Oral Communication and the Global Recordings Network

Oral Communication and the Global Recordings Network


By Allan Starling


What is Orality?

We are hearing a lot these days about the subject of Orality in the context of missions. What is Orality? Is it some new concept that has just emerged? Actually, it is a way of describing communication styles of cultures that have existed for thousands of years. There are many ways of defining Orality. A simple dictionary definition of Orality is: "a reliance on spoken, rather than written, language for communication". Diane Goettel puts it this way, "Orality is a term that refers to the way that language is used in thinking and speaking in populations that do not have widespread access to a written form of their language. Oral traditions have been studied for many centuries because it is understood that spoken language came long before written language. The study of Orality ... does not simply study the language itself. Rather, it also views cultures that rely on Orality...". Another definition of an oral communicator is: "A person who can't, won't, or doesn't read and write." Oral communicators are said to represent as much as two-thirds of the world's population.

Types of Oral Communicators

Oral Communicators depend mostly on verbal, non-print communication. Researchers have recognized several types of Oral Communicators: Primary Oral Communicators do not read or write. Communicating to these peoples is the highest priority of GRN and is the main focus of this article. Traditional Oral Communicators can read and write to some extent but do not depend on it. Secondary Oral Communicators depend on electronic audio and visual communication. They are served by GRN's set of web sites where currently audio messages in over 6400 language varieties can be listened to or downloaded free of charge.

Oral Communicators are Alive and Well!

Before Gutenberg invented the printing press, most people learned by oral means. Even today, according to some estimates, oral communicators number in the billions. Orality is not something completely foreign to our own modern sophisticated society. For instance, many of us would rather make a phone call than write a letter, or watch TV rather than read a book. We would not call ourselves illiterate, or even "oral communicators," but oral communication continues to have an important role in our daily lives.

Larry DeVilbiss, former GRN pioneer recordist and trainer states: "I don't know of a society in the world that isn't first and fundamentally oral. Even in cultures such as ours where a majority are schooled in the art of reading, the bulk of communication and daily interactivity in the culture is oral based - either face to face or radio or TV. That is a reality that must be assumed in any mission endeavor. Literacy is a skill that will be useful to a minority in a culture but will never supplant Orality."

The term "oral communicators" is rather long, so for the rest of this article I'll refer to them as "OCs."


The Challenge

The challenge to missions is how to communicate the Gospel message to oral cultures. This involves expressing our message not only in the way they speak, but also in the way they think. Global Recordings Network (GRN) has always emphasized the importance of the oral communication of the Gospel, only we didn't use that term to describe our methods and we sometimes had to learn from trial and error. Now many other missions are starting to understand the importance of Orality in reaching out to "oral communicators" and are coming up with innovative ways of communicating the Gospel.

Pioneering Oral Communication

Avery Willis of the International Orality Network (ION) has said: "Global Recordings Network is a pioneer in the worldwide effort to promote Orality." Robin Harris, the Coordinator of the Music and Arts Task Force of ION identified GR as the original mission focusing on Orality. The founder of GRN, Joy Ridderhof once wrote about the early days, "It was a pioneer work - searching out languages of illiterate people and finding a way to translate and record the gospel message into those languages. The impossibilities stood out like peaks towering in an impenetrable mountain range: How to find the tribes - how to find interpreters - how to make messages simple and clear for people who have never heard that there is one God who is good, just and merciful -how to adapt messages to strange cultures - how to overcome formidable linguistic hazards - and most of all, how to get a language translated and recorded when it had never been put in written form; or if it had, how to record it when no one in the tribe could read!"

Different Communication Styles

Researchers are coming to realize that OCs learn in different ways and thus we need to adapt our communication styles. Most sermons in the churches of our literate society present concepts that are often wrapped up in an introduction, three points and a conclusion. When Jesus preached to OCs He told them stories about people they could relate to like shepherds, farmers and fishermen. Is that the way we should communicate to OCs today? Yes, but not exclusively, as we will see below.


Just Stories?

