Archive for the ‘Languages’ Category

New Bible translation statistics

Monday, November 21st, 2016 by Phil

Wycliffe Global Alliance has published their annual update of Bible translation statistics. In a snapshot of data from around the world, the update gives the headline numbers for the availability of Scripture in the 7,097 languages used around the world today.

The most striking figure this year is the significant increase in languages known to have some Scripture. Standing at 2,932 in 2015 this has shot up to 3,223 for 2016.

bt-stats-2016Why the dramatic rise? Some of the increase reflects the growing Bible translation movement, 2400 projects taking place in more than 165 countries; some is due to an expansion of what is counted. The count now includes a growing number of audio and video Scripture translation products as well as printed books. But this year’s figures are also the result of improved research. ‘We have access to more data from more organisations,’ says Peter Brassington, Wycliffe’s point person for the annual statistics update, ‘meaning we know more this year than we did last year’.

‘By working with more organisations we have a better idea of what is going on around the world and a fuller picture of the current state of Bible translation.’

However, there are still gaps in knowledge and understanding as Peter is quick to point out. ‘We know much more this year than we did last, but we also know that there are still gaps in our knowledge. There are parts of the world we would love to know more about concerning what’s happening within the communities, as well as their felt needs for ongoing work’.

While it’s a great achievement to have passed 3,200 languages with access to some Scripture, it’s important to put this figure in context. Some Scripture does not even mean the language community has access to a whole book from the Bible, it may just be a passage or two. And while the number of languages with access to complete Bibles has increased by 82, to 636, there are still 1.5 billion people without access to the full Bible in their primary language.

To read November 2016 full statistics and associated information, visit

Stopping a snowball in its tracks

Monday, July 18th, 2016 by Camilla

When a language dies out, a culture generally dies with it. It’s feared the ancient Nanai language of Russia might be on its way out, as younger generations seem to use it less and less.

But translators believe oral Bible stories may help save Nanai souls and perhaps their entire culture.

As a Wycliffe team of translators began meeting Nanai people in remote villages along the Amur River, some conversations took them by surprise.

church in far east russiaOne Nanai woman was curious about Christianity. ‘Do you read the Bible?’ asked Anton Barashenkov, who works for Wycliffe. ‘Did you try to read the Bible in your language?’

‘Yes, I tried,’ she said. ‘I have this book.’ She showed him a translation of Luke’s gospel – the only portion of Scripture available in Nanai. Next, Anton thought he’d hear the woman say that God’s word came alive for her as she read it in her heart language.

Not this time.

‘In my own language I couldn’t understand anything,’ she told him. ‘Our language usually is not used in written form. If we had something in audio format, or some video, I could hear it and I could use it with pleasure. But we don’t have it.’

Therein lies the reason Wycliffe Russia is working to translate oral Bible stories into a disappearing language. The Nanai people, especially older generations, have their own cultural identity. Their ancient language is spoken only in a few homes, or for cultural display. Just a handful can still read or write it.

The Wycliffe team has been talking with older Nanai people and listening to their stories and family traditions. The work of translating helps Nanai storytellers craft accurate Bible stories to share with their people.

The intent is to help create a bridge for the Nanai elders, so receiving Christ as Saviour doesn’t have to mean rejecting their culture and assimilating into someone else’s.

So why spend time and resources to help preserve a language if the next generation isn’t overly concerned about losing it? Anton has heard a common answer from the elder Nanai people.

‘They understand that their language and culture is dying,’ he says. ‘If their language does not exist, their culture also cannot exist. They’re at a checkpoint in time when they could completely forget their language and culture or they could raise it back,’ he says. ‘What if, he asks, no one around the throne of God is worshipping in the Nanai tongue?’

‘That would be a pity,’ he says.

This story originally appeared on our partner The Seed Company’s blog. You can read the original here.

Want to pray more for Bible translation? Use our Frontline Prayer modules to help you, your small group or your church pray for Bible translation around the world.

