Let the Languages Die?!

I recently read an article by National Geographic entitled Vanishing Languages. It begins with these words:

“One language dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will likely disappear, as communities abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish.”
The internet, cell phones, and air travel have changed the world in many amazing ways. It really is a small world these days, and is getting smaller. There is a prayer meeting that takes place at our church in Louisville, KY where they try to Skype with a different member that has been sent out into the nations often meaning that sometimes they are Skyping into Africa, Indonesia, China, Canada, and Texas (that’s where we live for training). You could not have done that 100 years ago. It is a really exciting time to be a missionary! If you read biographies of missionaries like Adoniram Judson, you find that these men and women often left to never see their families again. Praise the Lord for such advances that make it possible for my kids to still know their grandparents!
However, such a global connection does come with a cost. Powerful languages like English, French, and Spanish are pressing into the nations of the world like never before and the result is that many of the smaller languages of the world are ceasing to be used, hence “vanishing languages.” I am not sure if I believe that “nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken will likely disappear,” but it is certain that many of them are on that trajectory. The feeling of this article which mirrors that of modern cultural anthropology, is that this is a tragedy. Losing these languages is like cutting off a part of our body, it is a loss of individuality, a loss of culture, a loss of knowledge. But how should Christians think about this, especially in light of the task of Bible translation?

Does God Value Diversity in Language?

I am fairly new to the missions community, but more often than not, when I hear missionaries talking about losing language and culture the reaction is similar to that mentioned above. Usually there are some Bible verses used to support the idea that God is a God of diversity and therefore he values culture and language. Here is one of the verses often used in the discussion:
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:9,10
The claim is that before the throne of God there will be people from every tribe and language and people and nation, therefore God values these things (tribes, languages, people, and nations, that is). However, I am not so sure. Regarding Revelation 5, it seems that the emphasis on this passage is the breadth of the salvation wrought by Christ. Instead of just saving one people group, God in his infinite wisdom, has chosen to save people from EVERY people group! It is not that God loves culture or languages, but that he loves people. He is glorified when people that come from different cultures and different languages unite to worship him. This passage does not even say that they are speaking these languages before his throne, only that those before his throne are FROM every language.

Language Diversity is a Curse!

Looking back in redemptive history, the reason that we have so many languages is that we sinned against God and he cursed us!Within God’s original creation, all the way up to Genesis 11, the people only spoke one language: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). That means that when creation was actually perfect, that perfect creation was speaking a single language and even after the Fall, this continued for a time. And then, you know the story, mankind wanted to make a name for themselves and build a tall tower. The Lord condescended to look at their little tower and in the end found it wise to confuse their language. Here is the conversation within the Trinity:
“‘Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.” Genesis 11:8-10
So, the reason that so many languages exist today is that God cursed us! He wanted to put an end to our pride and the evil that we could purvey together and so he confused our languages and forced us to obey his original command to spread out over the whole earth.

How Should We Respond?

If these things are true, if diversity does not reflect perfection, but rather God created the various languages as a curse, how should we respond? Should we quit Bible translation altogether? Well, no. I am not giving up on my life calling! Even if the article mentioned above is correct, there are still going to be around 3,500 languages that do not die. Of the world’s languages only 457 have both the Old and New Testaments. There is still a lot of work to do (check out our FAQ: Why not just teach them English? for more info on this). But I do think there are two main applications for the realms of Bible Translation:
  1. Translate Into The Most Vital Languages! Jesus said, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Considering the great amount of work to be done, I believe we ought to work on Bible translation projects in the languages that are least likely to die out. This seems to be the wisest course of action. And fortunately this is being done. One class I took at GIAL was specifically geared to help me understand language vitality. We were taught what questions need to be asked, what actions need to be observed, and what to listen for to understand which languages are going to be around in the future. Wycliffe/SIL does an amazing job at surveying and cataloging language statistics that make this job a lot easier.
  2. Let Languages Die! As a Bible translator my work will do a lot of things. By developing an alphabet and teaching literacy we will be preserving a language. And I think this is a good thing in some ways. As the article above mentions, it preserves cultural knowledge which I am so thankful for. However, the most important aspect of being a Bible translator is that we are bringing them the Word of God in a way that they can understand. It is understanding the Bible that is of utmost importance. And if other people groups are moving towards fluency in a majority language, I think we should let that happen and rejoice that we can send our missionaries elsewhere. Because for those receiving a translation and those losing the language of their ancestors the end result is the same: understanding God’s Word! To try to get the latter group to preserve their language instead of understanding another is to do the opposite of Bible Translation.

Stacey and I are Christians first and foremost and (aspiring) linguists second. In our hearts we want people to be able to understand the Bible and if it is possible for them to understand it in French instead of the heart language of their ancestors, so be it. Our priority in missions is to win souls, not preserve languages.

I feel like there will be those who disagree with my conclusions here. And if so, please know that these are musings of a man with 5 months of linguistics who has yet to actually be on the field. Please feel free to comment on this post and let me know what you think. Correct my theology if needed. We are all working toward the same goal, let us be wise as serpents together!

*Image from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2012/07/vanishing-languages/


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.