Unreached Peoples Need Language Learning Missionaries – part 27

Many small remote unreached peoples are not migrating to cities. We won’t be able to disciple them, because they are not coming to us. Half of all the people groups in the world are under 25,000 in population, and the majority of them do not speak any or enough of the national language to be sufficiently discipled. Even if we could speak their obscure language, we could not disciple them, because they are not coming to us.

This is why Jesus told us that we would have to “go” “into” “all” the world. Jesus did not say “Stay right where you are and make disciples of every ethnos.” If you want to reach a remote unreached people group, get prepared and go. You have to go “into,” because it is going to take at least five years to learn their language thoroughly enough to make disciples. Therefore, you will need to get a few courses under your belt. These courses will help you learn another language and translate scriptures. You won’t be translating the Bible in the traditional sense of the word. I will write more about that on this website later.

You need to get language learning and modern translation training without falling into a never-ending education trap. If there is a Bible in the language of your remote unreached people group, there are most likely Christians and disciples, we just don’t know about them. If the people group you plan to go to already has a Bible or New Testament translation, choose another people group. If your people group has portions of the scriptures, this could mean that translators are still living there and working on finishing the translation of the New Testament. You should pick another group with no portions of the scriptures. If they are traditional Bible translators they possibly will not be able to make converts or disciples because of their agencies protocols and their agreements with the national government. So just because the Bible exists does not mean the people group was or is being disciples. You are going to have to do research on the ground.

Almost every country’s national language has a Bible translated and Christian discipleship. China is no exception. China has one of the largest underground church movements in the world. However, China is only between 2.4% and 4% Christian. One survey finds 300 million believers in China. If this is true, still one billion people are in darkness, BUT there is a church, not much of one but they are not considered a totally unreached (Frontier) people group.

You will hear that 30,000 people come to Christ every day in China. What you don’t hear is that between 80,000 and 100,000 people are born every day in China. This is all irrelevant to the great commission though. We must take the Gospel into and make disciples in the first language of all ethnic people groups in China. This means doing slow, time-consuming discipleship of the young northern Khampa man I refer to in the previous article so that he can make other disciples who will take the Gospel to all the other tongues, tribes and clans in his area.

One of our biggest problems is that we don’t know how many languages there are in the world. Presently, there are about 8,000 known languages. I was in the offices of SIL in Dallas Texas listening to the editor of the Ethnologue. The Ethnologue is the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) publication of the languages of the world. He said that the more he looks at the Linguasphere, the more he thinks that it is more accurate. The Ethnologue lists about 7,100 classified languages. A classified language is a language that is different enough from is neighboring languages to require a Bible translation.

The Linguasphere lists over 10,000 languages. If you are a missionary to China, it will be good to learn a little Chinese, which is the national language, but there are at least 500 people groups in China according to the Etnopedia many of which do not speak Mandarin or Cantonese. What good will it do for you to be fluent in Mandarin? The people in the remote unreached ethnic groups will not know much, if any, Mandarin. You only need a little Mandarin in order to get around in the country. I have met several field missionaries who do not speak much of the national language, only enough to get around. There is just no need for them to spend a lot of time learning the national language. It will not help them much in the people group they are translating the Bible for.

The national language is not what the people speak in the remote areas. I have heard that linguists who know the national language struggle when working with local tribes because it is so much easier to use. They are always falling back on using it with the people. Using the national language is what gets many missionaries, especially linguists, in trouble. They think they are communicating correctly with the people, and the people think they are understanding the linguist, but neither are happening.

Jesus commands us to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Going there will require that you learn their language. Many missionaries have a mind block about language learning. They think that they just can’t learn another language. That attitude is simply laziness and pride. It can be done by anyone, with or without special gifting or high intelligence, it may just take more time. Every child adopted from a foreign country comes home with her parents and learns to speak with a perfect accent. This is something I remember being taught from my linguistics teacher in college. Every mouth on earth can make every known sound from any language on earth. It requires practice. I know missionaries that speak with such a terrible accent that it is hard to understand them. This, too, is pride and laziness. You can make your mouth move with an accent; it takes time, practice, and effort. We are trying so hard to get it done quickly. We thing twenty years is a long time. Ask anyone who is fifty or older how quickly twenty years goes by. Go now, before you get too old to want to get off the couch. They make some pretty comfortable couches these days and some pretty big television screens and the more you sit in it and in front of it, the less likely you will go into the nations.

