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Bible-less languages and Bible-less people July 9, 2018

Posted by P, J, or J in Bible Translation, multilingualism, Statistics.
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People often get confused as to why there is a difference between the number of languages that don’t have any scripture and the number of languages in which Wycliffe and others report that scripture translation needs to begin.

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I’m wondering if we sometimes need to be more careful to distinguish between “Bible-less languages” and “Bible-less people”.

The simplest public messages on the need for Bible translation continue to imply that people cannot understand or respond to scripture unless it is in their language but research over the last 40 years has taught us that there are in fact many barriers to engagement. Which perhaps explains why there are so many millions of people who own or could easily access a Bible in their main (or only) language but never read it.

Language can obviously be a significant barrier (this is why I’ve spent the last 22 years of life working with Wycliffe and others involved in Bible translation). Promotional material has often implied that people only speak one language really well. This is sometimes nuanced with the idea that people only have a single “heart language” through which God can clearly connect  to them.

Many people speak more than one language equally well. Some are spoken to in multiple languages from birth, others acquire them one after another as they move into education or as they move from one place to another. It can still be true that for people who speak several languages well, one or two touch them more deeply. Language isn’t just about intellectual understanding but also about emotional connection, identity, and even trust.

2017BTstats-enThere are 3,312 languages with some scripture and 1,636 languages where translation is estimated as ‘needing to begin’. (figures from Wycliffe’s last official global statistics in Oct 2017)

Those ‘translation needs’ might rise or fall depending not just on linguistic analysis but upon the felt needs of the speakers.

As our understanding of the issues of multilingualism continues to grow it may be that some of the need is for initial connection with the Bible rather than ensuring that what ‘we’ see as the most important bits around salvation and Christian living are translated first.

One old story that comes to mind is the impact of genealogies for some cultures. Something the translators saw as secondary to the ‘important bits’ but which gave the local people the connection they needed –  a list of ancestors pointed to Jesus being a real person, the length of the list pointed to him being a very important person. Suddenly mere stories became true! In Joanne Shetlers’ book, “And The Word Came with Power“, it’s interesting to note that while Bible translation had a major impact, this discovery came from looking at a Bible in a majority language.

Meanwhile, I once met a young British man who had tried reading the Bible before but didn’t understand it. I showed him a modern translation opened “at random” to include the bit about God loving the world and giving his son so that those who believed could have eternal life – all wrapped up in John 3:16. The key to him engaging was John 1:37, “They answered, “Where do you live, Rabbi?” (This word means “Teacher.”)”
“Hey this is great!”, my new friend said, “It tells you what it means.”

Although there are still many people who are unreached and unevangelised, there are also billions of people do have easy access to the “important” bits in languages of head and heart but they have yet to make it past their own obstacles and make the connections.


For anyone wanting to read more deeply about multilingualism I’ve just downloaded a draft copy of “Language and Identity in a Multilingual, Migrating World“. I’ve got lots more of it to read but recommend John Watters’ section on “The Language of the Heart”. 

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