Hidden peoples

When I speak in churches in the US, some people are often surprised that there are 7000 languages in the world and that some of them do not have the Bible. One of the reasons for this is that the people who speak those languages are hidden. Here’s one small illustration. This is a map of the percentage of people in Mexico who speak an indigenous language. Note that the percentages are quite low (under 5%) along the US border. In fact the rate is less than 1% in the parts of Mexico adjoining Texas.

The road to Baglo, Ghana

So if an American crosses the border by land everyone will seem to speak Spanish. The 0-5% who speak other languages will be hidden. Because they don’t speak Spanish, they can’t get a job dealing with customers, so of course all service people, cashiers, waitresses, etc you meet will speak Spanish. If a business does have an employee who does not speak Spanish, they will be in a role that does not come into contact with customers such as a dishwasher, nor night janitor. So the 1-5% are hidden to most people. You might have to travel to a rural area and even then you might have to be invited into a private home to meet them. You would never know that Mexico has 326 languages of which 133 are in danger of dying out, leaving 193 vibrant languages communities.

I find that many Ghanaians are surprised when they learn how many languages there are in their country. When I mention the name of a language, it is not unusual for people to say they have never heard of it. And this is their country! They often ask if it is really a Ghana language, if the source of my information is reliable, and so on. It may surprise you to learn that many Ghanaian government officials, even highly placed, do now know of all the languages in their country.

Nawuri chief

This obscurity is felt by the hidden peoples themselves. In 2012, I was there when chief of the Nawuri people stood before a crowd and was presented the newly-translated Nawuri New Testament. His response:

“We have now been counted among the people of God.”
“Politicians don’t know us, but God knows us.”

That last comment reflects the disconnect his people feel. They are hidden even from the people who are officially their representatives.

This Sunday is the International Day for the Unreached. It’s a good day to remember that you can’t find the people on the margins of our society – hidden peoples, bibleless peoples, peoples without the Gospel – without explicitly looking for them.

For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost. (Luke 19:10)

Prayer for the start of translation in three smaller languages in Ghana’s Volta Region

Translation and identity

I am an American. Sometimes people in Ghana asks me where I am from. I tell them the United States. I have not yet had someone ask me where that is. I have a national identity which is recognized worldwide by almost everyone.

The road to Baglo

The road to Baglo

It is not so for many who speak the smaller languages of the world. Some of you reading this might have to ask about Ghana were someone to tell you he is from Ghana. But what if someone told you he was Buem, Nawuri, Nafaanra or Sekpele? Those peoples have an identity, but it is not widely known. Even officials in their own countries may not know who they are. At the presentation of the New Testament in the Nawuri language of Ghana, a prominent chief of the Nawuri said:

“Politicians do not know us.”

What would it be like to have an identity which officials in your own country do not recognize? Many peoples who do not have a Bible in their language are in exactly that situation. They feel it. I have heard some of them wonder if they are cursed by God, or wonder why God would have them born into a minority. Does God have something against them? Some feel divided about their identity. On the one hand they speak their language and identify with others like them, but on the other they want the advantages and recognition that come from being part of a more well-known identity.

The crowd

The crowd

I recently attended the dedication of the Bible into the Buem (also known as Lelemi) language. There, I heard a lot of comments about identity. Some of the quotes can only be understood in the context of the unknown status of their Buem identity, such as:

When God confused the languages at Babel, the Buem were there.

The Buem understand this to mean that their language is not some unfortunate mistake.

God intended the creation of the Buem language. So their identity as Buem is not a curse, a mistake or an oversight. When the Apostle Paul was preaching in Athens, he said:

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.

People with their Buem Bibles

People with their Buem Bibles

If you think about it, that is a very strange thing to say in evangelistic preaching – for an American that is. Yet the Apostle considered it a key thing to preach to Athenians – that God created all peoples, that he decided what their status should be at various points in history. The Buem spoke this message to each other at the dedication. If the Buem language was created at the Tower of Babel, then it is God’s deliberate and good creation; not a curse or an unfortunate oversight. God himself created the Buem language and identity. Another Buem person said:

We are gaining our identify in God’s people.