When Jesus said, “the ends of the earth,” he meant the ends of the earth. This is proof enough that he trusts that we can and will learn their language. It is said that Jesus spoke more than one language. Some people say he spoke five languages. Jesus, being a citizen of Judea, would have spoken Hebrew, Greek, and possibly Aramaic. Hebrew is the written and spoken language of Judea and the Old Testament is mainly written in this language. Because the Greeks had conquered Judea about 200 years prior to Jesus’s birth, Greek was the trade language of the region. The New Testament is written in Koine Greek, and is a good indication that there were two languages being used at that time in his region. Archaeological evidence in burial sites also shows that Hebrew was a living language of the time.

In Europe, many people are bilingual. Being bilingual is common in many parts of the world, but still most missionaries are content with knowing only two languages: their own first language and the national language of the country they go to live in. Sometimes these national languages are broken into what they call dialects. For instance, Chinese “dialects” such as Cantonese, Hakka, and Shanghainese are just as different from one another (and from the dominant Mandarin) as are the Romance languages, French, Spanish, Italian and Romanian. They are not mutually intelligible, but their status as “dialect” derives from their association with a single nation and a shared writing system. It is common to think that you can learn Mandarin and go anywhere in China and communicate, but this is the far from the truth. I have heard that there are sixteen major dialects of Chinese.

Map of China’s Unreached people groups Etnopedia:

The map above is of remote unreached people groups in the Yunnan and Guizhou provinces of China (the black polygons). Click them to see the people names and put the names in the search to see their profiles. Each polygon represents a language spoken by a different ethnic people. The darker color also represents the status of evangelical Christianity among them. Black is totally unreached. Red, is unreached, less than 2% evangelicals and could be a handfull of undiscipled believers. Yellow represents some access to the Gospel, possibly congregations of believers being discipled. Green represents reached greater than 5% evangelical Christians. Let’s say that you want to go to China, or you are already a missionary to China. Each part of China has sub-languages of Mandarin. Where do you want to go within China? You had better find out which language of the Mandarin branch you need to learn. They are all as different from one another as French is from Spanish.

Why go to all the trouble to be fluent in a language that has a Bible and some level of church? Why not spend that time learning a language that has no Christians? The further remotely you go into southwest and western China, the more diverse the languages become. China officially has 298 languages and over 500 ethnic groups, many of which still need missionaries. Some examples of the languages of China are: Chinese/Han, traditional Chinese, Achang, Bai, Northern Qiang, Southern Qiang, Tibetan, Central Tibetan (Standard Tibetan), Amdo Tibetan, Lhoba, Lisu, Naxi, Rouruo, Tibetan Khams, and Yi. As a missionary to China, plan on learning a little of the regional language where you plan to work. Which one you learn depends on the region you want to go to. If you want to go as a missionary to any remote ethnic people, plan on thoroughly learning a third language, their local language. All the easy languages to learn have Bibles, churches, and missionaries. The hardest languages to learn still need non-traditional Bible-translating missionaries. A brief definition of a non-traditional Bible translating missionary is one who spends a year or less on training and does not go with a traditional mission agency that requires them to have a linguistic (work) visa with the national government that prohibits them from making converts or disciples. Jesus told us to make disciples, not alphabets and grammars.

As I mentioned, half of the world’s people groups are under 25,000 in population, and the majority of the 4,000 known Bible translation needs are located among them. You won’t get these statistics easily. Some organizations are using old Bible translation need numbers so that they can count down to their goals. You need goals, and I understand the need to have a fixed list of people groups or languages to promote counting down to a finish. This is fine, as long as we make it clear that we are not finishing the reality of the Great Commission, only our fixed list.

The reality is that more languages are being discovered. Experts say that there are at least 100 unclassified languages in China, and another 100 in South East Asia. I knew the sociolinguistic researcher for China and Southeast Asia who passed away in 2021. He told me this personally. Many more languages could be unclassified in India, Indonesia and Africa. Latin America still has unclassified languages. Some say at least a hundred unclassified languages exist in the Amazon region alone. All these will need a non-traditional Bible-translating life-term discipling missionary. If you went all the way to China and are struggling to learn Mandarin, why not go just a little further and struggle to learn a language that does not have any scriptures translated, recorded or personally spoken to them by you? You can go not planning on returning and translate the book of Mark and just personally disciple them with it, using your own mouth. This does not require laptops connecting to rented time on satellites or a fancy education. This too is a example of a non-traditional Bible translation strategy.

