Why Should We Invest in Minority Languages?

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.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Some of Our Favorite Language Learning Mistakes

My wife and I are now five years or so into our journey of learning the delightful and difficult language of our Central Asian people group. Along the way, we have made some cringe-worthy and hilarious mistakes. I remember reading in CJ Mahaney’s book, Humility, that being able to laugh at yourself is a good way to grow in being less prideful. So in that vein, I present to you our list of epic language mistakes.

  1. “Then Jesus sat down next to the canary and began to teach about the kingdom of God.” The words for shore and canary are extremely close! I said this while teaching in church.
  2. “The squeegee is our peace!” I meant to say that Christ is our peace… again, squeegee and Christ are painfully close, hinging on a throaty “h” sound that is quite hard for us to pull off.
  3. “Thanks so much for the monkeys!” When we were trying to say thanks so much for your hospitality.
  4. “But where are the monkey’s people from? Where are the monkeys people?!” I had not yet learned that asking where someone is from literally means asking where their people are, whereas another phrase is used for objects and animals.
  5. “This is so tasteless!” I was trying to tell my friend’s mom how delicious her food was without yet understanding how an”ey” and “ah” prefix vowel reverses the meaning of an adjective.
  6. “You are drunk!” When trying to say, “May your head be blessed!”
  7. “My death.” Instead of “My husband.”
  8. “I’d like the fat chicken, please.” Definitely meant to say the boiled chicken.
  9. “We live behind the frogs of spring.” Actually lived behind Spring Apartments.
  10. “How much Islamic Law should I fry for the rice?” Noodles, little noodles, not Islamic Law…
  11. “Please turn to song sixty sixty.” The local believers never let me live this one down, snickering for the next year every time anyone in our group said sixty six.
  12. (Singing) “I only want you, Tanya!” Who’s Tanya? And isn’t this supposed to be a worship song?
  13. “How old is your donkey? May his years be long.” When trying to ask about the age of a man’s son…

In conclusion, please be merciful to those learning your language. And if you are learning another language, be sure to laugh. A lot.

P.S. If there are other language learners out there, please feel free to leave your own language bloopers in the comments for our mutual edification.

Photo by Aman Shrivastava on Unsplash

How To Be Safe Anywhere in the World

Photo by Phượt Cùng Nắng on Unsplash

The part of Melanesia I grew up in could be quite dangerous. Similarly, the areas of American cities I have lived in are also considered not the best neighborhoods around. And the Central Asian region where we currently serve has its own unique dangers – I narrowly missed being blown up by a car bomb some years ago. While different groups have exposed us to some fantastic training and resources, the deepest practical security lessons I have learned came from my single mom.

After my dad passed away, we eventually returned to the mission field as a family of four: my single mom, my two older brothers, and myself. The Melanesian country we lived in was particularly dangerous for single women. Yet my mom moved around with incredible freedom and independence, with barely any security incidents for over seven years. My mom is very short and slender, so it wasn’t that she cut such an imposing figure that the bad guys stayed away. She didn’t carry a handgun on her either. Instead, she simply lived out some good missiological and neighborly principles. I have learned that these several things can mean the ability to live safely almost anywhere in the world.

First, my mom learned the local language well. All missionaries are supposed to do this, but sadly many can’t or won’t learn the language to the point where they would be considered advanced speakers (language learning is very difficult!). Yet the ability to understand what is being spoken around you and to speak yourself quickly and intelligibly is a massive part of situational awareness and staying safe. Learning the language(s) well and continuing to learn for the long-term should be a central part of wisdom for living safely in risky places. Just one well-dropped comment in the local language can alert everyone around that not only do you understand everything that is being said, but also that you are no mere tourist unable to respond and react in the powerful local vernacular.

Together with the language, my mom also learned the culture well. She learned not only what words meant but also what forms meant, things like body language and clothing and honorable conduct. Especially for foreign women, understanding how to dress modestly and interact respectably could mean the difference between a normal trip to the market and a terrifying encounter with a man with a machete. Learning the culture teaches you how to prevent dangerous situations from happening, how to defuse those that do become threatening, and also how to respond once an incident has occurred (Which in Melanesia even meant the possibility of summoning an enraged mob to your defense). Learning culture is harder than learning mere language because so much of it operates below the surface and must be intuited and pieced together. And yet the often invisible culture sets the rules that can mean life and death. In our our current Central Asian context, my wife has learned that respectful greetings to men, such as shop owners, can place her in the category of an honorable sister who should be protected, rather than the category of strange and probably-immoral foreigner, which means she is less likely to be objectified.

Finally, my mom did everything with local friends. Whether we were making a run to town for groceries or going on a village trip or going to church, we almost always had one local “brother” or “sister” or more with us. No matter how good you get at the language and the culture, you will never be able to interpret a situation as quickly and as intuitively as a local can. This extra set of eyes and ears provides a massive boost to freedom and security in a given context. Being accompanied by local friends also makes a powerful visual statement, especially in honor-shame or tribal contexts. It means you’ve got people who will vouch for you and who will defend you, people who are loyal to you. In these cultures this can mean not only that you’re less of an easy target, but also that you are the kind of person who does not deserve to be attacked or robbed. If you have visibly earned the respect of local friends, then other locals are more likely to extend respect you also – even those who might rob you.