Taking their cue from the teachings of Jesus, some proponents of Orality have gone as far as to suggest that we should just tell Bible stories because that is how OCs learn. While it is true that a large portion of the Bible is in narrative form, there are important sections in both the Old and New Testaments that use different teaching techniques. If all that people need is stories, we could ask ourselves, for instance, why the letters of Paul, Peter, James and John are included in the Scriptural canon, or why there are 150 Psalms and 30 chapters of Proverbs that contain virtually no stories. It is true that Jesus told stories, but He also used other teaching techniques. In His "sermon on the mount" for instance he talked about very practical things like making peace with an enemy, the blessings of humility, prayer, and giving, the futility of worry, materialism, and more - practically without any accompanying stories.

Stories Plus

In addition to stories, the Scripture uses many different communication techniques. In Paul's letters we see, for example graphic word pictures like the armor of the Roman soldier being depicted as the helmet of salvation and the shield of faith and God's word being a two-edged sword. The sacrifices, feasts, fasts and celebrations in the Old Testament as well as the Lord's Supper and Baptism in the New Testament help us to picture important spiritual concepts in a down-to-earth kind of way. And the Psalms give us examples of how we should be praising the Lord. So to limit ourselves to Biblical stories deprives us of a wealth of Scriptural resources that can easily be comprehended by OCs. As we will see, GRN uses many stories in their recordings, but also includes a number of other communication techniques.

Please Explain

Others have suggested that all we need to present is Scripture and it will explain itself. In Acts Chapter 8 Philip overheard a high official reading from the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" The man replied, "How can I, unless someone instructs me?"


Oral and Audio Communication

Someone described "Audio" as simply "recording written words onto a recording device." They contrasted this with "Orality" that involves "presenting the message in a comprehensive manner using indigenous input." GRN has always chosen the latter path. Before making the recording, the recordist asks questions about the people and culture in order to determine the best messages to record. Where there are local pastors or missionaries, he will work with them to choose appropriate messages for recording. These messages are then adapted to be more applicable to the people of that language before any recording takes place. He gets permission from local leaders to make the recordings and involves them where possible. He has to select a mother-tongue language helper (or helpers) who will speak on the recordings. During the recording session, each sentence and phrase is discussed before translation is done and the prepared script is often modified in several places to enhance communication to the target audience. The Recordist uses the script as a basis for translation, but never uses a literal word-for-word or even a sentence-for-sentence rendering. The sequence and specific development of the messages are (as much as possible) dictated by the natural linguistic forms of the target language itself and the dynamics of the culture.

Discourse Level Recording

When a person is speaking to us, we are not only listening to their words but we are also subconsciously listening to their intonations. For instance, the speakers voice may rise or fall in pitch or in volume. These intonations signal to us that the speaker has completed a sentence, a phrase, or a thought, or he has concluded what he has to say. Initially when making recordings with OCs the recordist would start with a single sentence. The language helper would translate it to his language, practice it, and say it into the microphone. Then they would go on to the next sentence. This caused the speaker to naturally use the end-of-message intonation pattern at the end of each sentence. The result was that the words were correct but the discourse sounded choppy and did not flow like it should have.

With this in mind, GRN has adopted the "discourse level" of recording with the aim of including the intonation patterns in the correct places in each recorded message. This involves taking time before we turn on the recording machine to go over the story or message until the language helper knows the content of the entire message and can tell it in his own words making sure that all the elements of the message are included. After practicing, the message is recorded in its entirety. Fortunately the majority of OCs have excellent memories. In exceptional cases where a language helper experiences difficulty remembering the whole message we may resort to thought-by-thought, phrase-by-phrase or even sentence-by-sentence recordings.

Custom Made Messages

GRN has never embraced the "one-size-fits-all" philosophy. Each recorded message must not only be in the heart-language of the hearers but it must also be culturally relevant. It must overcome language, religious and social barriers - and this must be accomplished without compromising the Scriptural integrity of the message. Let's enlarge on some of these concepts.


Overcoming Language Barriers

There are approximately seven thousand languages in the world. These languages are subdivided into thousands more speech varieties called dialects. Some languages are spoken in different ways often dependent on where the people live or come from within the language area. For example, a person speaking one variety may understand 80 percent of another variety. But is that sufficient for adequate communication? That would be like comprehending eight out of ten words in each sentence. Those two missing words could be vital to the proper understanding of what is being communicated. The Spanish language is spoken slightly differently in many countries of Latin America. A visitor recently used a word that was perfectly decent in the Spanish of the country he was from. But the listeners were offended because that same word was an expletive in their variety of Spanish. Even people who also speak major languages well prefer to hear (and thus comprehend better) in their own mother tongue. On a visit to a Navajo information center, I asked the man at the information desk if everyone spoke English on the reservation. "Yes," he replied. "But we think in Navajo." Bearing all these factors in mind, it becomes clear that in order to communicate effectively, the message must be in the heart language of the hearer.

