There are over 6,000 languages in the world and many of them are dying out. Little seems to stand in the way of the growth of English as the first truly global language (since Babel). So why are thousands of missionaries all over the world spending years of their lives learning minority languages and translating the Bible into obscure tongues? Why not save the blood, sweat, and tears and focus only on the regional trade languages or on the globally dominant ones?
My own focus language has somewhere around five to ten million speakers. This means it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, but it’s also obscure enough (belonging to an ethnic minority) that it’s not likely to become useful or influential in other parts of the world. So is my investment in this language worth it? I want to outline seven reasons why I believe it is good and worth it to invest in minority tongues.
Theological Beauty and Limitation. Each language is uniquely able to help us worship God and each language is insufficient in itself to fully describe God. Saying that human language is unable to describe God adequately is no mere poetic flourish. Each human language is actually a limited thing, something which can truly describe truth about God, but not ever comprehensively describe him. One of the blessings of Babel is that we now have thousands of languages which can be used to worship God in ways that are uniquely beautiful (and possible) to that language. Specific sounds, titles, adjectives, and verbs exist in some languages and not in others. Some kinds of poetry, songs, and metaphor are only possible certain tongues. In this way, the diversity of human languages acts like a giant choir, where each language gets to sing praises to God in the ways it is particularly gifted. To lose a language is to lose a unique voice of the choir.
A Record for Future Generations. Even languages that die are worth preserving. If the sad day comes where there are no longer any living speakers of a language, having that language recorded and documented is still worth it. Again, it shines an important window into how a certain group of people uniquely spoke about creation and about God. This can help us. Every individual language also contains data that helps us learn about the way language in general can function. Even secular reporters who bemoan the supposed “culture changing” of tribal missionaries celebrate the fact that by learning the language enough to translate the Bible, many missionaries are preserving a record of languages soon to be extinct.
Spiritual Power. The mother tongue or heart language of a person usually speaks to their soul with greatest potency and clarity. To feel this point, you will probably need to be bilingual yourself or have experience learning language in a multilingual environment. It wasn’t random when the Holy Spirit used the native languages of Elamites, Medes, Arabs, and Libyans at the day of Pentecost. When you hear someone speaking your mother tongue, you pay attention. The mother tongue is often the language of dreams, desperate prayers, and curses. It is the language most intimately entwined with our affections. So, if we want to cut to the heart, we should preach in the mother tongue when possible. Many of my friends who come to faith out of Islam report having dreams about Jesus where he spoke to them, not in the trade language or the speech of the foreigners, but in their own language. The thought that God knows my language is a very powerful one to those who have never heard this truth before.
Love and Honor. Learning the language of a minority group is a powerful way to show love and honor, especially if they have been oppressed by others. Denigrating another group’s language as somehow inferior is an age-old form of hatred. Many minority groups around the world have never had an outsider learn and love their language. When a missionary does this, it often communicates a deep love and respect for the people themselves. If a foreigner will love them that much, then perhaps the wild thought that God also loves them and knows their language is true after all.
The Priesthood of All Languages. Here I’m playing off of the phrase, “the priesthood of all believers.” No one language is holier than another. It is no accident that the Bible was written in three languages with loan words from many others. No one human language is the language of heaven (though there may be a spiritual language that is?). All languages are equally affected by the curse, meaning they preserve some of the image of God, though now in marred form. However, they are also redeemed in the worship of God forever in Revelation 7:9. There are many things about Islam that make my blood boil, but the claim that other peoples must worship God in 7th century Arabic and not in the language that God has sovereignly given them is particularly odorous.
The Mysteries of Providence. We don’t know what God might do with a given language in the future. No one 800 years ago could have predicted that English would come to dominate the globe. At the time, Old English was dying out due to the influence of the Norman French of the ruling classes. Yet here we are. English is the primary language not only of global business and education, but also of the modern missionary movement. When Patrick learned Irish, he could not have known how God would use the obscure Irish Christian scribes to miraculously salvage the biblical and classical literature of the Western Roman Empire after Rome fell. Their descendants would then go on to reintroduce Christianity to mainland Europe and found monastery missions that would later become cities like Vienna, Austria. We simply don’t know how God might take a humble, unknown language and do mighty things through it.
The Internet Resurgence. Many endangered languages are experiencing revival with the tools the internet provides. This has given an unexpected vitality to many languages that were supposed to die before now. The internet provides a place for native speakers to easily develop content, classes, and resources in their mother tongue which can be used to help the next generation. Sometimes languages even come back from the dead, like modern Hebrew. Languages are a lot like hobbits. They are full of surprises.
So, are we wasting our time investing in minority languages? No. Each language has unique value to God, to the Church, to current speakers, and to future generations. Learning a minority language is an act of faith. We just can’t predict the future of languages. But we can trust that on the last day, any investment made in these languages for the sake of love will not be made in vain.