Small languages: Part 1

The August 9th is the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. So I’m going to post some blogs about small languages.

Sometimes, people ask me how big a language has to be for us to translate the Bible into it. You may be surprised at my response – how many people speak a language is not an important criteria for whether we translate into it. Don’t get me wrong, it is a valid criteria, just not a very important one.

Language Vitality in Africa

That is because other criteria are more useful, especially the criteria of language vitality. Language vitality asks the question whether the language is being passed to the next generation, in other words whether there are signs that it is dying. To understand this, let’s imagine a situation that is and has been quite common in the USA. Say Swedish immigrants, a married couple, arrived in Minnesota in the early 1900s. In their home, they speak Swedish, but they learn English through contact with their neighbors and others in the community. When they have children, they continue to speak Swedish in their home, but the children quickly learn English through their friends and at school. In fact, the children speak English better than their parents. As the children graduate from high school and move out of the home they speak Swedish less and less, perhaps only when they visit home. Then the children get married. One or two may marry the children of other Swedish immigrants in the community, but others have spouses who do not speak Swedish. In any case, the couples speak English together, not Swedish. So when they have children, they speak to them in English. So the grandchildren of the immigrants no longer speak their language.

This imaginary story shows a typical case of the interruption of transmission of a language from one generation to the next. This process typically takes three generations. While my imaginary story concerns one migrant family, the same thing can happen to a whole community without migration being a factor. The same process can be found in communities of Native Americans where one generation speaks the language at home, the next learns the language at home but has as much or more contact with English and starts using English as its preferred language, then the next generation does not learn the language from those parents. Or they may learn only very limited parts of the language.

Language Vitality in North and South America

So, a crucial criteria for translating the Bible into a language is the language’s vitality – whether the language is being transmitted to the next generation. A simple survey can determine if the language is being passed to children in the home. When we know that, we can project the number of people who will speak it in 30, 50 or 70 years. If that projected number is increasing because of population growth and children learning the language in the home, then a translation might be warranted even if a smaller number of people speak it today. On the other hand, a language with more speakers but low vitality and hence a projection of decreasing numbers of speakers, might not get a translation. Vitality is more important than number.

While I was in Côte d’Ivoire, language surveys were being done to assess language vitality and other relevant factors, so that resources for translation can be allocated wisely. While some languages in Côte d’Ivoire have low vitality, most of them them are alive, well and growing.

Learning going the wrong way

Dedication of representative translation committees for three Ghana languages, 2014

Launching translations in three small languages in Ghana’s Volta Region that no on ever learns, although the people who speak these languages almost always learn the regional language.

In Africa, people who speak small languages learn larger languages, but the reverse does not usually happen.

When a missionary whose language is English learns a small language, that speaks volumes. Not only has the missionary learned the language, he or she has done something counter their own interests. Learning the smaller language is a step down the social ladder. When Africans learn smaller languages to minister to people, that also speaks volumes about humility and service. I have written about a specific example.

An African translator told me how a church leader mocked him for volunteering to help in literacy in his “little language”. The person told him that such activities have no value because his language is so small.

But the things that are growing the church in rural areas in northern Ghana and northern Côte d’Ivoire are translations and literacy in those “worthless” languages that no one will bother to learn. It’s another delicious example of God’s subversion from below:

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. (I Corinthians 1:27)

It turns out that the things people readily dismiss as useless provide the real leverage for transforming communities and bringing Gospel life.

The beatitudes of language

On one of my trips into Congo, I found myself in the city of Kisangani over a weekend. One of the church leaders I was working with suggested that I attend the French language worship service at his church. (French is the official language of Congo, spoken by under 15% of the people. Everyone speaks one of the 220 African languages native to the country.) It is quite common for churches in Africa to have multiple services on Sunday in different languages with one of them being in the official languages of the country (French, English or Portuguese).

Choir and the French language service

Choir and the French language service

I was disappointed. Instead of finding a vibrant congregation of government officials and others with good education, the congregation was composed of 20 or 30 high school and university students. They were not in a French language service because French was their preferred language for prayer and worship. Instead, they were in a French language church service because French is prestigious and they wanted to display that they were part of the educated elite. The thing is, they didn’t master French that well, so they had the opposite effect on me, although they were certainly impressing themselves.

It is easy to think that language is about communication and so in every circumstance where there is a choice between languages, people will choose the language most likely to communicate. Sociolinguists will tell you that this is not so. Living in a places where many languages are spoken has made me acutely aware that language choice is often not about communication. The young students in Kisangani that Sunday did not choose French because it communicated best, or because it helped them express their thoughts and emotions best. No, they choose French because of its prestige. Communication, if it was a consideration, came a distant second.

Preacher at the French-language service

Preacher at the French-language service

I have seen young pastors returning from Bible School or seminary preach to people in their own village in the official language even though they know that few understand it. Why? Because preaching in the official language shows that they are well-educated.

People choose one language over another to help them accomplish their goals. If their goal is to communicate, they will choose the language that communicates best. If their goal is to lift up, encourage and empower others, they will choose the language that does that.

But, if their goal is to sound educated, enhance their prestige or establish their authority, they will choose the language that does that. Where I have lived in Africa, language choice is a great humility gauge and a very accurate detector of the intentions of the heart. Part of doing Bible translation in Africa is helping churches and pastors rethink some of their attitudes toward language. The Beatitudes give guidance for language choice in multilingual environments:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

In many contexts English (or whichever language is the official language) is the power choice, not the meek choice. It is the choice lacking compassion for the listeners, not the merciful choice. It is the choice of those wealthy in spirit.


