IRNI reportIn late December 2008, Kenya held presidential elections. The results were delayed, tension mounted, when one candidate was named the winner in an unusual way, violence started. We were there. We could hear gunshots, see people running in the streets. We hunkered down and waited it out. Hundreds died. People were displaced. Property losses where huge. It took it about 10 days to run its course while we stayed safely locked inside for the most part. Then it was safe again. Read a fuller report here.

We did not expect trouble. Neither did Kenyans who thought their country was a step above the kind of election troubles seen in some other countries in Africa. We were relieved when it ended, but they were disheartened. Their pride in their country had been brought low.

We resumed work shortly after New Years. On the first day, one of my Kenyan colleagues greeted me with a New Year’s greeting I had never heard before: Happy New Year Regardless.

Regardless means “despite the prevailing circumstances”. So, whatever situation, may the Lord be with you in 2014 with his loving and comforting presence. In other words:

Happy New Year Regardless

Ouagadougou Christmas

We are visiting in Burkina Faso; so I thought I would write my observations of Christmas celebrations here.

Daniel and Anne Kompaore with Dayle

Daniel and Anne Kompaore with Dayle

The in the two days before Christmas, our hosts, Daniel and Anne Kompaore, received numerous gifts, mostly food and most of that live animals, especially guinea fowl which is highly valued here.

Daniel’s church had a Christmas eve service from 8 to 10 PM. A good part of it was a program by the children. A local Christian TV station carried a local Christmas eve service in the afternoon. It was also dominated by a children’s program, including reciting of Bible verses in French in unison by a group of children of varying ages. Our friends,  the Tioyes, said that their church’s Christmas eve service lasted until 2 AM and was largely a children’s program including a nativity play and recitation of Bible verses. So it seems that Christmas eve services are the norm.

On Christmas day, we had our celebratory meal at about 1 PM. During the course of the afternoon, people dropped by to say Merry Christmas. Some brought gifts of food. In one case they had called the day before to say exactly what they were bringing. Most stayed only a few minutes. A few,  family I think, stayed long enough to eat part of the meal, even tough they arrived after we ate.Daniel received a number of brief phone calls and SMS messages wishing him Merry Christmas. Even though few here have our number, we got brief phone calls with Christmas greetings.

The foremost translation

Merry Christmas - animated banner

Christmas. That’s when we celebrate the fact that God came to earth in the person of Jesus.

EmmanuelGod coming to earth in the form of a man is central to the Christian faith. The core of our faith is not a set of doctrines or principles. Rather is a person, Jesus the Christ, whose story we read in the Bible. The simple Bible words, “he became a man and dwelt among us” tell us that God chose to tell us what he is like on our terms. Another translation puts it this way:

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood

We do not need to understand all the eternal mysteries of God; but only the man Jesus. No early language would be able to fully explain God, but all of them can repeat the story of Jesus.

Christmas tells us a lot about God, but it also tells us a lot about how we can be. Jesus crossed the gulf toward us. So, we can cross the gulf of beliefs, culture and language. God did not require that we adapt to him, instead he adapted to us. Too often, Christians expect those outside the faith and those of other languages and cultures to make a journey toward them. But that is not God’s way. This is:

As she was hearing the Christmas story in her language for the first time, an educated Cape Verdian woman put down her Portuguese Bible.  “I let the words fall over me,” she said. “For the first time in my life I felt washed by the Word. I thought I knew the Christmas story by heart, but I must confess that today I feel like I’ve heard it for the very first time.

Christmas animation - mixedSome have said that Jesus’ coming to earth from heaven is the foremost example of translation. They even say that it proves that the message of Jesus is translatable in all languages. After all, the gulf between my language, English, and the language of many Ghanaians, Twi, cannot be bigger than the gulf between us and God. The same is true for all languages. Or are we to say that the message, in the person of Jesus, came one million million miles but cannot go another inch?

The argument sometimes advanced that some language is too humble to contain the lofty truth about God, fails before the lofty God coming and speaking one of our humble languages. Christmas silences it.

