How Bible Translation Projects Are Preserving Endangered Languages

Bible translators have made it a priority to give people around the world the chance to study Scripture in their “heart language.”

Even if Christians are able to understand another language, there are significant benefits to hearing the gospel in one’s mother tongue. It makes it easier to grasp theological concepts and builds a deeper emotional connection to the message.

But over the past several decades, these heart language translations haven’t only changed how Christians from various cultural backgrounds approach their faith; they have also affected how believers view their familial language.

“As they begin to read the Bible in their own language, pray in their own language, and worship in their own language, they realize, ‘Wait, if I can do these things, maybe I could do even more,’” said Andy Keener, executive vice president for global partnerships at Wycliffe Bible Translators.

Across continents, Bible translation teams have watched how their work—sometimes creating an alphabet for the language or documenting its written form for the first time—can change the trajectory of the tongue itself.

“Bible translation is transformative for a language, especially during the life of the project itself, when it engages some of the best minds of the community in solving formidably difficult problems in semantic mapping, orthography, metaphor, and language standardization,” linguist K. David Harrison wrote in a foreword to a recent academic volume on the effects of Bible translation on language. “But it also extends in influence far beyond the original project, and shines as an example of best practice in ensuring language survival.”

Around a third of the 7,111 languages spoken today are considered endangered, having dwindled to fewer than 1,000 speakers. Globalization often forces multilingual speakers to use popular languages, making them less likely to pass on their own “heart language” to a new generation.

“Language endangerment is the flip side of language dominance,” said Gary Simons, chief research officer at SIL, a Christian linguistics organization that has come to dominate the field with its comprehensive catalog and research on the world’s languages.

“Small language groups are no longer isolated and monolingual but are embedded in a national and regional context in which much larger languages are dominant,” he said. “In order to participate in commerce on the regional level or to take advantage of national services—like education, health care, banking, even national church denominations—they have to learn and use a dominant language.”

With more than 2,600 languages in danger of dying out (often because they are spoken in face-to-face conversation only or just by the oldest generations), the United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, spurring dozens of new initiatives to revitalize their use. Simons and SIL point out that some projections about the rate of languages dying out have been overblown; they find that about nine languages fade from use each year—one every 40 days—though the rate is quickening.

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Source: Christianity Today