Boring stuff

Exciting. I hear that word all the time especially in church. I wonder if we are addicted to it because of our entertainment culture. But, some stuff that really matters is mind-numbingly tedious.

In the 1930s, when William Cameron Townsend founded Wycliffe Bible Translators he thought that there were perhaps 500 languages in the world. He found out later that his estimate was way off. Fortunately, he knew that he needed hard information, so he started a positively lackluster arm of Bible translation responsible for finding out how many languages there are. Back in the day, we called it “language survey”. I even did a little in Burkina Faso in the late 1970s but most is done by specialists. One of my friends, Douglas Boone (right), has spent his whole missionary career in this endeavor. I’ll bet he has never had a conversation that went:

Person in church: What kind of mission work do you do?
Douglas: I count languages.
Person in church: Wow, how exciting!

I could go into a lot of narcolepsy-inducing details about language survey. You might be interested in some facts about languages which are dying. But a discussion of a question like “What is a language?” might cause you to recommend me to your local sleep clinic – as a therapist!

Early on, those doing language survey started publishing a book cataloging the languages of the world, the Ethnologue. For years, every new edition of the Ethnologue would have about 400 more languages than the earlier edition. While we were in Burkina Faso, some of my colleagues discovered two previously unknown languages. They appeared in the next edition of the Ethnologue.

The number of languages in the Ethnologue stabilized in the mid 1990s at around 6,900, meaning that the list was finally very accurate. That is hardly exciting, but it is very significant. Most Bible translations in new languages published for the last 30 years were done because the languages were identified and cataloged in the Ethnologue. Otherwise, those languages might never have gotten a translation. In one man’s lifetime, we have gone from a wildly inaccurate estimate of 500 languages to a highly reliable catalog. In fact, the Ethnologue is so reliable that it has become an official standard of the International Standards Organization. For the first time we know how many language still need a Bible translation and we can project how much time, money and energy that will take. Church leaders, like the ones in the photo pouring over a language map from the Ethnologue, have information they need for their ministries. It might be a little exciting because it is a sign of the end times, if only a minor one.

I don’t know what we would do in Congo if we did not have a language map like the one below to tell us where each of the 223 languages is located. Knowing where the languages are and how they are related also allows us to add some time and money-saving ways of working.

My hat is off to all those who have cataloged languages, including the young woman I knew who died in an automobile accident in Africa while doing her “uninteresting” work.

So, let me know what you think. Do you think that “exciting” has too much attraction for us? Might  our fascination with the exciting sometimes keep us from the important?  Would you pray for someone doing language survey, or give financial support?

Update: Someone else wrote about boring stuff: We Need Boring Christians. Check it out.

If you feel the way we do, or you want to know more, see our website, subscribe to this blog, talk with us on Facebook, or sign up to support us through prayer or financial support.

Bagamba and Maziga

Bagamba works with us in Congo. He is specialist in all things socio-linguistic. That is a big word to describe something very important to our work. He does research to answer questions such as:

  • How many languages are there and where is each one?
  • Are languages in Congo disappearing?
  • Are the Bible translations being used?
  • What is hindering the use of the translations?

Photos from top: Lab tech drawing Maziga’s blood, Ed and Bagamba at our place, Maziga doing a puzzle in our living room.

Bagamba is on his way to an international meeting of others doing the same kind of research around the world. His eight-year-old daughter, Maziga, has had persistent and undiagnosed stomach pain. So he brought her as far as Nairobi to see if the more advanced medical services here can diagnose the problem.

They are both staying with us; Bagamba for a few days and Maziga until September 23. So we are parenting again. Or are we grandparenting for the first time? Maziga is a very gifted girl. She loves puzzles, so she and Dayle get along famously over a 1000 piece puzzle!! Maziga put together all the water and the castle. Phenomenal, at 8 yrs old. So methodical and patient with the puzzle. Maziga and Dayle might also do some baking.

Saturday September 12: We got the results of the first round of tests and Maziga saw the doctor a second time. Her stomach problems are parasites which are easily treated. Great news. More tests still coming…

Monday September 14: For over six months, Maziga has been having what are either fainting spells or mild siezures. She has had treatment and has been siezure free for over two months. The neurologist ordered an EEG because she had never had one. So we found photos on the Internest of an EEG being done, showed them to her and explained what would happen. Maziga sat through the EEG like a trouper with Dayle there for support. It came out normal. The neurologist believes that she will just grow out of the siezures/fainting spells.

One of Bagamba’s research projects is trying to get information on the use of the Bibles translated into local languages. He has developed a research instrument and trained data collectors. They are gathering information and that will accelerate in November. Personally, I am really looking forward to getting the results early next year. Making decisions is a lot easier when one has good information. Right now we don’t really know how widely the translations are being used, in what ways and what is hindering their use. We want to do all we can to get the Bible into the languages and hearts of as many as possible. After all, God intended his Word for everyone.

Sunday September 20: Bagamba arrives back from his conference late this afternoon after traveling since about 6 PM yesterday. He will be dog tired. After church, we took Maziga out for a little treat and then Dayle took her “window shopping” in an outdoor crafts market called the Masaai Market. She is looking forward to her dad coming back.

I (Ed) am the “Tickle Monster”. Maziga loves a little tickling even reminding me if I have not tickled her yet that day. Our dog, Oreo, get jealous and tries to get in between us.

(This was originally posted on a different site. It was republished here in March 2012.)