Very often when we’re talking to someone for the first time about what we’re doing, s/he will ask, “So what language are you studying?” or “What language are you going to work in?” It’s a perfectly natural and relevant question, but unfortunately it’s not one with a clear answer, at least not yet. The answer I do have, however, I hope will be of interest to you.
Language vs. Linguistics
I sometimes call my current academic pursuit ‘language school,’ a name which is convenient because most people have a frame of reference for it, but one which is mostly inaccurate. I’m really in linguistics school, not studying a particular language but rather studying language (and culture) in general – how they work, how they change, and perhaps most relevantly how they’re acquired. My first semester at linguistics school introduced me to the fundamental linguistic disciplines – phonetics (sounds), grammar (structures), and phonology (patterns). In each of these courses we looked at hundreds of examples from languages all over the world, discovering a whole bunch of extremely non-English language features I never could have imagined existed.
I’m currently in a class that I think might be the very core of applied linguistics training, at least for the linguist intending to work cross-culturally with minority languages: Second Language And Culture Acquisition, or SLACA. SLACA gives students skills and techniques for, and a very real platform for practicing, the art of learning a new language and culture. It’s an 8-week course that meets every day, with 1-hour language practicums 3 afternoons a week. I’m in a group of 5 students learning Telugu with a Language Consultant (LC) who’s a native Telugu speaker. In a very hands-on and student-directed approach, we’re learning as much Telugu as we can by eliciting words and structures from our LC, who is basically prohibited from using English during the session. This is to simulate the real language-learning situation many of us will find ourselves in somewhere in the world – showing up in a village somewhere and pointing to stuff, hoping someone will start giving us words. That’s a simplification, of course (we have actually very advanced techniques for these things), but the point is that it’s a radically different process than what most of us experienced in 10th grade French class. There are no classes, no grammar books, no one to teach us before we get there, and very often no alphabet or writing convention of any kind.
Language of Wider Communication
Before we get allocated to a village setting where we’ll ultimately do much of our language development work, we’ll have preliminary assignments in other, more accessible areas of Papua New Guinea (where we’re headed in January, Lord willing). Consequently, one of the first things we’ll need to do when we get there is to gain proficiency in a Language of Wider Communication. An LWC is a language which people of different language backgrounds can use in regions of linguistic diversity to be able to communicate with one another. In PNG, one of the primary LWCs is called Tok Pisin. Our initial 12-week in-country training assignment beginning in January will include (besides how to start a fire by hand from wet moss and how to fight off a rabid polar bear with a palm frond) slightly more traditional language instruction in Tok Pisin. This language will serve as a bridge to people speaking our ultimate target language(s), since almost everywhere you go in PNG you can find people who know Tok Pisin in addition to their local vernacular language.
So why not teach everyone Tok Pisin? Or better yet, English? Wouldn’t that be easier than tackling another 1900 languages? Well, probably not. Turns out, English is a very difficult (yet admittedly very useful) language for non-Westerners to learn. It’s true that English is gaining ground all over the world, even in PNG, but it’s growing as a SECOND language, not as what we call a HEART language. Your heart language is the one you understand best, the one of your thoughts and dreams, the one your mother used to comfort you as a child –the one that speaks to your heart. This is the language in which we’d like to see everyone in the world have access to Scripture, because we think it speaks best at that level. Have you ever tried to read the Bible in another language? Even one you’ve studied or are proficient in? Can you imagine doing so without first having a good knowledge of its contents in your heart language?
Incidentally, one of our most important tasks as believers is to actively engage with Scripture in our OWN heart language, and as parents to equip our children to do the same. This is why we take our kids’ education so seriously. A strong foundation and literacy in their heart language is critical for understanding the Gospel, as well as for adding new languages to their inventories, as we’ll soon ask them to do.
Many of you know that the message of Bible was originally written down in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. These languages communicate in voices that are so distant from us in time and geography, but it’s ultimately from these words that all translation should derive. How does an English speaker hope to facilitate an accurate translation from these languages (for each of which the Biblical forms have been out of use for thousands of years) into some language(s) he hasn’t heard of yet? The brave answer: ‘That’s why I’m in linguistics school.’ The honest answer: ‘That’s why we have prayer partners.’
I did have a bit of Hebrew and Greek in college, and since most translation projects begin in the New Testament I thought it would be a good idea to try and brush my Greek back up. I’ve been spending a couple mornings a week working my way through the Greek New Testament in the passage our family is reading that week. Then on other days on my commute I’ll listen to the passage in a Tok Pisin recording, hoping to begin getting comfortable with the sounds of that language. So now, between reading/listening to the Bible in 3 different languages, communicating with my boys in their variably divergent forms of English, and learning Telugu by feel — please don’t be offended if I stare at you and blink for a few seconds before being able to form a response to whatever you just said to me.
As I often tell people, if you’ve heard of a language, that means the language is prominent enough to already have a Scripture translation, so that’s not the language they’re sending me to work in. Would you believe that of the 6900 or so languages in the world, a complete Bible exists in only about 500 of them? Or that over 1900 of them are still awaiting a translation project to begin? We think this is unacceptable. This is why we’re preparing, why we’re working, why we’re leaving. This is why we have to go.