International Mother Language Day and the importance of Bible translation

By February 21, 2018

International (MNN) – Today is International Mother Language Day. For the last 18 years, the day has been set aside to recognize the importance of linguistic and cultural diversity as well as multilingualism. This year’s theme focuses on the role different languages play in sustainable development.

But where languages impact society in education and economics, it also plays a huge role in how effectively the Gospel is spread. We talked with Andy Keener of Wycliffe Bible Translators USA to get his take on this international observance day.

He says, “One of the things I’ve learned over the years as I’ve engaged with people from different places, people’s language is a very personal thing to them. The language that you speak in the home, the language you speak at work.”

While it’s not common in the United States that people have to speak different languages depending on whether they’re home, at church, or at work, it’s an extremely common occurrence around the world. Keener says some people have to switch up the language they use depending on where they go, what activity they’re engaged with, or who they’re around.

(Photo and header photo courtesy of Wycliffe USA)

“Society often tells them, your language may be fine for this, but your language isn’t good for this. You can’t go to church and speak in your language, you can’t go to work and speak in your language. You can’t do business in this language. So your language feels small to many people. And that’s one of the realities that I see people dealing with all over the world.”

According to the United Nations, this treatment of languages is literally blotting thousands of languages out. In fact, they estimate that within a few generations, nearly 50 percent of today’s almost 7,000 languages will be extinct. But when languages die away, so does much of a people group’s culture and background.

For Wycliffe USA, it’s not so much about the loss of history that gives them an urgency to provide Scripture in all languages. It’s about the generations who will pass on without having heard about Jesus in a language they could understand at the heart level.

“As Wycliffe works with language communities around the world, we have a strong belief that people should be able to understand God’s Word, pray, sing, preach and teach, and live out the life of the Church in the language that serves them best,” Keener explains. “And the area that we focus on predominately is Bible translation, recognizing that when someone who speaks one of these minority languages with no Scripture seeks to engage with God, they’re forced to do it in a language that is not their mother tongue.

“And so, by bringing Bible translation into the picture, people begin to realize, ‘Wait a minute, maybe I can understand God’s message in my own language. And as initial Bible stories are often translated, and then whole books and eventually the New Testament and Old Testament are available in their language, it opens a whole new… arena where their language can flourish. And now they can meet God in the terms of the language of their heart, not just the language that society has historically demanded.”

And as it turns out, Bible translation can actually be the first step to reviving a language that’s been dying out. In other words, it can act to preserve a minority language. Keener says when a language group recognizes that their language is big enough to help them understand the Gospel, they start to recognize other areas of their life where their language can be useful including education and business.

“It becomes a seed that plants and as it grows, it begins to permeate all aspects of how they want to use their language.”

The Teribe people

Keener shares an example from a people group he works with in Panama, the Teribe.

The Teribe people (Photo courtesy of Rita Willaert via Flickr)

He says, “For the last 50 years, since education came to the jungle where their children would go to a government-run school, there’s been a real push for the people to have their children learn Spanish. Because, in order to go to school and thrive, you had to learn Spanish. So, some parents would actually try not to speak their language with their children.”

Their thought was, if they encouraged their children to speak the national language, their children would be more likely to succeed in life. But then they received the Scriptures in their language and were able to engage with God in faith through their mother tongue. All of the sudden, they understood how important it was to be able to learn in their own language.

“And what that has led to is, the government has come in now and said well ‘What if we created primary education in the language there that the people speak in the jungle?.’ So, now their children today can go to school and learn to read and write in their language. And the government is developing programs to do history and math and other subjects in the language that these people speak. And it’s able to give new birth to this language that some looked at as, it may go away because of social and economic pressure. Now there’s new life for it.”

A challenge for the Church:

Keener says those who are passionate about the Great Commission typically focus in on seeing the Church grow through evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. And in those critical aspects of ministry, we understand that we have to go meet people where they are, physically. We can’t ask them to come to us if we truly want them to hear our important Message.

(Photo courtesy Wycliffe USA)

In the same way, we can’t ask people to meet us where we are linguistically.

“As we go, think through as well, ‘How do we meet them where they are in their language and in their culture and help make the Gospel relevant to them?’”

And so, he challenges ministry workers in other countries go beyond the national language and engage with individual people groups in their individual languages.

You can find multiple ways to support the work Wycliffe USA is doing through Bible translation, here.

And in the meantime, will you pray?

“There’s currently around 1600 languages in the world that have neither Scriptures translated into them, nor a project that has begun to address those needs. And so I’d ask people to pray that God would raise up workers—both here in the United States and around the world and in the countries where they’re needed – to begin to address those needs, for the financials to be available, and that God would open doors because this doesn’t happen without the Holy Spirit making the way. We just need to follow him and he’s the one that changes hearts.”

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