Bible Translation 101: Attitudes about language

Monday, May 30th, 2016 by Camilla

Fear took over my colleague’s face for a brief second when I told her I wanted to write this. Then she composed herself, and managed to explain, calmly, that my idea sounded intensely boring. What is one to do? I endeavoured to make this piece as interesting as I know the topic to be.

letters-3-1483552-640x480The topic is sociolinguistics (which I can agree we need to come up with a better name for). It’s about attitudes towards language, and it’s a bigger part of Bible translation than you might think. Language development and Bible translation would be a lot simpler if nobody had any real connection with or opinions about languages.

Picture the scene: a remote people group who have no written language, but want the Bible in their mother tongue. Based on listening to the language, a linguist will aim to devise an alphabet where each letter or symbol corresponds to one sound in the language. Such a system is logical and tidy, and makes spelling and reading as easy as possible. Job done, right?

Wrong. Stick a sociolinguistic filter on the lens and many changes may be necessary. Logical, rational choices of symbols may be rejected because the community associates them with another language group they consider themselves distinct from, because they associate a specific symbol with a different sound, or because a symbol just plain doesn’t feel ‘right’.

If you think this sounds strange, test your own linguistic attitudes about these suggested changes to English spelling. Or take a look at Shavian, a completely different alphabet specifically designed for English in the 1950s. How would you feel about using the v symbol for the ‘oo’ sound in ‘wool’?

You may think only communities with long-standing traditions of literacy have feelings about what their written language should look like – but this isn’t the case. Knowledge of other writing systems, whether scant or extensive, and feelings about neighbouring language communities are often in place long before a linguist starts sharpening his or her pencil.

Writing systems are in fact just the tip of the iceberg – attitudes about language affect every stage of a Bible translation. When a language has several different dialects, should the written language be a mixture of all of them or be based on a specific one? How do you choose which one? Are local staff members well-respected by the community? Are there words that would be useful in the translation but which have unfortunate connotations? These questions, and many more like them, are sociolinguistic questions.

Ignoring sociolinguistic factors could be serious and result in a lack of local ownership and ultimately the rejection of the writing system and resulting Bible translation. After many years’ work, a project could be back at square one.

If you liked this post, please check out the rest of our Bible Translation 101 series.

Where faith comes by hearing: making audio Scriptures in Tanzania

Monday, January 25th, 2016 by Nick

The majority of people in the world belong to oral cultures. For them, faith literally comes by hearing. With this in mind, one of the tools we use to share Scripture with these communities is audio recordings of Bible stories! So how does Scripture go from words on paper to audio?

Jo Clifford shares a great step-by-step account of one of the many trips she takes to record Scripture, this time to Mpanda in Tanzania. From invitation to hanging blankets over wooden frames, this is a brilliant window into the world of Scripture audio recording:

‘I regularly receive requests from various language projects to do audio recordings of Scripture. A couple of months before a trip I need to prepare the script of the audio recording – taking the Scripture text and dividing it up into the different characters (narrator, Ruth, Boaz, Jonah etc). Then copies of the parts are given to the different people who have agreed to read for us, so they have time to practice. I discuss with those hosting the recording work what location might be best. The preference is for somewhere quiet, with power if possible (otherwise a generator is necessary to run the equipment). I also ask if there are blankets available for soundproofing the studio structure as well as some wood to make the frame. I bring the rest of my recording equipment.

When I am recording I rely on others to help me. I explain the recording process to the person who has come to read the part. Before we start recording I always get people’s consent to use their voice.

JoC recording3

Jo at work

I usually ask for at least one translator of the language being recorded to be present to follow the reading and make sure words are read correctly. I have the text so I can generally follow along, but I don’t know the languages and some languages incorporate tone to express meaning.

Before a reader begins, I often paint a picture of the context to help them think about what they are reading. To get the most realistic recording, I often ask if there is special way of saying something in their culture which signals for instance an attitude of prayer or of showing fear or celebration.