My mom knew the language and the culture and she went everywhere with local friends. The honorable conduct of “Mama R” meant that she had freedom to move around safely that surpassed that of most of the other expat women in our context. We now serve in a very different part of the world, but I think of these things when we have the opportunity to visit parts of our region or city that might be more dangerous. These principles are valid anywhere, even in our home country. Sure, we might be fluent in American English, but could we grow in better understanding the various subcultures around us and in befriending those from those cultures? Absolutely. And that would mean greater safety and freedom with which to take the gospel into risky places.

Greater freedom and safety should, after all, be leveraged for greater gospel access. I learned that from my mom.

A Solid Principle for Language Learning

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Prioritize the daily over the occasional.

I’m not sure where exactly I first came across that saying. But it has yielded good fruit in my life over the last few years. One fruitful application of which has been in language learning. I’m a Native US English speaker who grew up also speaking a Melanesian creole. I’ve been learning the language of our Central Asian people group for about five years now and am at an advanced level, but seeking to push toward true fluency. In addition to this, I’m trying to learn biblical Greek and Classical Latin. I hope to be able to read and understand at least four more historical languages and my dream is to be conversant in several more living languages of my area (an area which is quite the linguistic stew). Contrary to some, I’m convinced that the key to learning multiple languages, whether dead or living tongues, has less to do with natural ability and more to do with simple daily practice and exposure and delight.

There is a city about an hour and a half from where we live where almost the entire population is trilingual. People from this city have a reputation for being sharp with language. But I don’t think it’s because they are any more intelligent or gifted than those from other nearby cities. This trilingual city is unique in that it is divided ethically into three more-or-less equal populations, each of which has its own language, and that from a distinct language family. One population speaks an Indo-European language, another speaks a Semitic language, and the third speaks a Turkic language. So while vocabulary is shared generously between these languages, the underlying structures of these languages are not at all the same. And yet virtually the whole city can speak all three, with other residents throwing in other minority mother tongues and English to boot. How is this possible? I believe this is what is going on: When a resident of said city leaves his home where his mother tongue is spoken and goes to a neighborhood store, butcher, or barbershop, at each location a different language may be the primary tongue used in that establishment. When he goes to work, he may use mainly the Semitic language. When he is the bazaar, he may primarily use the Turkic. And at home, he speaks to his family in the Indo-European. The simple daily use of these diverse languages keeps the brain capable of learning, retaining, growing, and code-switching between these very different systems of speaking and understanding.

In this, I believe, lies an important key for anyone seeking to learn a new language or multiple new languages. Simple daily exposure and practice is remarkably powerful. Daily learning and upkeep is the key to not only acquiring, but also preserving and advancing languages already learned. And who wants to learn a language only to later lose it? Why should I keep up my Melanesian creole when I am the only one in this entire country to speak it? Well, personally, there is something about losing a language that feels akin to losing a friend. Each language is a unique way of viewing the world, of using different forms to communicate meaning. My Melanesian creole contains fun and creative ways of expressing meaning that just don’t exist in English. It contains ways of communicating with and about God that are beautiful and distinct. I don’t want to lose that even if by worldly standards keeping up this language is not “practical.” Thankfully, I have learned that I don’t have to lose it if I can fit in a few minutes of exposure to the language every day that can also lead to daily incremental growth. And daily incremental growth means substantial growth when thinking in terms of months and years.

So, prioritize the daily over the occasional for language learning and language retention. Ten minutes per day is better than a two hour lesson once per week. Ten minutes per day is also sustainable. And finding a sustainable practice leads to hope in language learning, and hope is key to perseverance. Smaller daily doses of language also keep it in the realm of the enjoyable and out of the realm of the drudge – another key to persevering in language learning. My current daily routine involves reading a few verses of the New Testament in parallel Melanesian creole, my adopted Central Asian language, New Testament Greek, and in Latin. The YouVersion Bible app allows you to compare different translations or languages side by side and is very helpful for this. I’m also finding helpful a book called Keep Up Your Biblical Greek in Two Minutes a Day by Jonathan Kline. I do this comparative Bible reading in the morning, then later on in the evening I’m working through the Duolingo Latin course, spending maybe 10-15 minutes per day in that app. Throughout my day I also have multiple opportunities to practice the Central Asian language I’m learning. My hope is to get multiple historical languages to the point where I can read in them a little bit everyday, thereby insuring incremental contextual learning – picking up new vocabulary and grammar as I go along as I continue to do in the endless ocean of the English language. However, I know that mere reading will not be enough for languages I hope to be conversant in. That will take daily conversation. I’ll have to develop my own rhythms that enable me to metaphorically drop in at the Turkic store, visit the Semitic butcher, and speak to my Indo-European relatives on a daily basis.

If you are daunted by the thought of learning a new language or retaining one that is slipping, take heart and take the pressure off. If you can find a sustainable method by which to be in that language a little bit everyday, then your growth in that language is guaranteed.