Jesus came to common people in his incarnation, and translation into vernacular languages is the only way Jesus will reach common men, women and children today (Desiring God)

This Christmas, may you renew your wonder at God translating himself into human form, and may that rejuvenate your confidence that God speaks to you, and all peoples, in the way each of us understands deep in our hearts.

Manger banner

Earth, receive your king

Someone pointed out to me that Joy to the Word is much more than a Christmas carol – it is a song about God’s mission in this world. Just read the lyrics and think about them.

Christmas-Sunday-Joy-to-the-WorldJoy to the world! The Lord is come:
let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare him room
and heaven and nature sing.
and heaven and nature sing
and heaven and nature sing

Joy to the world! the Savior reigns:
let men their songs employ
while fields and floods rocks hills and plains
repeat the sounding joy
repeat the sounding joy
repeat the sounding joy

No more let sins and sorrows grow
nor thorns infest the ground:
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found
far as curse is found
far as curse is found

He rules the earth with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness
and wonders of his love
and wonders of his love
and wonders of his love

Isn’t everyone learning English?

This week, we return to answering the questions I was most asked while I was last in the US.

It is natural to think that everyone is learning today’s world language, English. When I travel, I mostly find people who speak English. It has been assumed that the Internet would result in everyone learning English.

World languages graphicAbout 560 million people speak English as their first language, as this graphic shows. Estimates of the number who speak English as a second language range from 375 to 600 million. It is important to note that most of the people who speak English as a second (or third, or forth) language have no intention of making English their primary language. They may speak it at work, but not at home, with their friends or when shopping, for example.

Microsoft blogOne would think that modern technology would be a force for people to learn English. But some technological developments may be making it easier for people to keep their languages. Microsoft has a “Local Language Program” which seeks to produce versions of its Windows operating system in more and more languages. One can download a free “language pack” Windows which includes African languages such as Hausa, Sesotho, Swahili and more.

According to a 2012 report from Common Sense Advisory (CSA), in 2009 it only took 37 languages to reach 98 percent of people on the web, but in 2012 it took 48 languages to reach the same percentage. CSA also indicated that the “English” slice of the Internet language pie is getting smaller each year. Since 2009, English is down from 48 to 36 percent. Figures just released by MIT indicate that only 1/3 of tweets on Twitter are in English. These trends call into question the assumption that the Internet will cause everyone to learn English.

Ghana and Ghana in Africa

Ghana in Africa

English is the official language of Ghana. If you are in Accra, it will seem that everyone speaks English. Elsewhere, it is a different story. Most Ghanaians who speak English learn it in school, not at home. According to UNESCO, 42% of children attend secondary school. Even if we assume that all of those graduate and therefore speak good English (both are very generous assumptions), then 42% of young people in Ghana speak English competently. That is after 60 years of spending a good part of the budget on education.

So, is everyone learning English? Not even close.

But even if  they were, that might not be a good thing for faith in Christ. For a millennium, Latin enjoyed the place in Europe that English now has in the world. It was the language of government, church, education and commerce. But the church stagnated during that time. The translation of the Bible into the languages of the people was part are overcoming that stagnation. Researcher Patrick Johnson, Editor of Operation World, has written:

The use of liturgical languages and Scriptures across many cultures and multiple centuries such as Latin, Greek, Syriac, Slavonic provided continuity and impressive ceremonial church services, but damaged the transmission of the truths they contained and hastened the nominalization and even demise of Christianity

Dr. Harriet Hill of the American Bible Society has come to a similar conclusion. She writes:

Times when mother-tongue Scriptures were neglected in the communication of the Gospel, such as the early Middle Ages in Europe, often correlate with times of spiritual stagnation. Churches that experienced persecution and isolation from the rest of the Christian world, such as those in Madagascar and China, have often endured and even multiplied if they had Scriptures in local languages. In contrast, churches without Scripture in local languages, even those at centers of Christianity like Alexandria, have disappeared from the map.

It appears that the lesson of history is that when one language becomes widespread, like English or Latin, that is good for government, commerce and even the church as an organization, but not for true faith.

Are languages related?

