Empires all over the world like to homogenise languages. It makes business more efficient, it connects people over the distances, and it helps ideas and propaganda reach every corner of the empire.
It is also very convenient for the majority group whose language is adopted as the official language, but it also creates inequality. Minority groups can learn to speak the majority language, but may not get as fluent and they will often have an accent. They will be disadvantaged when trying to advance in academics and government. Even in a modern country like the UK, people who speak ‘standard’ English, as spoken in the wealthy South, will have an advantage in getting top jobs compared to those with strong Scottish, Irish or urban accents.
However, language is more than just vocabulary and grammar. It encapsulates the values, the history and the soul of a people group. With the loss of language comes loss of identity and loss of connection with previous generations and the stories that had been passed on.
Mission work through the ages has benefited greatly from the empires’ tendency to make people speak one language. From the Greek of the New Testament to Mao’s simplified Chinese, the gospel has been proclaimed widely across empires, using the languages and writing systems of the empires.
However, to penetrate deeply, there is no better way than bringing the message in the language that is closest to people’s hearts. There is something uniquely powerful about being a marginalised minority and hearing someone from a powerful group address you in the language of your heart. It is even more powerful to hear the creator of the Universe speak to you in the language your mother taught to you.
Paul Hattaway chronicles the revival among the A-Hmao people of Guizhou province in South Western China. It was a marginalised group living in poverty, deep in the mountains. Both their men and women were often enslaved and they lived under a constant cloud of rejection and abuse.
When they heard that missionaries had settled in a city in their province, they sent delegations to hear and learn as much as they could. They would travel for nine or ten days over rough terrain, bringing their own supplies and sleeping under the stars, because they would be refused lodgings in Chinese inns due to their ethnicity. They soaked up the message and revival broke out among them. Hattaway writes “the missionaries and their helpers had no way of keeping up with the progress. Throughout the hills of Guizhou, thousands of men and women who had been crushed and despised for countless generations now found their worth in their Creator, Jesus Christ.” (Hattaway, Guizhou, pg 75)
But what made the word of God take root so deeply, that even a century later the A-Hmao are 80% Christian, was the fact that the missionaries learned their language, developed a script and translated the scriptures. Hattaway notes that “Having the Bible added a great deal of dignity to the A-Hmao people, who were amazed that God had not forgotten them and that He loved them so much as to have sent them His precious Book in their own language.” (Hattaway, Guizhou, pg 83)
Translating scriptures, be it written or spoken, is a powerful way to say to people that their community, their history, their culture matters to God. That they are worth the decades-long efforts of people learning their language and translating the Bible. Their language is not seen as a nuisance or a barrier to overcome, but as a channel of the grace of God to reach their hearts. And that is why we continue to support the work of making the Bible available through translating, recording, providing devices and printing, so that all may know the Good News and believe.