You can try to do these things with no training; you might succeed, but why reinvent the wheel, when so much training has been developed? You may want to go straight to the field now and skip another year or two of training, but it could cost you ten years on the field battling with learning the local language. You need to keep in mind that after you learn their language you will also need to get the important parts of New Testament and Old into audio unless you are going to personally disciple them. I know that I have said, “Go now,” and I mean go now and get some training (about a year or two max NO MORE) and then go to your people group. Below are the specific training courses you need on order to thoroughly reach a remote unreached people group. The concepts below are called many different things, but what I list here are those you need to understand. You could get these without attending a training center and not be contaminated by their ideas. That would be ideal, as most training centers are going to want to recruit you to a mission agency or keep you in a prolonged state of learning that is quite expensive and time-consuming. They will also indoctrinate you with invented missiology. These are courses you need or books you need to read:

1 New Testament background and hermeneutics
2 Learning a second language (and culture)
3 Figuring out the sound system (phonetics)
4 Developing an alphabet
5 Basic translation techniques
6 Getting scripture into audio or using visuals to help teach

This second concept, learning a second language (and culture), is one of the reasons that you cannot reach a people group by staying home. You need to live among them. So, these six concepts you need to learn. Getting Bible translation training does not mean that you are going to teach everyone to read out of books. Cameron Townsend had a huge breakthrough when he discovered that missionaries need to learn language, but he did not listen to the Kaqchikel man very closely. The Kaqchikel man did not say, “If God loves me, why doesn’t he learn my language, write it down in a book and then teach me how to read so I can read about how much he loves me?” The Kaqchikel man said, “If God loves me, why doesn’t He speak my language?”

Discipling the people requires that you learn their language and then you speak the message to them from your own mouth. If you can use audio recordings, fine, it will help get the message distributed more widely. In order to create recordings of the scriptures, you personally will have to write down the scriptures, unless you have total recall (eidetic memory) and can memorize the New Testament in their language. So translating the Bible to some degree is necessary. Writing down the scriptures requires that you develop an alphabet, a grammar system, and so on. Then, from the written text, you can create the audio recordings by reading the scriptures into a recording device unless you taught your disciple to read.

Statistics show that 70% of the world is illiterate and that 90% of those will never learn to read, so audio is pretty important. This reality will obligate us to record the Bible onto audio so others can listen to it. However, I have tried to disciple using audio only, and it only goes so far unless they have a good portion of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark Luke and John. And they are still babies in Christ and need someone to feed them. They are not going to listen to the audio on their own in many cases.

God has always known that we would have the technology to put the entire audio Bible on a small memory chip that can be listened to. If you cannot get these devices, you will have to read the scriptures to the people personally, which is an option. You do not have to produce audio. You can simply learn their language and develop scriptures that you pass on to them orally. Be careful not to get into the hurry-up mode. Some translators frequently have to revise their Bible translations because every two or three years they learn more of the language. They are having to report progress to keep the donations coming in. Go with or without finances. In remote peoples you won’t be able to send a report, or shouldn’t.

Using a translator is dangerous

My wife and I were staying at the home of some missionaries before a trip into northern Africa. I was asking the children how to say phrases in the national language and they didn’t know. So, I asked the missionary and he didn’t know. They had been missionaries for years and didn’t know basic phrases. What were they doing halfway around the world, living in a country where they didn’t speak the language? They were using translators, I suppose.

When I was a young missionary, I would take short-term teams into Mexico to build church buildings. Occasionally, I would translate for the leaders who would preach and teach. They would preach every strange doctrine you can imagine, and I wouldn’t translate what they said. I would preach the simple Gospel. They didn’t know what I was saying so I re-translated their weak Gospel into the Gospel of Christ. People got saved, and the short-term teams went home with their summer mission T-shirts, thinking that they had won many souls to Christ. It was a win-win situation for everyone. The problem comes when you are preaching the Gospel, and your translator is changing your message into the strange doctrine.