I am continuing a series of blogs responding to the questions I was most asked when I was in the US. This week, the question is:

You say there are 7,105 languages spoken today.  Are they related to each other?

There is a very short answer: Yes, they are. But how? There is a relationship between English as it is spoken in Oregon and as it is spoken in Alabama. That kind of relationship is commonly called dialect. Linguists prefer “language variation” because of the  negative connotations attached to the word “dialect”.

AfectoBut there is another kind of relationship between languages; the kind that exists between English, German, French, Spanish and Latin. In this kind of relationship, the languages share words, or have words that are similar. We see the similarity between the English word “affection” and the Spanish word “afecto” which carries the same meaning. Also, languages related in this way share grammatical features. A grammatical feature in many Indo-European languages is that words carry gender. It might surprise you to know that in other language families, this is not the case. Most African languages, for example, have exactly the same word for “he” as for “she”. Instead of gender, many African languages have a different complexity called noun classes.

Obviously, this kind of similarity does not translate (pun intended) into mutual understanding. Languages which are similar in this way are grouped into language families. When I say that there are 7,105 languages in the world, I am not including language variation. If I did, the number would run into many tens of thousands. Instead, English is counted as one language despite its many variations.

AfricaLangFam_HLcolorsThere are six major language families, and a large number of smaller ones.  Africa has several language families including the Niger-Congo language family, one of the world’s largest, shown in deep teal green on the map. The languages in that family are like each other and different from each other in the same way English, Spanish, German, French and Latin are all similar to each other in some ways and at the same time very different from each other. Related languages can be grouped into clusters, where translation is done in more than one language at a time, which increases the speed of translation without reducing the quality.

In addition to maps, linguists use tree diagrams, to show how languages are related to each other. Here is one tree diagram of the Indo-European language family which includes English, Spanish, German, French and Latin.

Schleicher's Language Tree

Christmas Hampers

A Christmas hamper given to a friend of ours in 2011

A Christmas hamper given to a friend of ours in 2011

Giving Christmas hampers is a UK tradition, apparently. At least I think that is where urban Ghanaians got it, Ghana being a former British colony – The Gold Coast. In any case, it is a tradition in urban areas to give a Christmas hamper to each of your friends. Businesses give them to customers, suppliers and partners. We see them in the stores, place prominently near the checkout lanes – baskets full of canned milk, sparkling juices, cookies and other goodies. They can be expensive, easily reaching 150 cedis, or about $70. Some are quite a bit more expensive than that. Apparently there are people and businesses in Accra whose income allows them to purchase and give away a number during the Christmas season.

Apparently, government offices got into the tradition as well. A nice hamper for one’s boss might help your career. Then some offices started using public funds to purchase the hampers. The President of Ghana has responded by banning government offices from using public funds to purchase hampers for gifts. He has said that any official caught doing so will have his or her pay docked for the amount plus a surcharge.

Good leadership at the top. I like it.

Languages or dialects

I am continuing a series of blogs responding to the questions I was most asked when I was in the US. This week, the question is:

You say there are 7,105 languages spoken today. Are those real languages or dialects?

Accents of America

Accents of America

I could start with a long explanation of the fact that there is no commonly accepted way of telling the difference between a language and a dialect. I will spare you that. Let’s be practical. I am not using the word “dialect” as it is sometimes used – to mean a way of speaking that is considered inferior. I am using it to mean a different way of speaking the same language. It assumes that with little or no effort, two people each speaking his or her own dialect will understand almost all of what they other says. It could be that the differences between the two dialects are enough that people from one need to spend a few hours speaking with people from the other dialect before they understand everything.

Dialects of English in Great Britain

Dialects of English in Great Britain

This kind of practical definition is close to the definition used by the Ethnologue, from which I get the number of 7,105 languages. So English is listed as one language in the Ethnologue, not as several. If we were to count the dialects of all the languages, the number would be many tens of thousands. For example, the Ethnologue lists over 30 dialects of English within the United Kingdom alone; noting that there are “Many local English varieties around the world.”

So the number of 7,105 represents that many individual languages. It is not inflated by including dialects of each language.