Today’s post reveals one final, surprising conclusion of a recent experiment in the Gofa community of Ethiopia. In case you missed it, you can learn more about that experiment in Measuring the Spiritual Impact of Scripture Translation? Yes, It’s Possible!
Years ago I conducted a language survey in a region of New Guinea where isolated people groups were experiencing rapid integration. The situation was not unlike current world events. In the 1980s, industries, schools, clinics and government offices were springing up, bringing unstoppable change to people in this region.
Over the course of only one generation, one small, undocumented language had become nearly extinct. “Why,” I asked the village elders, “are you only using the national language when you talk to your children?”
They replied, “In order to survive, they will need to become speakers of the government’s language. Our language won’t be of any use.”
Is Extinction Inevitable for Certain Languages?
These elders were looking out for the next generation — and future ones to come. Survival weighed heavily on their minds. With pressure mounting on all sides, one choice seemed inevitable: to embrace the language of wider communication.
Yet, in similar situations around the world, local people rise up, make critical choices and stop the inevitable.
Take the Gofa language, for example. With 233,000 speakers, one might assume the language is thriving. Yet the language has been in a state of decline, possibly regressing to the point of extinction.
Four Reasons Languages Become Extinct
- National pressure to conform. Children don’t learn the language of their mother because they spend so much time using the language of education.
- Intercultural marriage. Language loss is especially likely if one of the cultures is more dominant.
- Disease. The tragic spread of a fatal disease can wipe out a population.
- Genocide. This tragic consequence can happen because of war, famine and other causes.
Translated Scriptures a Catalyst in Reversing the Trend
When Gofa translators first started translating the Gospel of Luke in 2004, many of their own people challenged them. Simon, a Gofa translator, explains:
“The hesitation was: ‘What’s the benefit? So our children can learn to read and write the Gofa language. We remember how we were ridiculed for speaking our own language. Why would we want our children to experience the same? No, we prefer they learn Amharic [the national language].’” Simon continues, “Such things were what we experienced in the past.”
While there was pressure to conform, local churches continued to support the Gofa translators. In 2006, they celebrated the completion of the Gospel of Luke in their own language.
Then in 2012 The Seed Company conducted an experiment the first of its kind. We returned to assess the spiritual impact of the translated Scriptures. One discovery was especially surprising … the language was being renewed!
Our Language Matters!
Two critical choices are making immediate impact on the Gofa language.
The mother tongue is used in early education. Government policies now support using the mother tongue in elementary school education. (There are 85 indigenous languages spoken in Ethiopia.) Gofa children learn to read and write in their own language.
Youth read mother tongue Scriptures to non-literate elders. Children learn to read and write Gofa using the Gofa Scriptures. At home they read aloud the Gofa Scriptures to their non-literate parents and grandparents.
“Most of the time, those who know how to read, read from the Gospel of Luke [in Gofa]. It is then that others listen, and they ask them to read it again, instead of the Amharic version. It’s like this: If I don’t know how to read it, then I listen to you read it. Then they will even ask the pastor or evangelist to read from the translated Gospel of Luke. That’s the difference. Most of them don’t know the meaning of the Amharic Bible.” —Simon, Gofa Bible translator
Gofa children will no doubt access reading materials in Amharic, but now they can also access the written Scriptures in Gofa. It is, after all, the language that God has used to speak to their hearts for many millennia.
Your turn: What are the spiritual consequences when a language becomes extinct?