Barrier to bridge

For many people, most perhaps, the fact that there are 7,000 languages spoken in the world today is a problem. Wouldn’t everything be a lot easier if everyone spoke the same Language?

Missionaries and churches have sometimes taken the approach that languages are a barrier, refusing to use them for worship or evangelism. Instead they use a regional, dominant, or official language. Dr. Harriet Hill and Dr. Lamin Sanneh have pointed out that this often leads to stagnation of the Christian faith.

It has become more and more common for missionaries to see languages as a bridge rather than as a barrier. In fact, seeing languages as a bridge has become so common that we can speak of a paradigm shift in missions. One very large international mission agency even shifted all of its work away from dominant languages to local languages when the saw the success of the latter approach.

Langauge Map of Ghana

Langauge Map of Ghana

Unfortunately churches lag behind missions in this paradigm shift. Their members may have a vested political economic, educational, tribal, or other interest in maintaining the dominant language. Also they are generally not aware of the successes of ministry based on the idea that every language is a bridge between the people and the Gospel.

In Ghanaian churches we sometimes encounter skepticism of the value of translating the Bible into the lesser known languages of the country. If the problem is that they lack information, they quickly change their minds once they are informed. On the other hand, things are more difficult if they have a vested interest in maintaining the dominant language. Language is often highly political.

So, our goal of mobilizing the churches in Ghana for translation addresses both the need for information and the need to moderate some political positions.

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.

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.

Linguistic diversity

How likely is it that the next random person you meet will speak  your heart language (mother tongue)?

A man named Greenberg developed a Linguistic Diversity Index based on that question. It takes into account the number of languages in a country, but refines that by looking at how many people speak each one. When one applies his formula to the countries of the world and maps it, this is what you get. Darker is more diverse (more languages and few large languages).

Linguistic Diversity Index

This graphic has huge implications for all sorts of things, from education and development to religion and  politics. As a Bible translator, it tells me where people are least likely to have the Bible in their language.

Click on the map and you will get an interactive version on the originating site.

For you math gurus, Greenberg’s formula is DI = 1 – Σ(Pi)2

Pi = the percent fraction of the total population which comprises the ith language group

i = 1 to n, where n is the number of languages that comprise the society
Σ = is the summation of (Pi)2 for all i