Overcoming Religious and Social Barriers

Not only do we need to make sure that the message is understood, we also need to make sure that it is accepted. Naturally our desire is that the hearers accept the Gospel message. But we want to make sure that their prejudices don't get in the way and prevent them from really listening. For instance, in Nigeria, people in one village may understand every word of a recording made in a neighboring village. But because there is a prejudice barrier between them, they will not listen to the recording. So the message may be linguistically acceptable but socially rejected. We have lost the audience before we even get a chance to present the message! In this case, the only remedy is to make another recording using a resident of the town as a speaker. In the early days, GRN used missionaries who had learned a foreign language to speak on the recordings. They soon found out that this was not a good substitute for a native speaker.

Culturally Relevant Messages

The message must also be culturally relevant. Over the years GRN has developed a library of over 500 core stories and messages that can be translated into a given language. While the aim is to present the Gospel, the method needed may differ from one culture to another. In order to choose those that are most appropriate to the target culture, the contact person and the recordist can refer to the different categories of scripts and find those written either for Animists, Atheists, Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, or Orthodox. Next they can choose the level such as simple, general, or sophisticated. Depending on the number of speakers available the scripts may be adapted for dialogs or monologs or some other form. Next they need to consider the aim of the messages. Is it pre-evangelism, evangelism, or teaching? The final selection can be discussed with the local language helpers and missionaries before the translation and recording begins. They will choose several messages and combine them into a custom made program. Even during the translation process, the scripts are often modified to facilitate good communication with the culture. More recently a computer program has been designed to aid the field workers in pruning down the 500 scripts to a manageable list that meets all of their criteria.

Evaluating the Recordings:

Joy Ridderhof wrote: "As I look back now, I marvel that God could take us - inexperienced, untrained, unskilled - and lead us into experiences which gave us the training and the insight needed; Oh yes, we made mistakes - much knowledge was gained by trial and error, which became the foundation on which today's expertise has developed." Even today with increased background, knowledge and training, messages are sometimes produced that don't communicate well. Changes in the culture often result in recordings being discontinued and new more appropriate programs being made. One of the biggest problems comes from changes in the type of music the people enjoy. GRN constantly seeks to evaluate recorded programs and encourages users to report needed changes.

Misinterpreting Stories

Stories can sometimes be misinterpreted when people view them in terms of their own culture. In his book, Peace Child, Don Richardson tells of the Sawi tribe whose culture was steeped in deception and murder. When they heard the story of Judas betraying Jesus, they thought that Judas was the hero. They finally understood and accepted the Gospel message when Don pointed to their custom of selecting a "peace child" to make peace between two warring tribes. He explained how God sent Jesus as His Peace Child. According to their culture a person who betrayed the Peace Child became the worst kind of person there is. So Judas, in this situation, changed from being hero to villain because he betrayed God's Peace Child. Don coined the phrase Redemptive Analogy to describe this teaching strategy.

Using Redemptive Analogies

"Are you afraid?" is the title of a message often used on the recordings. It addresses the fear that is imbedded in many cultures, but specifically in those of animistic peoples. It starts out: "Are you afraid? Are you afraid of the darkness? Are you afraid to die? Do you fear evil spirits? -Satan? - The owl? Do you want fear to leave you forever? Then listen. I have wonderful news for you..." In consultation with local speakers and missionaries, the recordist will add certain fears associated with the culture for which the recording is being made, thus making the message culturally relevant for the people and also assuring their rapt attention.

Adapting to the culture

An incident that occurred early in the ministry illustrates the extent to which GRN adapts messages to the local culture. One message contains the story of Noah. It includes many sound effects of animals, construction, and one section where the people laugh at Noah. The recordist inserted the sound of laughing from another sound track at the appropriate place in the recording. However, when he played the story back, the listeners hooted with laughter, which was not the desired result! He discovered that the way these people laughed was different to the laughter from the sound track and it sent the wrong signal to them. Indeed, people laugh differently in different cultures. Now whenever laughing is called for, the recordist needs to make sure it is authentic.


But can the message be reproduced?

