the Bible in French. Some others know regional languages spoken in the area – Swahili and Lingala – and there are Bibles in those. But none of the 250,000 members of CECCA/16 churches have a Bible in their heart language.

Child in CECCA/16 (photo B. Modibale)

Child in CECCA/16 (photo B. Modibale)

Imagine if that were you. Imagine that you grew up in a church where the Bible was something you only heard in a language you did not know, or only mastered partially. Imagine that this was the case for all your family, all your friends, and all your neighbors. Imagine that access to the Bible was limited to a small elite in your church; that Bible studies were impossible. If you are a woman, you would be especially cut off from God’s Word because a lower percentage of women are sent to school. Then imagine that you live in this situation from your first memories, through raising your children, into your old age. Imagine that you see your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews growing into adulthood and even old age in that same situation.

CECCA/16 church members

CECCA/16 church members

Being a community of believers for 100 years without the Bible in anyone’s heart language – what is that like? Wouldn’t a person come to expect that the Bible is only for the elite? That it is normal that the only way one can know it is through what another person says about it? What would substitute for the comfort of cherished Bible verses? Wouldn’t pastors become more and more powerful? The church leadership be unquestioned? After all, on what basis would the people in the pews, without the Bible, question what the pastor says?

Or imagine that you grow up in a family where no one is a believer. Your neighbors go to church where a pastor reads from a book in a language they don’t know, but your father can tell you his, and your, beliefs about spirits, gods, in detail and in a language you fully grasp. When he sacrifices a chicken to the ancestors, he tells you what he is doing in your language and you understand it all. If your Christian neighbors ask you questions about your beliefs, you can answer them. But can they answer yours? Or do they have to run to their pastor?

Rev Nonziodane

Rev Nonziodane

CECCA/16 leadership, in the person of Rev. Nonziodane, asked Wycliffe to come and start translating the Bible into the languages of the people. Like many African church leaders, he grew up in the situation I am asking you to imagine. It is very real to him and he knows, all too well, the problems it creates. Going a century without God’s living Word is not an unusual experience for African Christians. We value your partnership with us, and with churches in Africa, to see that our African sisters and brothers in Christ have the same access to God’s living Word that has so shaped and reshaped our lives.

Perceptions of Africa

Sunrise over orthodox church_1What do you think of when you think of Africa? Are your perceptions accurate? Up to date?

Some time ago I posted this photo on Facebook, asking people to guess where I took it. The building in the sunrise is an Ethiopian Orthodox church in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia. I took it while passing through on my way to Chad in November 2009.

Ethiopia has a population of 85 million, of which about 34 million belong to the Orthodox church of Ethiopia. Christianity became the official faith of Ethiopia in the 4th century, after being introduced three hundred years earlier. In the Bible book of Acts there is a story of a man from Ethiopia meeting the Apostle Philip and asking him questions, with the result that he asked to be baptized. According to tradition, that man returned to Ethiopia and began spreading his new faith. So Christianity was practiced in Ethiopia about 1500 years before it came to North America, and even longer than it has been in the United Kingdom. Ethiopia is an old center of Christianity. 3 of 10 Top ChristianIs that how you think of Africa?

More recently, Christianity has grown rapidly in many parts of Africa, so much so that some are calling it a shift in the center of gravity of Christianity. Just three countries in Africa; Nigeria, DR Congo, and Ethiopia combined, now have almost 200 million Christians; 9% of the worldwide total, according to a study by the Pew Foundation. To be effective in Africa, we have to understand it as it is, not as we imagine it to be.

Partnering with the “new” churches in Africa is key to advancing Bible translation, for example.

If you liked this, you might also like Funny or Stupid, Harmattan or Ansre.

Artist’s depiction of the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Apostle Philip