Beyond Words

Just Teach Them English—Not!

Why it's far more effective to translate God's Word into people's heart language.

If you ever take questions from the average Canadian Christian about reaching the world’s people groups who still do not have God’s Word in their language, one query will usually come up: “Why not just teach them English?”

Here are some reasons why it’s far more effective to work with such groups by translating the Word of God into their own heart language.

"When we go to a people to express God's self revelation in ways that are meaningful within their cultural context—that's when we imitate what God has always been doing."
Dr. Doug Trick
  1. Language-learning is more about forming habits of thinking and connecting with the world around you than it is about memorizing thousands of words and how they can be arranged. How do you learn to speak (and think?!) well in a language (such as English) which isn’t used by your community? To “know” a language means that you think and speak with minimal awareness of the language itself, just as we normally see the world around us with minimal awareness of our eyeballs. 

  2. Why would someone want to spend thousands of hours learning English before they have any idea about the importance and relevance to them of the Good News in the Scriptures?

  3. Even if someone was to become 90 per cent fluent in English, when you remove even 10 per cent of the words of a text they don’t understand, you have something like this: “God _____ us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his _____. He washed away our _____, giving us a new birth and new life” (Titus 3:5, NLT). Go ahead. Pretend you have never heard this verse and fill in those blanks. You’ll see how very difficult it is for someone who is “only” 90 per cent fluent in a language to understand a message in that language!

  4. Language and culture are inseparable. The English language reflects the specific ways in which English-speaking peoples experience the world (i.e., their cultural framework, values, etc.). You really don’t “know” a language unless you’re a full participant in the culture.

  5. Cultural imperialism has had tragic consequences in the past. Do we really want to continue along that road? Is God only the God of people who can understand English? 

  6. God is worthy to be known, worshipped and served in multiple, vastly different ways. For all eternity, “the nations will walk in the light” of God’s glory; “all the nations will bring their glory and honour” into God’s presence (Rev 21:24-26, NLT). 

  7. Perhaps the most significant reason for not imposing “our” worldview—including our language—on all peoples is simply because that’s not what God does. He is incarnational (which means “becoming flesh”). He does not wait for us to come to Him—He reaches out to us. He speaks to His people through prophets and teachers who communicate to people in their language. When we go to a people group which does not yet have God’s Word, when we live among them and seek to experience life as they do, when we work with local people (all with the Holy Spirit’s enabling, of course) to find ways to express His self-revelation in ways that are meaningful within their cultural context—that’s when we imitate what God has always been doing.

    To serve people who don’t have the Bible in their language, just teach them English—not!
(Photo: Illustration by Laird Salkeld)

Dr. Doug Trick is VP for Academic Affairs at the Canada Institute of Linguistics (CanIL), a partner of Wycliffe Canada that trains personnel to serve in language projects, including Bible translations. Before working at CanIL, he and his wife Phyllis served in Scripture translation in Asia.

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