Endangered Languages

Endangered languagesYou may have heard that many of the world’s languages are dying. That might lead you to ask why translate the Bible if languages are dying. It’s a good question. The answer is simple. But let’s back up a bit before answering it.

A while back I heard one of Ghana’s leading linguists, a man who spent decades helping to translate the Bible into 13 language in Ghana and neighboring countries, Professor Gilbert Ansre, speak about Ghana’s languages. Here’s what he said:

‘The numbers of speakers of most of the indigenous languages are on the increase and the vast majority of our mother-tongues are not about disappear or “die”. They are here to stay for a long time and need to be reckoned with…’

Dr and Mrs Ansre with portrait

Prof and Mrs Ansre with portrait

Professor Ansre was talking about Ghana. In other places language are dying in significant numbers. Those places include the Americas and Melanesia. The situation simply is not the same in Ghana. In fact, in all of West Africa few of the hundreds of languages are dying. Most are increasing in number just as Professor Ansre said that they are in Ghana. Data gathered independently by governments, churches, linguists and others all lead to this same conclusion.

Why are most of Ghana’s languages growing? Because of population growth. The population growth rate in Ghana is 2.5%. At that rate, the population in Ghana will double in 29 years. Since almost 100% of the native population of Ghana speaks at least one Ghanaian language, the number of people speaking those languages increased by 28% during the last decade and doubled in the last 29 years.

Children in the street

Children in the street

The evidence of population growth is everywhere. When our son Matthew visited with his fiancée who had never been to Africa, she keep commenting on all the young children she saw. They are with their mothers who sell food or vegetables by the road or in the market. Children are everywhere. The church we attend has an attendance of about 500. There are about 100 children in Sunday School, in spite of fact that many who attend are unmarried university students without children.

To see the effect of population growth on keeping languages alive, let’s take an imaginary case of a language spoken by 100,000 people where two thirds of its speakers stop speaking it in the coming 50 years. Here are the numbers using Ghana’s annual population growth rate of 2.5%.

Number of speakers of the language today         100,000
Number in 50 years (2.5% compounded)           335,000
2/3rd stop speaking the language                       -224,000
Remaining 1/3rd                                                      111,000

Children in the street

Children in the street

As you can see, even though 2/3 of the people stopped speaking the language, there were still more people speaking it at the end of the 50 years than there were at the start. Besides, it appears that very few of Ghana’s languages will lose 2/3 of their speakers in the coming 50 years. On the contrary, the number of people speaking Ghanaian languages will probably double or triple.

Back to the original question – why translate the Bible if languages are dying. The simple answer is that we do not translate the Bible into dying languages, but rather into languages that are not only alive; they are growing.

If you liked this, you might also like Dying Langauges or Ten Thousand.

Not my religion

MosqueA number of years ago, I helped at a workshop for translators working in a country where the dominant religion is not Christianity. One of the national translators told of becoming a Christian. He had believed all his life that to be patriotic he had to follow his country’s dominant religion. Everyone from his country followed that religion. So religion and national identity were fused. It took him a long time to realize that he could still be a faithful citizen of his country and become a Christian.

In 2012, I attended a conference on evangelism in Ghana. One of the speakers, told a story about William Ofori Atta, one of the founders of modern Ghana. He had traveled to a town in northern Ghana to help with evangelism. With a church member from that city, he was witnessing in the streets. He started talking to someone. The church member stopped him, saying: “Don’t talk to him, he’s a Dagomba”. The Dagomba are one of the larger people groups in Ghana. Almost all Dagomba follow a world religion other than Christianity. The church member, himself a Christian from the south of Ghana and not a Dagomba, considered it natural that the Dagomba people follow a different religion. The Dagomba man thought the same because after listening for a minute, he said: “As for me, I am Dagomba.” Many Dagomba think that being Dagomba means following a religion other than Christianity.

Sisaala chiefs

Sisaala chiefs

Many people in northern Ghana have woven themselves an identity in which language, ethnicity, culture and religion are part of the same cloth. Following a particular religion, speaking their mother tongue and following their ethnic customs are all part of an immutable identity. In their minds, religion is not a matter of personal conviction or choice any more than being born a member of their ethnic group is a personal choice. One particular religion is seen as part of their identity. They cannot imagine being authentic members of their ethnic group while following another religion.

Worse, some Christians from other ethnic groups believe the same, like the man who stopped William Ofori Atta from witnessing.

Local languages are not morphology and syntax, they are a people’s identity
– Prof B Y Quarshie

B Y Quarshie

B Y Quarshie

Before translation, decades of missions and evangelism in northern Ghana did not change these perceptions of identity and religion. Sometimes, the way evangelism is done aggravates the perceptions – such as when evangelism is done by members of an ethnic group that is mostly Christian and they do it in their language. Or missionaries do evangelism only in the language of one of the largely Christian ethnic groups in Ghana. So, how does one break down perceptions that Christianity is a religion for only some of the peoples of Ghana?

We are working with churches in northern Ghana on a program which has been shown to change those perceptions. The key elements are:

  • Using the heart language (mother tongue) of the people including the Bible in their language
  • Holding church services and evangelism in the heart language of the people
  • Organizing literacy classes for anyone, in their heart language

Research has shown that these methods are effective in breaking down perceptions that Christianity is a religion only for others. Language is also part of peoples’ identity. When a message or teaching is “at home” in their language, people no longer think that it is foreign, or only for others.

We are rolling out this program, including seeking funding for the first three years from Ghanaian Christians. Prayers appreciated!

Bad news

Since Dayle fell desperately ill on July 8, we have gone from one medical surprise to the next. Every few days, her illness and it’s treatment would take a new twist.

Most of those twists were not the kind we were hoping for. I am writing this three months into the saga, and the twists finally stopped, we think, two weeks ago. She is free of infections and her heart problem is not serious, it seems.

On the first week of this saga I was reading Psalm 112. Verse seven says of the righteous person that:

He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD.
Psalm 112:7

It is not because the righteous person never gets bad news that he or she doesn’t fear it. Rather, the person who trusts in the Lord realizes that sometimes life will bring him or her bad news, yet he or she doesn’t fret, worry or obsess about the potential for bad news.

I understood this verse as a promise. If I kept my focus on trusting God, he would keep fear of bad news out of my head and heart. So far, he has.