The hum of chatter fills a packed lunchroom at the Canada Institute of Linguistics (CanIL) on the Trinity Western University campus in Langley, B.C.
Tables are jammed together wall-to-wall for the monthly “M-files” (Missionary Files) gathering—a Friday lunch event where a visiting speaker (usually a CanIL graduate) shares about their experience doing language work on the field. On this autumn day, Trish* stands in front of the group of mainly CanIL students and staff. Serving in Southeast Asia, she shares pictures and stories from her work creating oral Bible story sets translated for minority language groups.
Trish is comfortable at the microphone, making dry jokes that draw laughter from the crowd. Much of the content of her presentation is personal and relatable, but would be confusing to those without a background in linguistics.
She shows the crowd an alphabet from a language group she worked with, and uses words like orthography, semantics, cultural acquisition, and morphology. It’s heady stuff. There aren’t a lot of lunchrooms in Canada where words like these would be understood by the majority of the room—but here Trish is talking shop.
However, it isn’t the science of language that ultimately unites the CanIL community. What sets this group apart is a united and growing drive to advance the global Bible translation movement that helps provide God’s Word to every language group on the planet that needs it.
This desire to end Bible poverty was in CanIL’s blueprint when it opened its doors in 1985 on the Trinity Western campus, under the name the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Originally established by Wycliffe Canada (CanIL is still Wycliffe Canada’s key training partner), the school incorporated as its own entity in 2000. Through all the changes, CanIL’s main purpose hasn’t changed. It has been—and still is—to recruit and train Canadians to join the global Bible translation movement. And that effort continues to yield a growing enrolment.
Although growth has been steady throughout CanIL’s history, according to Danny Foster, CanIL’s energetic, candid president, it’s never been about growth for the sake of growth.
“Enrolment is important. The figures are important,” stresses Foster, who has served as CanIL’s president since 2014. “But I came here because I believed and I realized . . . that God was showing me that I could have a way bigger impact in the kingdom of God through CanIL than I could in Tanzania [where he served for more than a decade], right there on the front lines.”
To illustrate his point, Foster draws boxes on his office whiteboard. One box represents the 19 languages he worked with in his role as a training co-ordinator for the Uganda-Tanzania branch of SIL (Wycliffe’s key field partner). The second box Foster draws is larger, showing how his next role as the director of training and development for the branch had an even bigger impact, helping to build capacity among Tanzanians and Ugandans for Bible translation efforts across 45 languages. Then Danny draws a third, larger box. He explains that as a school that trains Bible translation, linguistic and literacy specialists who work all around the world, CanIL has a far bigger impact than his former frontlines work.
“We are not a school for the sake of being a school. I’m not here for CanIL. I’m here for that,” emphasizes Foster, as he points to the large box on the whiteboard. He calls it CanIL’s “kingdom footprint.”
To track this footprint, CanIL leaders record how many grads transition to the mission field each year. They call this “mission fulfilment." Under Foster’s leadership, this number has been increasing, with an estimated 59 grads joining the Bible translation movement in the past three years. Last year was the best year yet in CanIL history, with 35 grads making the move to the field.
Is a renewed focus on recruitment or the great scholarships that CanIL offers responsible for the increase in mission fulfilment? Foster admits that the reasons are hard to quantify.
“It’s God. It’s the obedience of the people in this building,” he says. “If I honestly knew what that formula was I’d be a really, really happy guy.”
To ensure students are prepared for their future roles, CanIL is staffed almost entirely by faculty with experience serving in minority language groups around the globe. As a result, classes are hands-on and prepare students for actual situations they will face in their field work.
And with specialties offered in descriptive linguistics, language survey, Bible translation, developing writing systems, promoting literacy and documenting languages, Foster believes students will be prepared for basically anything.
“I’d like to say we can drop you in the bush in a language that’s never been studied before, and in a relatively short amount of time you are going to be able to have X,Y,Z figured out about the writing system, about the sound system and you will be able to start to sketch out the grammar.”
Take the example of American students Joe and Lisa Leman, who left for South Asia this past January. Unlike most CanIL students, these second-year MA of linguistics and exegesis students plan to finish their program after gaining some field experience as language surveyors.
The Lemans’ work will take them to remote language groups spread across a sensitive South Asian country to gather data, so decisions can be made about the need for Bible translation.
Prior to leaving for the field this past fall, the Lemans shared how CanIL classes would prepare them for their new roles. Joe said the program gave them the proficiency needed to learn a language and be self-motivated. He admits, though, that they can only be somewhat ready for the adventure.
“I feel prepared as far as knowledge and education are concerned. But prepared? I can’t prepare for the change of pace and change of culture and change of lifestyle.”
Everyone to Everywhere
When Foster is asked what changes he sees in CanIL’s future, he responds initially by describing a humble vision. He says CanIL plans to remain an important partner in the Bible translation movement. They will do this by being an attentive voice in the conversation regarding Bible translation best practices and by preparing students to serve well.
With more thought, however, Foster allows himself to dream a little bit about the future—a future where CanIL can better help local speakers in minority languages do Bible translation and related tasks for their own people.
“I’d like to find ways to serve national Bible translation organizations through training and equipping people better,” he says. “As the Bible translation movement, in the past we thought of it as the ‘West to the rest.’ Now it’s ‘everyone to everywhere. . . .’I still think some of the best training is locked up here and not available to our national partners.”
With its focused ambition, CanIL is doing its part in an even bigger dream—that every person on the planet has the Bible in their heart language. Foster’s dream is that CanIL’s kingdom footprint covers the globe.