While living in a remote unreached people group, I would read the Bible with my disciple in the mornings. We used the Bible that was already translated into the national language. It was not his first language, nor mine, but we would open our Bibles to the same book and chapter, and I did the reading. One morning, I asked him to read a few verses, and he couldn’t do it! He struggled very hard to read a handful of words that a kindergartner should be able to read. His Bible was highlighted and underlined with different colored pens, so I just assumed that he knew how to read. I asked him why his Bible was underlined, and he told me that he would go down the mountain to the nearest town and attend all the different congregations. There were three different congregations about six hours from his village. While listening to the sermons in the national language, he opened his Bible to the chapter they were reading and would underline the words like the people in the church service did. Then he came back into the mountains and preached the same sermons to his people, opening his Bible to the same page. He would preach the sermons to the best of his memory, because he could not read his Bible written in the national language. The three congregations in the little town six hours away were not very strong and very different in their doctrines, but that is beside the point. This man was my translator and the future leader in the little group of about ten believers in the village. Only a handful of the people spoke Spanish in his village, and here I was, using him as my translator.

Who knows what he was teaching to that little group of believers. I was discipling this man in my second language, who could not read or speak very well his second language, and then he was teaching what he learned from me in his first language, which I could not understand. What a mess! Sadly to say, these situations are common on the mission field. It is better to not preach at all than to try to preach a half-understood Gospel. There are missionaries that are paying the price to get to the geographically remote but are not paying the price to reach them by learning their language. Most missionaries go to the field for only four years, which is not enough time to start discipling people, let alone to learn a very difficult language. They are not going to the linguistically remote by learning their language.

Missionaries learn the language to produce scriptures

Without major key portions of the New Testament and some of the Old Testament, your disciples will be weak Christians if they are Christians at all. Jesus wants disciples, and to make strong disciples, they need the scriptures. They could be written, or played from audio, or spoken by you personally; it doesn’t matter how they get them. People just need to know what Jesus said. I know that Jesus says the Holy Spirit will lead us and guide us into all truth, but Jesus also told us to make disciples.

As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.

(NIV Matthew 12:4-7)

Jesus made disciples; this is our pattern. His words are the words of God. In order to do this, we need major portions of the Bible, principally the Gospels. Bible-translating missionaries translate the Gospels first in case something happens to them. They are getting the most important parts into the language first. Whenever I refer to scriptures in this book, I am imagining audio or personal spoken discipleship by the missionary. I have repeated this many times because of its importance. If seventy percent of the world is illiterate, and ninety percent of them will never learn how to read, we need to take advantage of the technology and provide audio. Audio is good if you can do it, especially if you have to go be with the Lord!

In order to make the Jesus film, someone has to learn that language and then translate the book of Luke. If you have a Jesus film, it means that someone was a Bible-translating missionary and learned that language. If you eventually come home, it will not be because you lose your support or your contact with your home church, or because you can’t get along with other missionaries. It will be because you are not making an impact because you do not speak their language. If you want to make disciples of remote unreached people groups, you might be able to do it using the national language, like I did with my friend who underlined his Bible, mimicking other people who can read. But solid disciples are what make a discipleship movement spread. Solid disciples survive under persecution and spiritual attack. Disciples can strengthen themselves with those portions of the Bible you translate and taught them. If you are going to go to all the trouble to learn a language of a people group, learn a language that has not one verse of the Bible translated. Most all varieties of Arabic have Bibles, churches, and missionaries. Japanese has a Bible and churches and missionaries. French has a Bible and churches and missionaries. Nubian, Dongolawi, has not one scripture of the Bible translated, no Christians, and no missionaries. Bedawi has no missionaries that can learn their language and give them the scriptures in audio.

I was recently talking to a missionary who went to Egypt and was at the table of an Egyptian Christian. The Egyptian man told my friend that they did not need any more foreign missionaries in Egypt, and he was right. Egyptian Spoken Arabic has a New Testament, and there is a very small church. It is small and growing slowly, but it is there. They do not need more missionaries in Egypt. The other languages in Egypt still need missionaries, foreign or local. The Beja, Bisharin, the Beja, Bedawi, the many different Bedouins, the Kharga, Selima, the Nobiin, the Nubian, Dongolawi (Andaandi), and the Siwa people are all peoples in Egypt that need non-traditional Bible translating missionaries. There are some innovative Bible translation methods coming on the scene that cut the translation time down to about half, after a missionary learns the language. The Siwa won’t care if you are Egyptian or German or Chinese. They need Jesus!