We take it for granted that we can write grocery lists, text our friends and family, check the correct dosage on our medicine bottle labels, and read our favourite Bible verses. But these actions come easily to us only because we are literate in the language we know best. Here are four reasons that literacy in one’s heart language matters.
#1 - When people can read in their language, they have better life opportunities
Picture this: you’re a kid and excited to go to school for the first time. You sit down at your desk and someone hands you a textbook. You open it—and it's gibberish. It turns out the teacher doesn’t even speak a word of your language! You’re completely lost. Do you think you’d fall behind in class?
That’s exactly what happens to thousands of children every year. Around the world, students from minority language groups struggle to achieve satisfactory reading levels when they are forced to learn in the national language. In Peru, such learning delays are apparent by Grade 2.
It is well established that minority language students who are taught in a second language don’t only fall behind in reading, but also in math and in learning other languages. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that kids who learn in their own language first perform better in every subject. This includes learning other languages down the line.
In West Asia, we see this at a Lotari* multilingual language school supported by Wycliffe Canada. These students are performing better than local educators anticipated.
Karam is a teacher at the best private school in the area. He told us, “When you started this primary school we didn't take it seriously. Now . . . we are astounded at their performance in the national language, English and other subjects!”
Unfortunately, education in one’s first language is not usually prioritized. Around 40 per cent of people on this planet do not have access to education in a language they speak or understand.
Even when children do have mother-tongue education, teachers often do not speak the students’ language well, and classes are usually only offered to young children. In southern Peru, a study found that half the teachers in bilingual schools couldn’t speak the indigenous language. This is common, and one reason Wycliffe partners with local Christian agencies in many other countries to provide literacy classes.
These literacy classes are particularly important for girls and women, who are unable to attend school in many regions of the world. “When I was a child,” says Julia, a literacy student in Peru, “my parents said girls who went to school were those who had nothing to do at home. I resigned myself to care for the animals and when I grew up, to get married and have children. I truly believed this was a woman’s only role.”
AIDIA, Wycliffe’s partner organization in the region, is helping people like Julia. Dozens of women trained by AIDIA as literacy and Bible teachers now regularly visit isolated communities to share their knowledge of God’s Word. We see similar results with other Wycliffe partner organizations around the world.
When a community is literate and residents can achieve higher levels of education, everyone benefits. People gain more opportunities to break out of poverty and grow in their understanding of the world around them. They even benefit from improved health and hygiene and are more helpful to their communities!
But what does all this have to do with Bible translation?
#2 - Reading God’s Word in their own language brings a person’s faith to life
Imagine sitting in church, listening to a sermon in your second or third language. You took a few second-language classes in high school, but that was a long time ago and most of what the preacher is saying goes right over your head.
Sometimes pastors or interpreters try to translate the Scriptures into listeners’ first language “on the fly” during services, but this often leads to confusing and conflicting messages. When people lack access to a reliable and understandable translation of God’s Word, they can go to church for years and not even grasp basic gospel truths.
“We have never heard anything like it before!” one Cameroonian woman cried, after hearing the Good Friday message in her Yambeta language for the first time.
“We didn’t know there was someone who loved us so much,” said another, “that He was willing to suffer and die like that—to be crucified on a cross to save us!”
Leonard, a Bible translator, told the women it was the same story they heard every year, preached from the French New Testament on Good Friday. But the women insisted they had never heard the gospel message before that day, when the Good News was preached in their own language!
When people encounter God’s Word in the language they know best, it is personal and transformational. A connection forms between their life and the message.
However, it’s not quite enough to hear the message in your own language. If you can’t read it for yourself, then you’re still waiting for someone else to recite and interpret the Bible for you. You don’t have the ability to reread and meditate on the Word.
Since many communities desire to learn to read in their language, mother-tongue literacy is a treasured gift Wycliffe can help provide. It is also an entry point which leads to Bible translation, either down the road or simultaneously.
#3 - Providing mother-tongue education is a justice issue.
When people see their language being used like other languages, with signs in the street, books published, a dictionary, and songs on the radio, they see that it has value and legitimacy. This restores some equality for marginalized language communities. Books can be published and collected on all subjects, gathering the precious insights of people groups who previously had no books available to them in their language.
In the words of an Mba speaker in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “We, too, are an important people . . . why were we afraid to display our culture?”
Our language is often inseparable from our place of origin and our family. It is a key part of our identity. This also means that suppressing a language is a form of oppression. The tragic and horrible history of Canadian residential schools is a prime example of this type of oppression.
Supporting multilingual literacy efforts is part of supporting peace and justice; we serve a God of justice and the Prince of Peace.
#4 - God values diversity
People, made in God’s image, are diverse by design. God’s plan is that heaven will be filled with people from all nations. Revelation 7:9 (NIV) reminds us of this: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” One way to take part in seeing this vision come to fulfilment is through mother-tongue ministry.
Jesus asked His followers to make disciples from all nations. He himself taught truth in and through culture. We believe that God desires all people and cultures to reflect the glory of God.