Why spend effort on dying languages?

Why spend effort on dying languages?


A Question

"My greatest concern is if much time and money is being used to put the gospel in a language that is fading out and the trade or national language has already taken over. In SW China many of the minorities I worked with didn't understand why many missionaries where putting Bibles into languages that were dying faster than the population."

The concern is a legitimate one. And there can be no 'global strategy' that says every language must be translated or recorded. However, in order to make the right decision, several factors need to be taken into account, which may not always be obvious. Some of theses issues relate to language and some to the style and medium of communication. Economics cannot be ignored but we should not be consigning people to hell because it is too expensive to reach them!

The Need

The first factor is the need of the people - in particular the "Gospel" need of the people. On the assumption that 'everyone needs the gospel', the questions become, "what is the best (most effective) way of giving it to them and what is it that we are trying to give?"

The answer to the "what is the most effective way to give people the gospel" question is easy! It is the method that works best - for the receivers. It is not necessarily the cheapest way or the way that makes most sense to the missionaries, westerners or theologians. It is what works for the target people group. Effective communication must be receptor oriented.

Heart Language

For the Biblical reasons for Gospel communication in the heart language, see the GRN Vision statement.

In addition to the Biblical reason, it should be noted that the Gospel message ideally challenges culture and worldview. For most people their worldview is about 80% set by the time they are 12 years old. This happens in the language they speak at home. If a message is to challenge and potentially change a worldview, it generally needs to happen in the language in which the worldview was developed. When this is ignored, it is not uncommon for the Gospel to become a veneer overlaying other cultural and religious systems. Where the Gospel really transforms individuals and communities it tends to do so in the heart language of the people.

There are many who maintain a very distinct sense of pride in their tribal language. Occasionally we hear, "If your God is the only true God how come he doesn't speak my language?" In these kinds of situations the existence of vernacular scripture material (written or recorded) can impact the credibility and acceptability of the message.

Having said that, there are people who are so multi lingual that they can process information at a deep level in more than one language.

It should also be said that once a person is a believer and new life has been established, the growing and discipling process can then frequently take place in a second language.

At this point we should also note the distinction between written and spoken language. For the 80% of the world's population who don't handle print very well (or at all) this is a very important distinction and of course impacts the media of communication and maybe even the extent of the communication. Note that SIL identify something in the order of 9,600 written languages, but GRN can identify in excess of 12,000 speech forms that may require recording.

National and Trade languages

National languages are sometimes seen as the language of the oppressor, even if the language is widely understood. This is not universal but does happen. Sometimes trade languages are adequate for trade but have very limited vocabularies and may be of limited value for deeper communication. Pijin English in PNG is an example of this. It is sometimes said of the church in PNG (where there are in excess of 900 spoken languages) that the church is "a mile wide and an inch deep". In many places the church has been established in English or in Pijin English. In these places particularly, Christianity tends to be a thin film over the top of many tribal customs.

Political agendas can also influence the way governments talk about and count languages. Similar political agendas and 'national pride' can also influence the measurement and publication of literacy data.

The foreignness of the Gospel

One of the greatest barriers to the Gospel is that it is perceived as 'foreign', frequently because it comes through foreigners in foreign cultural terms. Getting the message into the right language, even the right accent and appropriate cultural forms can go a long way to overcoming that objection. For oral communicators it only takes a small difference of language to identify someone as an outsider. Where possible, we should seek to communicate the message within the cultural framework of the target group.

Books or recordings

There is no denying the importance and value of the written Scriptures. Wycliffe/SIL in the Project 2025 talk about having translations under way in every language that needs one by the year 2025. The value of a permanent written record of the whole of the Scriptures for the church cannot be overestimated.

It should be noted however, that there are several criteria to apply to determine whether the language group 'needs' a translation project. The long-term existence of the language is one criterion. There are also questions to be asked about the extent of the project i.e. full Bible, NT or selected portions.

It has been 'traditional wisdom' in the Bible translation movement to translate, print and teach literacy. The wisdom of this approach has now been questioned. Teaching literacy may have value but there are some negatives to a literacy ONLY based approach to passing on the Scriptures. In addition, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of small language groups where there will probably never be any other printed material every produced. So there is no other incentive for the people to become literate in that language. Is there value in producing printed Bibles in these languages? Probably not. However, do the speakers of these languages need God's word? They certainly do. Every situation must be evaluated on its merits but it is likely that the 'solution' will include some 'rigorous' Bible translation which would be recorded and possibly some other 'bridging materials such as Bible story sets.

It should also be noted that simply recording a translated text does not make it good oral communication. It may only make it 'loud'! Oral communicators think differently to literate learners. Hence the style of communication may need to be adjusted for the target group.


While we are called to be good stewards of the resources God entrusts to us, we are not called to uncritically adopt western business models as the foundation for Gospel ministry. The 'bottom line' (profitability or maximum return) is not the key factor in determining whether a Gospel initiative should take place or not. The individual who speaks a minority language, does not read, and lives in a remote primitive village, is as precious to God as anyone else and has as much right to hear God's word as anyone. But it will cost more to get it to him. Western obsession with getting the best return on investment has often resulted in the hardest to reach people being ignored. We will answer to God for that attitude!

The original question above refers to the use of "much time and money". The Western view of money is mirrored by the Western view of time. Not only do we want the best return on our investment we also want that return now! We are impatient people, always looking for the easy and quick methods. But God does not have the same perspective.


Everyone needs to have access to God's truth in the way that best speaks to their heart within their own cultural framework. For many this will involves some kind of non-print communication. For the task of evangelism this will usually involved multiple presentations of God's word in the heart language and in culturally appropriate styles.

In addition, every church needs to have access to the Scriptures (66 books of Old and New Testaments) in a form that they can make use of and learn from.

The decisions about whether to begin a translation project and/or a recording project, and what to produce in the target language, should take into account several key issues. These include the needs of the people in the short and long term, preferred language, socio-linguistic context and cultural styles of communication. In an ideal world the cost of the project should not be the major influence.

Therefore, there needs to be long and short-term strategies for evangelism, church planting and discipling. These may include a range of media and even different languages. The success of such strategies needs to be evaluated from time to time.


Orality - Articles about the characteristics of oral societies, and how to communicate the gospel to them.

Unreached Peoples -