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Finding (hidden) languages: Why? November 13, 2021

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, multilingualism.

I was excited recently to get a detailed list of the 300 plus languages spoken in 152 local authorities across England and Wales. I already had the list of languages (Available here) but now I have details of where they are spoken and some clues as to by how many people, and I hope to use this to encourage churches to think more deeply about the languages spoken by the people inside their churches and the people around them. This includes new migrants who might need help learning English, but also people who speak English well alongside one or more other languages they grew up with.

In education, schools and local authorities want to have a better idea of the language backgrounds of their pupils and their families to help them in planning and provision. Some may continue to see other ‘languages spoken at home’ as a barrier to education, others are seeing that using ‘home languages’ more at school provides fresh opportunities for individual pupils or even the whole class.

Screenshot from an excellent video on First and Other Languages by Hampshire County Council

A video from Hampshire County Council in 2020 states, “Anyone involved in education understands the benefits of being able to speak and use more than one language – an asset that is becoming increasingly useful in our connected world”. Sadly one reason that they need the video, and the accompanying course is that this view hasn’t always been the dominant one.

A relatively new term used in multilingual education is “translanguaging”, explained in another resource pointed to by Hampshire, from Pearson International Schools “Translanguaging – what is it and how do you plan for it? FAQs“. I’ll be talking about it more as I discuss the implications with colleagues who presented on Bible Translation and Translanguaging at the Bible Translation conference I attended.

Photo of a wall at our local hospital

In healthcare, knowing the languages spoken in the community can be an important part of providing care, ensuring that some materials are available in multiple languages, and that translators are on call where needed. Working with SIL I’ve been aware for over 25 years that our work with local languages has a significant impact on health outcomes. SIL’s Language and Culture Archives have over 1500 resources categorised under Health and Hygene.

Again this isn’t always just about making information available to people who don’t speak or can’t read the national language, it is also about going the extra step of making it personal and relevant. In the UK one of the languages that didn’t show up in the 2011 census of England and Wales was Tetum, spoken in Timor. I spotted it on a census report in Northern Ireland and have since learned that there may be as many as 16-18,000 speakers currently in the UK. A couple of health authorities had already noticed this and produced information on Covid and vaccinations in the language.

In the church, making the best use of available data on people and languages has been part of making the case for mission, and making plans for centuries.

Some history…

In 1792 William Carey devoted a significant portion of his ‘Enquiry’ into setting out his understanding of the state of the world. Part of this was to combat a false narrative at the time that the missionary endeavour was largely complete, and that if God wanted to convert ‘the heathen’ he’d do it without the likes of ‘enthusiasts’ like Carey.

Some of the data today may help combat contemporary false narratives.

The Bible Societies kept records of what was known to have been done, and what was in progress. In 1939 Rev Robert Kilgour listed 1115 languages that had at least some portion of scripture, but stated that any definitive answer as to how many more were needed was impossible. That same year the secretary of the American Bible Society had used a figure from the French Academy suggesting that there were “2,776 languages in the world”. Levels of bilingualism were assumed for the non-majority languages, especially in urban areas and the aim was understood not to be translation for every language but ensuring that everyone had something in a language they could understand. “No doubt there are still several dialects in which it will be necessary to make a version of a Gospel in order to reach more surely the hearts of country folk.”
(A pdf of Kilgour’s The Bible Throughout the World can be downloaded at https://missiology.org.uk/book_bible-throughout-the-world_kilgour.php )

The assumption was that even then 90% of the world had at least something, and so conversely 10% did not. It wasn’t until Cameron Townsend. Leonard Legters, and other founders of SIL that a more comprehensive list of remaining languages began to emerge.

Speculation that there might be 1,000 languages gave way to the notion of “2,000 tongues to go” and the numbers kept going up as more languages were catalogued.

It became clear early on that the need for translation wasn’t quite as simple as counting languages and ticking off the list once ‘something’ was translated. In the early days of the Ethnologue some languages were classified as “too bilingual”.

It’s still common to present the big pictures needs to western monolingual churches and funders more in terms of languages than of people but the story is beginning to change, and that may in part be as we open our eyes and ears to the diversity in our own communities.

Beyond the issue of whether people need scripture in their own language in order to understand, are issues raised by theologian Lamin Sanneh and others about identity and connection. Bible translation is not just intellectual comprehension but head and heart connection. This is a view often reflected on by speakers of minority languages when the scriptures are first available in their language.

Some further research needed

Research and discussion needs to continue about the current and future role of languages in a multlingual world.

In 2019 SIL published a collection of essays on, “Language and Identity in a Multilingual, Migrating World“.

In 2020 SIL colleagues organised the God and Language Forum, reflecting on many issues including the theologies of language. An ebook is due early next year with a print one to follow in due course, but may of the individual papers are already available via the link.

As I’ll explain in my next post, while there is a lot of information about some of the places where some of the (mostly larger) languages are spoken, significant research also needs to continue into finding more data to answer the questions SIL is now encouraging project staff to think about:

“What are all the languages that this community uses?”

“Where are all the communities that use this language?” 

And the related questions I would love churches to consider:

“What are the languages spoken in your community?”

“What are the languages spoken in your church?”


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