Minority Languages: Worth the Salvage

Seven thousand one hundred and five; that is the number of living languages in the world today. There were more but they are dead now. So what has happened to them?

Well, it involves politics. It involves geographic location. It involves population size. Other variables, too, like literacy and orthographies and education systems, natural disasters, wars and prestige; all of these, plus more, must not be forgotten.

This was all new to me a few years ago. Only a handful of organizations are involved in this type of historical linguistics, which specifically aim at developing minority languages around the world.  SIL International, formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics, is one of these, with sister organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators.

Language development work is a multi-faceted situation, not only involving linguists and translators, but literacy workers, pilots (minority languages are most of the time “minority” because of their geographic isolation), ethnomusicologists (look it up Music-major readers), computer technicians, administrators (US and abroad), counselors, etc.  The list abounds.

Overwhelmed yet? Language development work is complicated, controversial, and vast. Rather than treading through all of the facets, I want to lay out one of the main questions people ask when they first hear about this work.

Here it is: “Can’t we just teach ‘them’ English?”

Due to globalization, English is indeed international.  Typically people view English as needed to succeed, if that is the dream one is after. However, while it would be easier to use resources we already have in English, such as literacy primers, music, the Bible and other literature, this directly feeds into ethnocentrism.

Just this last week in South Jackson during a youth group setting, a teenage boy bluntly called out why “Jesus and them talk like that.” The passage at hand was in Romans, so I will give him that. Even a college student like myself gets tangled up in the theologically-packed terms. Nevertheless, how is one to expect a young dude in South Jackson to understand the Word when it is not in his vernacular? (Don’t get me wrong; I’m not putting the blame entirely on the English Standard Version. Discipleship plays a role in understanding scripture.)

This small example from a city in Mississippi can be applied all across the world. English, even Standard English in some cases, just doesn’t cut it. The language that people need in the arts, school, and the Bible is their “heart language,” their first language. When individuals are coerced to study, read, and speak in a different language from their mother tongue, a history is lost.  With language comes culture and with culture comes identity.  When outside forces weigh in on a mother tongue, which is English or the national language most of the time, the vehicle to self is lost.

Ethnocentrism comes naturally to us all, but rid of it.  English is not the rescue to the problems of the world. So whether it’s having the Bible, poetry, or a textbook written in your mother tongue, a cultural awakening ensues. When minority languages are developed, there comes an empowerment, a way to take pride in your language, culture, and history, and most importantly, a vehicle to identity.

– Carey Gunn, Contributing Writer


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