At the time of recording I will do a rough edit of each clip. The same evening I will go through all that has been recorded that day and edit each clip, taking out breaths, clicks from lips smacking together and any extra space between phrases and sentences.

JoC recording2

Editing audio recordings

[Then] I will start to put all the clips together to make each chapter and will add the sound effects.  I will play it to the translators who speak the language to check all the text is correct, that they like the sound effects and that I haven’t edited something out by mistake!

When the translators are happy with the audio, then I can produce the MP3 tracks which can be made into CDs, or be put onto a mobile phone, uploaded onto the language website and put onto the language Scripture app.’

Interested in finding out more about the work of Wycliffe and how you can be involved? Come along to one of our one day events First Steps!

Wrapping up Scripture translation? Bring in the translation consultants!

Monday, January 18th, 2016 by Nick

What does a translation consultant do? Bible translation is currently active in around 2000 languages, however, before Scripture is pressed and printed, a translation consultant comes in.

Following on from last Monday’s post, Why does Bible translation take so long?, today we’ll be taking a look into exactly what a translation consultant undertakes, thanks to a brilliant blog post by Eddie Arthur and his wife Sue (herself a translation consultant).

‘There are two essential aspects to a translation; firstly that people can understand it and secondly that it means the same thing as the original.’ – Eddie Arthur

Once all the hard work of an initial translation has been completed it’s up to a consultant to ensure it meets the two criteria mentioned above. It’s their job to sign the translation off and give the go-ahead when it’s ready to be published.

What makes a consultant? Well, you need to be familiar with the original text and have experience in translation. Once a consultant has been deployed to a project, they review the entire translation, holding fast to the importance of accuracy. In her role, Sue has been checking that the meaning aligns with the original Greek and studying back-translations (you can find out more on back-translation by having a read of another of our blog posts Belt and Braces).

Constant communication needs to be maintained with the translation team, face to face and through mediums such as Skype. Along with the team, someone external is also brought in who is less familiar with the translation text.

There is also testing, or village testing, which is where the text is read to native speakers of the target language who do not know the original passage and then asking questions about it.

This is all really very thorough. Again, why do this? Eddie writes:

‘Very simply, because God’s word is important. We need to know that people can understand what the text says and we need to know that the text is an accurate representation of what Paul wrote. It is worth taking time to get this right. In general, testing, consulting and revising the text takes longer than the initial draft of a translation.’

Eddie’s post What Does A Translation Consultant Do? gives great insight into his and Sue’s experience of what it means to be a translation consultant.

Curious to know more? Come along to one of our introductory courses later this year! Find out more about First Steps – a day to explore the world of Bible translation.

Kasem Scripture launch

Monday, January 4th, 2016 by Nick

This is a very special story of two Wycliffe members, Philip and Judy Hewer, who spent time working with the Kasem language group and who recently had the joy of being able to join in and celebrate the completion of the Kasem Bible along with colleagues and old friends.

Back in 1962 when Wycliffe first started work in Africa, the Kasem language group was one of the first language groups to receive a Wycliffe team. With around 366,000 speakers, Kasem is a language that is spoken in both Burkina Faso and Ghana and November 15 saw the long awaited completion of the Kasem Bible!

Photo by Otabil ArthurPhilip and Judy joined the Kasem project 10 years after its start, settling in Paga, a Kasena* village on the northern border of Ghana. After getting to grips with local language and culture, they facilitated translation of the New Testament, as well as preparing literacy materials and training volunteer teachers for adult classes. The Kasem New Testament was published as early as 1988!

Though they have been back in the UK for many years now, this November Philip and Judy returned to Ghana to celebrate the launch of the whole Bible in Kasem. On the day, people pressed forward to buy a Bible in their own mother tongue and once they had their hands on one, many were so deeply engrossed that they paid little attention to further proceedings.

Representatives of supporters from the UK were also able to travel to Ghana to join in these celebrations. Tony came to represent Philip and Judy’s original sending church in Maidstone, who have faithfully supported their work with the Kasena by means of a monthly gift for 43 years! So many people and churches in Ghana, in the UK and around the world have been part of bringing the Bible to the Kasena people in the language of their hearts.