In "Following Jesus: Making Disciples of Oral Learners" published by Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and the ION the concept or reproducibility is stressed. "The first and most basic aspect of ensuring reproducibility in a storying approach is crafting and telling stories in a way that the hearers are able to readily learn and then tell others and thus effect a reproducing evangelism." Using the techniques outlined above, GRN has found that their recorded collections of short stories and presentations are extremely reproducible. This is evidenced in many different ways. Recordings are often played and replayed hundreds of times. The hearers learn the messages by heart and repeat them, often using the accompanying picture books.

The Power of Repetition

In the early days of the ministry, an OC who accepted the Lord on a visit to a mission hospital said he wanted to witness to his people, but didn't know how. He was given a phonograph and a set of recordings, which he used over and over in visiting different villages. Eventually the records wore out. Undaunted, he placed them on the turntable and proceeded to tell the people accurately what they used to say!

A missionary tells the story of an OC who went to his village carrying recordings and a hand wind player. A month later he returned and compelled the missionary to accompany him on a three-day hike back to the village. They were met by a group of OCs who were eager to accept Christ into their lives. He discovered that each one was able to repeat the contents of the recordings by heart. A couple in China who received a recording in their language felt that they could not keep this good news to themselves. At personal risk, they duplicated hundreds of the recordings and sent them to people all over the country.

Combining Visual with Audio

OCs like Visuals! The Good News is an evangelistic Bible teaching series of pictures. It presents a quick Bible overview from Creation to Christ's resurrection in 20 pictures, with a further 20 pictures of basic teaching on the Christian Life. It is particularly suited to bring the Gospel message and basic Christian teaching to OCs. The pictures are clear and brightly colored to attract those who may not be used to visual teaching presentations. OCs typically have better recall than readers so once they have heard the message several times they can show others the pictures while accurately repeating the message they heard on the recording.

Using the same principle, the Look, Listen & Live series of 8 biblical picture books is excellent for systematic evangelism and Christian teaching. There are 24 pictures in each book. Finally The Living Christ series on the life of Christ applies scripture to their lives.

Using Appropriate Technology

Making the recordings is one challenge. Getting them into the hands of the people is another. Over the years the technology used by GRN has changed from phonograph records to audio cassettes to CD's, DVD's, VCD's, MP3's etc. The challenge is to get the message to the right people using the most appropriate technology. GRN currently has recordings on their web site in over 4,000 speech varieties. These can be listened to or downloaded free. Obviously Primary Oral Communicators don't frequent the web! However missionaries and national Christians who are seeking to reach them increasingly have Internet access.

Playing the Message

While the technology revolution is going on, the majority of OCs are still among the least reached peoples who live in the most inaccessible places without the benefit of things that we take for granted like electricity. Someone has to go there and deliver the recordings in person. With this in mind, GRN has designed the new Saber hand wind digital player to enable the gospel to be presented in audio form to remote people all over the world. It is indeed a high-tech machine designed for use by low-tech people. The Saber can play at significant volume with good quality to large groups. It handles speech and music equally well. A built in generator allows the machine to be recharged by turning the handle.



The job is too big for one small organization. That is why collaboration is so important at every stage of the process. Before the recording begins GRN field staff consult with local leaders, and local speakers. When there are Christians and missionaries in the area, they contribute their valuable experience and advice. When it comes to putting the finished recordings into the hands of the people, cooperation of churches and missions is essential. And wherever possible a local church will follow-up those who make decisions. At the annual distribution project in Culiacan Mexico, a handful of GRN staff work with hundreds of volunteers to place recordings among migrant farm workers who speak dozens of different languages.

The Spiritual Barrier

In addition to linguistic and cultural barriers there is also a spiritual barrier that must be overcome before the message of the Gospel can take root in the hearts of the people. GRN believes strongly that every part of the work, whether at home or on the field, needs to be taken before the Lord in prayer. Evelyn Janzen, who served as a GRN recordist in the 60's told me: "We always spent time discussing the culture of the people for each language we recorded - with missionaries, as well as with the local people themselves. We chose the scripts very carefully after much prayer and investigation of the relevant messages. And of course we bathed every part of the work in prayer, just as the home staff did."

Bringing it all together

And so with a melding of strategy, technology, partnership and prayer we reach out to the oral communicators of this world with the promise of Scripture ringing in our ears: "Faith comes by Hearing. And hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)


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