Linguistics: The Science of Words

My personal journey: My doctorate focused on socio-linguistics and reading education. I had served for several years as BI's literacy coordinator when the director asked me to help the translation teams with linguistics. I must confess I did not see the need and only reluctantly agreed because our director had been a national translator. If he saw the need, maybe there was something I was missing. If the translators are all mother tongue speakers, surely they know their own language and did not need my help to know how to write it, I thought. A few months later I was in Myanmar working with the Falam to write a primer. I noticed that the way in which they wrote their words seemed to vary, not just in how they were spelled but whether it was one word, two words or even three. When I asked, Paul Van Hre, former BIMS director, said, "Yes, this is a problem for us." "What does the translation team do?" I asked. "It is a very big problem for them as well. One writes one way, the next corrects it and changes it another way." I discovered it was causing tension in the translation committee. They joked that they were like the Israelites in the time of the judges: "Each of us does what is right in our own eyes." And so my work as a linguist began. My plan was to develop a 10-12-page pamphlet for the translation committee so they were following the same guidelines as they wrote and edited the Bible translation. God had much bigger plans than I ever imagined. Over the next several years my pamphlet grew and grew until it is now a 186-page book representing hundreds of hours of some of the most educated and passionate Falam speakers' minds and hearts. One man told me, "I can't speak Falam anymore! Every time I say something I am wondering, 'Why am I using that word? Is that a morpheme or a word? Why is it there?'" When we asked our teams why linguistic work is important the responses were emotional and went directly to their dreams and aspirations for their people. I did not see the need, in the beginning, mostly because my dreams for them were too small. They dream of teaching in their own language in Bible colleges and seminaries, of education widely available to their people, of being able to write and develop any materials they want in their own language. They dream of their churches having everything available to them that English speaking churches have. Wow! What would they need to make that possible? The Bible and tools so they can learn to write clearly in their own language (dictionary, writing guidelines, tools to teach reading)


Imagine that the only Bible you've ever had was written in a foreign language. It would make it hard to feel a personal connection to God, wouldn't it? This is one of the problems faced by the Choros believers in Asia. One pastor explains, "It is okay to adopt English words for science and technology, but as much as possible, we want to have our own words for theology. We want to use Chioros for spiritual life and relating to God at a personal level."

Now imagine that a dictionary had never been made for your language. How many words would have disappeared? How much of your culture would be lost? These are the challenges faced by the Rhema people in Asia. One Rhema pastor laments, "Many terms used by our forefathers are nearing extinction."

These are just two reasons why dictionary development is so important on the mission field. In the past, we could not help with dictionaries because they were expensive and time-consuming, but this new ministry uses simple and free tools that make it easy for language groups to create dictionaries, themselves, and publish them cost-free.

Writers' Handbooks:

Americans rarely get excited about grammar books, but when we ask our translation teams about writers' handbooks, their responses are always enthusiastic.

One Rhema pastor gave an especially passionate response, claiming that "if this [Rhema] writers' handbook will reach the hands of the public and readers in general, it will usher in an era of learning prosperity which will enhance the capacity of building the tribe ... the younger generation will cultivate new forms of learning and be enriched with grammatical, linguistic, and literary knowledge after studying this handbook. This writers' handbook will help the community to learn the Rhema language correctly from now on. ... In the church's activities, it will act as a catalyst for changes in both day-to-day services and spiritual lives."

Our God is the God who speaks to His people. The desire of the translators is that their work clearly reaches their people with the message of God. Dictionaries and writers' handbooks are essential parts of achieving that dream.