Now they may respond to God’s message in a way appropriate to their own culture without the need for interpretation by outsiders.

Kumasi 018 Presby music group ota (2)   Kumasi 068 a Bible at last ota (2)   Kumasi 083 Bible reader 4 ota (2)

For further information on the Kasem, including sound samples of the language(!), visit

Interested in supporting the work of Bible translation? Find out more on how you can Go, Give or Pray.

*Kasena is the adjective form of Kasem

Photos by Otabil Arthur

Pandas, elephants and monarch butterflies

Monday, August 24th, 2015 by Camilla

Pandas. Elephants. Monarch butterflies. We’ve all heard of endangered species (especially the cute ones), and know there’s value in preserving them. What about endangered languages? Have you heard of the Mlomp language of Senegal? How about the Tamazight language of Algeria? Or my personal favourite, the Cocama-Cocamilla language of Brazil?

There are over 2000 languages on UNESCO’s list of endangered languages. That’s over a quarter of all the languages in the world – but some linguists estimate that as many as half the world’s 6,901 languages may be at risk.

Numbers are helpful for giving us an overview. But the truth is, it’s not about the numbers. It’s not even about the languages. It’s about the people who speak them. You can listen to some speakers of endangered languages for yourself in the following video. Listen out for the click language at 1:15!

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SIL, one of Wycliffe’s partner organisations, recognises the value of individual languages and believes that each language is a unique expression of culture and worldview. SIL is dedicated to coming alongside language communities as they strive to preserve their languages and identities. For more on endangered languages, check out SIL’s endangered languages page. For more on some of the people behind the numbers, have a look at Wade Davis’s TED Talk where he uses some amazing photos to illustrate what the loss of a language really means.

Interested in praying, giving or going? Find out more.

Stone or mountain? It’s in the tone

Monday, July 27th, 2015 by Nick

It will probably come as no surprise that bringing a language from just a spoken form into written form is not an easy task. Also, not all languages are ‘created equal’; some are harder to write than others, and writing tonal languages well, that’s a whole different ball game. Johannes and Sharon, members of Wycliffe Switzerland, share some fascinating insight into the difficulties and complexities of translating the tonal language Mbelime.

‘One of the biggest problems of the Mbelime project remains the question of how to write the language (the spelling and punctuation rules that make up a written language are known as its “orthography”). Mbelime is a tonal language that has three distinct tone levels. This means that the tone level of a word changes its meaning. For example, if the vowel a of the word ditade is pronounced with a high tone, it means “stone”. When a is pronounced with a lower tone, however, it means “mountain”.

When the language was  first written in the 1970s, tone levels were not marked. Accordingly, readers found it difficult to read since they had to first figure out which tonal variation would apply to some of the words so that the text would make sense. Following further linguistic analysis, people started to mark tones. The stone was now written as dītáde, while mountain became dītāde. This rendered the two words distinctive in the orthography, which made the language easier to read. On the other hand, the text was now crowded with accents, which means that people still read very slowly.

Over the years many people, including literacy teachers, have told us how difficult they find it to write Mbelime. At the moment there are only a handful of people who master writing Mbelime correctly, among them Bienvenu and Claire. The three translators also find the current orthography a big challenge. Unfortunately, they feel that the current work pressure is hindering them from coming to grips with this. Bienvenu and Claire are currently reading through the first full draft of the gospel of Luke to correct the orthography. This is a lot of work and they’ll have to thoroughly proofread it twice. The orthography problem is so complex that we need a specialist who is well versed both in the tonology of African languages as well as in questions of orthography design. These people are a truly rare breed. One of them, David Roberts,  recently returned to Togo  and proposed including Mbelime in a comparative study with several other languages, as Mbelime is far from being the only language with this challenge.

