“If the Bible is already published in the national language, who don’t you Wycliffe folk just teach the indigenous peoples living in that country the national language?” a young businessman asked.
I had just answered a question from someone in the group about Bible translation problems and how my wife and I had struggled to solve them when we worked as Wycliffe Bible translators among the Canela people of Brazil. It was not the first time someone had asked me this follow-up question. It’s a simple question and a fair one, but requires some complex answers.
First of all, Wycliffe actually does move people towards being able to speak, read and write in the national language. But we don’t do it by disrespecting the indigenous people’s own language. Often the indigenous language has never been written and the speakers are unable to read or write in any language. So we start by developing a writing system, using letters and symbols as close to the national language as possible. We then teach people to read and write in their own language. Eventually, when they interact with speakers of the national language and begin speaking it, it is relatively easy for them to learn to read and write in the national language.
Many years ago, the official policies of most national educational systems belittled and denigrated the indigenous languages people spoke at home and attempted to teach everything, even basic things like reading, directly in the national language. First Nations adults in Canada have told me that as young people in school they were physically punished when they were caught speaking their native language. Except in the case of very bright and highly motivated students, the learning results were usually rather negative.
In the context of learning to read in a second language, I am often asked about French immersion teaching programs for English speaking grade one students. My parents spoke Frisian at home and learned to speak and read Dutch when they went to school. It was a successful language learning immersion program since Frisian and Dutch are related languages. My wife spoke Plautdietsch, also called Low German, at home and learned English and reading when she started school. Again, this was successful because Plautdietsch and English are related languages. The same with French and English, the languages are related, and have many cognates—words similar in shape and meaning, that are easily recognized and learned. These European languages are simply branches on the same linguistic tree.
I grew up speaking and reading Dutch. When I arrived in Canada as a twelve-year-old immigrant, it took only a couple of weeks in school before I could read English quite fluently. I didn’t understand everything I read, but that improved as I learned to speak English. The same thing happened years later, when Jo and I moved to Brazil and we were soon reading Portuguese, also a related language.
But learning to speak Ramkokamekra-Canela was a long process. This indigenous language was not just a different branch on the same linguistic tree. It was a different tree, in a different forest—as different from European languages as a coconut palm is from an apple tree.
Now imagine an English speaking first grader starting school where the teacher taught in Somali, and she had to learn to read in a completely unknown, unrelated language that looks like this:
“Qolobaa calankeed, waa ceynoo.” Any nation’s flag, bears its own color. The first line of the Somali national anthem.
To teach an indigenous people group to speak and read a completely unrelated national language would be as difficult as teaching English speaking first graders to learn to read in Somali.
In the same way, it is just as hard for the thousands of indigenous illiterate people who live in Somalia but do not speak Somali. There are thousands of people groups, speaking their own, often unwritten languages, that live in countries where the national language is completely unrelated to the languages they speak.
This is the first part of the answer. But there is another aspect. A story from the early days of the Wycliffe organization has an indigenous person ask a missionary,
“If your God is so great, how come He can’t speak our language?”
Good question. Let’s keep it for next week.