When I quoted the Nawuri chief above, I left out the end of his statement. Here’s the whole:

“Politicians do not know us, but God know us! We have now been included among the People of God!”

Daniel Asiama, MP

Daniel Asiama, MP

A translation of the Bible necessarily represents both the language in question and God. It is, therefore, an identity bridge. Through the translation of the Bible into their languages, smaller language groups around the world are weaving their ethnic and linguistic identities into an identity with the people of God. And this is not new. The Apostle Paul spent a whole chapter on identity in his letter to the Romans, including this quote:

For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many peoples.” (Romans 4:16b-17)



All those who have Abraham as their father have a common identity. The dedication of the Bible into Buem attracted ordinary people, ministers of the Gospel, choirs, politicians, business people, and traditional chiefs. Why, because here is something very important – the most published and translated book in the world and the holy book of the largest religion in the world – in the language of their identity.

“Let’s all be happy, because the Bible we receive today is more than food and drink to us.” -Daniel Asiama, Ghana Member of Parliament from the Buem constituency

Cheering the Bible as it is presented for the first time

Cheering the Bible as it is presented for the first time

As God came down to be born in human form, now the Word has come down into Buem form. That act offers to all Buem the wonderful opportunity to weave the thread of their identity into the rich, colorful and varied cloth that is the people of God – to become one of the peoples who have Abraham as their common faith father. They can connect their small (by the word’s standards) identity to the largest and most permanent of all human identities – that of the faith children of Abraham.

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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.


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.

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.

500 2000 3000 then 2000 again


There are perhaps as many as 500 languages in the world. At least that’s what Wycliffe’s founder William Cameron Townsend thought when he started the organization in the 1930s. The number increased to 1,000. Then by the time I joined in the 1970s, it was over 2000. By then, Wycliffe had published a book entitled Two Thousand Tongues to Go.

Gradually, the number kept increasing. Why? Well, we kept discovering more languages. In the 1990s that stopped. Oh, we still might find a new language here or there, but nothing like the thousands being discovered in the middle of the 20th century. One of the little-heralded scientific achievements of that period was the cataloging of all the languages of the world, largely achieved by people interested in translating the Bible into more languages.

As the number of known languages increased – eventually to over 6,900 – so did the number without a translation of the Bible, reaching 3,000 in the 1990s – a far cry from the estimated 500 of only 60 years earlier.

But even as the number of languages stabilized around 6,900, the number still needing a translation was only decreasing by 25 per year – translation work was starting in about 25 languages every year. Imagine trying to save $3,000 by adding $25 to a cookie jar once a year. Even stalwart supporters of translating the Bible into all languages wondered if it was doable or worthwhile.

Enter John Watters. He had an idea called Vision 2025 which called for starting translation in all languages by 2025. A nice motivational goal, I thought, even if it can’t be done.

Well, Wycliffe just released the latest statistics. You can see them here. The number of languages without the Bible has dropped to less than 2,000 for the first time since we knew how many languages there are! Better, the rate of starting translation in more languages has increased way beyond 25 per year. The current pace has translation in the last language starting in the 2030s. Of course, that requires that giving, going and praying continue at the same pace. On the other hand, if God’s people were to pick up the pace a bit, 2025 is very possible.

This means that my children will see the last translation started and probably finished! Time is running out to be part of this historic moment. Don’t show up at the end of the world, see how proud our God is of those he asked to be involved and regret that you didn’t invest some prayer, money or time in this great thing God is doing.

Ten Thousand

A Bible translation organization in the US, The Seed Company, has launched a new initiative called The Least of These, for smaller languages. About 500 of the languages of the world have the whole Bible, many more have the New Testament. But 340 million people speaking 2,000 languages do not have even one verse of Scripture in their language. More than 70 percent of the people groups without the Bible have fewer than 10,000 speakers. Amazingly, 600 are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people.

Wait! Translate the Bible for only 10,000 people?! Isn’t that a waste of resources?

