Alphabet Development Revitalizing Endangered Languages
May 1, 2023

Did you know that we are living in a time of mass language extinction with one language going extinct every two weeks? According to Smithsonian Magazine, ‘The grimmest predictions have 90 per cent of the world's languages dying out by the end of this century.’ Someone may ask, well, what’s the problem with that? After all, that would reduce the number of Bibles to translate! The immediate truth we come to is that God loves people of all cultures, and He is calling people from every tribe and nation to be a part of his family. The Bible tells us that one day a great multitude of people will stand before the throne and before the Lamb and this uncountable number of people will be made up of a vast array of every nation, people, tribe and language. As followers of Christ, we seek to follow His lead, obey His call, and trust that we will see His goodness in the land of the living. That goodness could be shown by bringing back to life languages and cultures that are facing extinction and respecting all people, everywhere.

In addition, our world suffers when a language dies. We lose so much - cultures, civilizations, people, perspectives, ideas, social memory, and identity. Humanity is all the richer for our diversity, and we all become poorer when this cultural erosion expands. God has called the Church to mobilise and bring life and light into this world. So when we see languages dying out at such a rapid rate, it is a wonderful thing that we have a very practical solution - heart language Bible translation - and specifically, alphabet development.

Heart-language Bible translation is vital and one of the most effective ways to slow down the atrophy of the world’s 6000-plus languages and simultaneously be part of eradicating Bible poverty.

‘Each writing system tells the tale of its culture’s history, it's evolving technology, even its deeply embedded values,’ writes Tim Brookes for National Geographic (2013).

So, how? How does mother tongue Bible translation stem the flow of language death? By working with language communities to plan and launch mother-tongue literacy programs to preserve indigenous cultures. If the language group being worked with does not have a writing system, then the first step is to develop one. Based on their sound system, a writing system is developed (orthography), usually using the alphabet of the country’s official language as the basis. Training workshops are impactful times when locals are equipped with the knowledge and skills to set up, implement and run literacy programs in their own communities. When community ownership and responsibility are constant threads running through the fabric of the work, it results in a deep enlivening of not just the language, but the person, and then the wider community. Literacy training also includes helping them to develop child- and adult-friendly material needed to teach reading and writing to those who need it.

Zimbabwe is a great example of the impact and importance of ongoing literacy and orthography development. Recently some Bible translators in Zimbabwe said that the Alphabet Development Workshop (ADW) was a ‘game changer’ for them. Dr Davies Malenbeka and the Zimbabwean TWFTW Training Department organized the ADW in October last year as a way to further develop translators’ skills needed to grow in their work. Pastor Kamba Nleya said that it was a special workshop and was life-changing for them. He went on to say, ‘Our Bible translations and our entire communities will never be the same again. Someone will read the Bible written with the orthography that you developed and get saved and get to heaven at the end.’ Orthography in this case has gone from an abstract concept to a life-changing tool in the hands of heart-language Bible translators who are seeking to become increasingly proficient in the work to which God has called them.

In the early days of mother-tongue Bible translation in Zimbabwe, they discovered that the orthographies in use were lacking in quite a few areas, meaning that not all the sounds were represented in the alphabet or writing system. Quite a few languages needed a writing system. Since that time a robust foundation has been laid for literacy in those languages. Dr Oliver Kruger, a linguistics consultant, said that it is noteworthy that seven language groups had translation and literacy projects underway from around the country. He also said that the benefit of the ADW has had an immediate qualitative effect on the improvement of the quality of the translations.

‘Alphabet development (orthography) will help in reducing all the unnecessary errors and spelling issues created due to inadequate writing systems. What that also means is that many people will eventually be able to read the Bible in their heart languages.’ Dr Oliver Kruger

The Zimbabwean translators believe that orthography training helps them to better understand the technicalities of their work and enables them to better serve their people by bringing them the best version of the Bible in their most natural tongue. They say that languages which might have looked like they were dead are being enlivened by this work. Pastor Ernest Mayuya said that heart-language Bible translation is fundamental, not just in the spread of the Gospel, but also helps the communities they work and live in to regain their dignity by becoming speakers and readers of their specific languages. It brings the linguists and the people enormous joy to listen to people speak and proudly read in their heart languages. They say that they are excited about the future because this means that their children will be able to build on this foundation and go on to create all kinds of literature in their own languages.

That sounds a lot like hope!

‘For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.’ Romans 15:4

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