Johannes, Bienvenu and Claire prepared the texts needed for the proposed reading experiment, for which we invited the best Mbelime readers. David came to Cobly in mid-June for three days during which he led the experiment (see photo). We recorded 32 people who read two short texts with the tones marked and two texts without the tone accents. They also had twenty minutes to write tones on two texts. In early July Bienvenu and Johannes went to Kara for a week to start analysing the recordings and texts together with the other four language groups that participated in the experiment.

It will be a while before we will be ready to have another orthography reform, but we’re thrilled that another important step towards it is finally happening.’

Keep up to date with the latest Wycliffe UK news by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

You can help the work of Bible translation, either through prayer, giving or going. Find out how you can be involved.

Community-owned translation

Monday, July 20th, 2015 by Nick

Micronesia ticks all the boxes. A rich Christian heritage, over 150 years of church growth with a diverse mix of people groups and languages, and 96% of the population identify themselves as Christians. However, many are still not able to read and hear Scripture in a language they fully understand.

For the Kapingamarangi community, they previously only had access to the Pohnpeian language Bible (a major language on an island which is home to many different people groups). This meant that, whilst the community could be taught Scripture, they could not fully understand its depths.

‘Reading the Bible in another, more widely-spoken language can be a frustrating experience. Even though we understand Pohnpeian, there is always a limitation. People assume that it is okay to use the Pohnpeian language. But they always come to a point [where they can’t understand]. Between us and God there is no language barrier, there shouldn’t be.’ – Dais Lorrin, a Mwoakiloan* believer

The Kapingamarangi church took it upon themselves to write to SIL** asking for help in Bible translation. However, when Nico Daams and his wife, Pam, came to visit the Kapingamarangi, it was clear from the start that this was the community’s project. It’s common for the Kapingamarangi to approach projects as a whole; the community has to be convinced before a task is undertaken.

Nico cites high motivation among leadership and willingness to work together across church, denominational and dialect boundaries as two necessary preconditions for a successful translation project in this region.

December 2014 saw the Kapingamarangi celebrate the completion of the entire Bible in their own language.

In Micronesia God is inspiring a translation movement reflecting the community-driven ethos of the people, enabling a true community-owned Bible translation:

The Kapingamarangi people showed the church of Micronesia and Polynesia a new level of community commitment to Bible translation. Isles of the Sea*** is carrying that vision forward to other language groups, and now PIU is helping equip the next generation of islanders to lead the way in breaking down language barriers standing in the way of understanding God’s word.

‘It is great to have the words of God in our own language,’ says Kapingamarangi translator Caleb Gamule. ‘The Bible is our own Bible—and it is our responsibility to make it happen.’

Read more about what God is doing amongst these wonderful people, including the Isles of the Sea project and the Pacific Islands University, here.

No matter your skill, there is a place for you to help in the work of Bible translation. Find out how you can be involved.

*The Mwoakiloan community live on a neighboring island in the same area as the Kapingamarangi

**SIL is a partner organisation of Wycliffe

***The Isles of the Sea project is a network of Bible translation projects sponsored by the Seed Company, a partner organisation of Wycliffe.

Finally! An alphabet!

Monday, June 22nd, 2015 by Nick

Life without an alphabet is almost impossible to imagine. What would that even look like? Until recently, this was still the case for a community in a remote mountainous location. A couple of years ago, two field workers visited this community and partnered with local academic leaders to develop an alphabet. During this time they also collected children’s folktales to create the first ever book in the community’s language.

This is a great story from the two workers of how the remote community received the first book ever to be written using their new alphabet:

‘After our arrival we didn’t have long to wait. The moment we entered the home of the family we were staying with, the little girl, aged about eight, ran up to us with the book and with shining eyes started to read fluently from it.

Our landlady then told us how much the girl had wanted the book as a birthday present. When she got it, it was her treasure; she didn’t even want to share it with her younger brother, she was so afraid that the book would get damaged. We had a stock of books with us, and so we solved this situation quickly and gave a copy to her younger brother, which made everybody happy.’

Read the full story.
Find out how you can be part of impacting lives in this way.