Traditional dwelling

Traditional dwelling in northern Ghana

That is certainly a fair and important question. Especially as you may have heard that many languages are dying out. Why translate the Bible into a language which shortly will not be spoken any more? But having only a few speakers does not necessarily mean that a language is dying out. Some languages stay alive and vibrant even with few people speaking them.

I might not do a translation in a language with 50,000 speakers that was dying, but I might do one for a language of 10,000 that was growing in numbers. So, the question is not about dying languages, but rather about small but alive languages.

So, back to our question. Translate the Bible for only 10,000 people?! Isn’t that a waste of resources? I will let you answer by asking you two questions.

  • If a pastoral couple moved into a town of 10,000 near you without a church, spent 20 years there, and planted a vibrant and growing church, would you say that they wasted their time on a small community?
  • If you lived in a town of 10,000 and the only church had no pastor, would you consider it a waste of resources to call a pastor to that church? Even if the church only has 100 believers in it?

If it is legitimate for at least one pastoral couple to serve a town of 10,000 then dedicating one missionary translator couple to serve an ethnic groups of the same size must also be legitimate. Besides, many towns with populations of 10,000 or less in North America have more than one church and one pastor. In addition, the translator would serve in the language group for a limited time, but a town of 10,000 will need a pastor forever.

One of the implications of the Golden Rule is that we should not wish for others what we would not want for ourselves. So, if you would want a full-time pastor if you lived in a town of 10,000, then don’t say of a people group of 10,000 that they don’t need to have someone translate the Bible for them.

If you liked this, you might also like Patois or Heart Language.

Dying languages

You may have heard that a large number of the world’s languages are dying. That may have caused you to wonder if it might be a waste to translate the Bible into those languages. That is a very good thing to wonder about! As you might expect, the answer is not a simple “yes” or “no”.

First, how many languages are dying out? Well, UNESCO has an Atlas of Endangered Languages (Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. Paris, UNESCO Publishing)  which you can find on line at http://www.unesco.org/culture/languages-atlas/en/atlasmap.html.
For Ghana, it lists five languages as endangered. There are five degrees of endangerment ranging from vulnerable to extinct. Languages not endangered are listed as “safe”. Here is the UNESCO language vulnerability scale definitions for each degree of endangerment.

Degree of endangerment

Intergenerational language transmission


Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g. home)

Definitely endangered

Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home

Severely endangered

Language is spoken by grandparents and older generations while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves

Critically endangered

The youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the languages partially and infrequently


There are no speakers left

None of the Ghana languages are extinct. Only one gets the next-worst ranking – “critically endangered”, and three get ranked as having the least severe degree of endangerment – “vulnerable” – where most people still speak the language. So it is far from certain that all of the five languages listed as endangered will die out. Even if they did, because there are more than 60 languages spoken in Ghana, at least 55 languages will continue. They are in no danger of dying out in the foreseeable future. In fact, almost all of them will probably even continue to grow. The situation is similar to this is much of Africa. On the other hand, many languages in other parts of the world seem to be headed toward almost certain extinction, as the following chart shows.
Chart of languages in danger of dying worldwide

Chart of languages in danger of dying worldwide

Before we translate the Bible into a language, we do some research to find out if the language is dying, and other facts about it. This assures that we make a good investment of God’s resources. We also make the decisions by taking into account the situation for each language, not on the basis of global trends.
Lastly, some language trends are not developing the way many predicted. For example, it was thought that the Internet would cause the spread of English and the consequent death or marginalization of other languages. But according to a recent analysis of languages used on the Internet:
In 2009, it only took 37 languages to reach 98 percent of people on the web, but in 2012 it takes 48 languages to reach the same percentage
So it might be that the Internet is actually making a way for smaller languages to survive, perhaps even extend themselves. Trends in human society are rarely linear or easy to predict. What seems obvious, sometimes turns out to be false.
Rest assured that we pay special attention to the question of language death in our planning and decision-making. Our agenda is to serve people who speak languages that are very much alive.

If you liked this, you might also like Teach Them English.