A language that Christians mostly refuse to translate text into

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English is unique in being a world language. In a review of new book What is English? And Why Should We Care? (Tim William Machan, OUP), London Times columnist and language-use expert Oliver Kamm writes:

…debates over the nature and purpose of English are longstanding. It’s not only the language but its speakers who are different from the past. In the middle of the past century, about 400 million people spoke English. The total is now 1.5 billion, while the proportion of them living in Britain, North America and Australasia has declined. There is no historical parallel for this growth in English usage and the shift in the language’s center of gravity.”

That’s over 20% of the world’s population who can speak English to some degree. And since English is the language of the Internet, much higher education, and the majority of websites, there is a big incentive for young people in every nation to learn it. With only about 360 million people as first-language speakers, 80% of the 1.5 billion are using it as a second language.

Of course, in an ideal world, there would be adequate Christian resources, online and offline, in the heart language of everyone. But failing that, we should be making our evangelistic and discipleship resources as accessible as possible to all second-language English speakers. How?

The concept of simple or international English

Of course, every user of English is somewhere on a spectrum of grammar and vocabulary, and most people can read a language better than they can speak or write it. But although TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) recognizes different levels of attainment, there are few specific standards or guidelines to write for second-language speakers, and few Christian groups have seen the significance of easy-English for literature, books, or online material.

This remains a huge and largely un-noticed opportunity for the Kingdom.

To their great credit, Wikipedia have embraced simple English, and a percentage of their articles have easy versions.

Of course, avoiding jargon in any writing is a related issue.

Christian use of simple English: radio

Frank Laubach was a Christian pioneer in world literacy and the learning of English. He developed word lists of simple words to use in easy English, graded at 500, 1000 and 1500 words and published by Syracuse University.

Voice of America developed a similar word list of 1500 words and associated style, to use in easy English.
This was adapted by FEBA Radio in the past, and is now at the core of the daily audio programme Spotlight. The programme has a Christian worldview, is broadcast on radio stations around the world radio and is freely available online. The Spotlight team say, “Our young and technologically savvy audience is increasingly listening to Spotlight on our new Spotlight App for both Apple and Android devices.”

Christian use of simple English: literature

SOON Ministries’ easy-English outreach SOON paper goes back over 50 years, and was inspired by the work of Frank Laubach. It is, sadly, ceasing paper publication during 2015.

Volunteers with MissionAssist (formerly known as Wycliffe Associates UK) have been working on both a simple translation of the Bible, and matching book-by-book commentaries. After 20 years work, the entire Bible has now been covered, and everything is available for free download from EasyEnglish.info.

Manna Publications also offer free-to-download commentaries in easy-English and French.

There are several other Bible translations which are very accessible to second-language English speakers. The Easy-to-Read (ETR) version is particularly simple and readable. The NIrV was produced with second-language speakers in mind. Both the NLT and CEV are very accessible. The Jesus Book (NT only) is of comparable simplicity to the ETR.

Happily, many of these versions are now freely accessible online, for instance via Bible Gateway, and integrated into the YouVersion phone app, whose current 1000+ Bibles in 700+ languages are also viewable on their Bible.com resource.

“Let it go, let it go!”

It is sad when mission groups and other teams own the copyright to various Bible translations or discipleship materials which are culturally appropriate for parts of the Majority World. And then, they restrict distribution to print media, often only by selling, with minimal financial return. This sort of desire for control means that distribution figures may only be in hundreds. But if they were to let them go, out into the wild, as free downloadable texts in whatever formats best suit them – specially those which work on mobile phones, the only device most people will use to access the Web. Do this, and distribution is likely to be in the tens of thousands!

Any evangelism or discipleship strategy for the Majority World which fails to put mobile phones at its heart, will not achieve its potential. Read more posts about the significance and reach of mobile. Check the online resources, training and April conference of the Mobile Ministry Forum. It is not too late to book for the April 17-18 conference in Netherlands.

Also follow the news and updates on the Indigitous blog, which also includes details of their various training days across Africa and Asia.

Photo credit – “Easy button” by User:Yskyflyer – own work (2 feet from my computer, On my Desk). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

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