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Data and mission 2: Painting with numbers November 7, 2020

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, multilingualism, Statistics.

“The world is changing. The world’s need for Christ is unchanging.”

Wycliffe Global Alliance, Infographic 2020

I have have spent significant parts of the last 24 years asking about, and now explaining what numbers around ethnolinguistic groups and their access to scripture mean or don’t mean.

image part of a larger info graphic from wycliffe.net

Complexity begins with where you actually draw some of the lines between Europe and Asia or Asia and Pacific. Further complexity comes from the fact that many languages are not just spoken in one place – all English speakers do not live in England, and lots of people speak Spanish beyond the borders of Spain. This doesn’t just apply to the so called global languages.

My own analysis of some available data on where languages are spoken identified 1218 languages that are known to be spoken in more than one country …and also suggested that there might be gaps in some of our data.

This is something apparent on many national census reports where lots of languages get grouped together in simple categories, but even when people self report they don’t always report ‘their’ language for a variety of reasons, including the fact that many people not only speak more than one language, they can speak more than two. When asked someone might simply respond with the language that has the higher perceived prestige, or be believed to be the most useful in the context. This can perhaps be compared to people from small towns being asked where they are from and saying that they live ‘near’ a bigger city.

Multilingualism is also one reason why there is a difference between the reported number of languages that don’t have Scripture and the number in which translation is reported as needing to begin.

Some of the difference between ‘remaining need’ and ‘languages without scripture’ is simply that initial work has begun in a lot of languages but hasn’t yet resulted in published Scripture.

The infographic has to resort to longer text to answer the question:
In which languages is Scripture translation not needed?

Since 1999 Wycliffe and partner organization, SIL, have talked about the goal of “a Bible translation project in progress for every people group that needs it.”
Implicit in that goal is the idea that, although every people group needs the Bible, the Bible may not need to be translated into every language. This sounds shocking to some people until you look at the numbers and see that of the 7000+ languages listed by the Ethnologue about 200 no longer have any first language users, and just under another 200 have 12 or fewer speakers the last time anyone counted them.
Even in languages used by hundreds or thousands of people, there is often a clear shift underway as the next generation functions more and more comfortably in a ‘language of wider communication.’
Today many communities are taking greater ownership and action in
determining their own needs and are working in partnership with others
to achieve their own translation goals.

I’ve passed on most of the explaining of Wycliffe’s annual statistics to others and am now involved in several initiatives including looking more deeply at data around migration and multilingualism (see the #multilingualchurch section). As before …it’s complicated.


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