Multilingual and Multicultural Education

May 5, 2011 in Wycliffe, Mark, Culture, Language

Education, and the role of charities and other organisations in trying to provide education in poorer countries, has been in focus lately because of the Three Cups of Tea scandal. Schooling the World has a fascinating post asking some difficult questions as to the benefits and dangers of bringing education (if by education we mean a traditional western-style schooling) to indigenous communities around the world.

The reality is that there are few better ways to condemn a child to a life of poverty than to confine her in a bad school, and a very high percentage of schools in low-income areas are and will remain bad schools.  Many NGO’s as well as international programs like “Education for All” are focused on the body count, on getting more and more children into classrooms.  What happens to those kids in those classrooms is harder to quantify or to track.  One thing that seems clear is that an awful lot of them learn very little. …

The bottom line is that the modern school is no silver bullet, but an extremely problematic institution which has proven highly resistant to fundamental reform, and there is very little objective research on its impact on traditional societies. When we intervene to radically alter the way another culture raises and educates its children, we trigger a complex cascade of changes that will completely reshape that culture in a single generation.  To assume that those changes will all be good is to adopt a blind cultural superiority that we can ill afford.  A clearer view of the real impacts of school projects would require well-funded and well-executed research which looks objectively at both positive and negative effects, not reports which mine the data to bolster an a priori assumption that the impact of schooling is always good.   And until we have a clearer view, we should all – NGO’s, development agencies, rock stars, corporate billionaires and bestselling authors included – think long and hard about the principle, “First, do no harm.” Read more

I believe that education is an important part of development work and coming alongside people who are struggling to escape poverty. But we must be very careful not to confuse education with a one-size-fits-all Western schooling system, counting bodies through the conveyor belt as an indicator of success and progress.

I firmly believe that education must be done in culturally appropriate ways, with input from community leaders as well as from outside educators, and vitally that it must be done at least initially in the mother-tongue of the child. This is why one of the focuses of SIL International, a partner organisation of Wycliffe who we are working with, is to come alongside communities and governments to help them develop multilingual education programs that are appropriate for minority language communities.

The above post finishes with the example of the Kyrgyz nomads in Afghanistan, for whom a school building was built but is not being used. Rather than decrying the fact that children are not in school, the author points out that in fact Kyrgyz children are being educated, but not in a traditional school.

Greg Mortenson’s second book, Stones Into Schools, revolves around his efforts to build a school for Kyrgyz nomads in Afghanistan.  He built the school, and it stands empty, never having been used.   Many development people, including Mortenson, would tut about this, and try to find ways to convince the Kyrgyz people of the importance of education for their children’s futures.  But to me, this empty school is a small sign of hope.  I mean, Greg.  Hello.  They’re nomads. Should they give up their horses and their high mountain valleys and their yurts and sit in a classroom for years so at the end they can look for work hauling bricks or driving trucks in Kandahar or Kabul? As it turns out, the New York Times reports that Kyrgyz parents want their children to learn to read and write; it’s just that they also want them to herd sheep.  Mortenson’s representative in the region was frustrated by this: “The Kyrgyz only care about sheep and yaks…They say if we have sheep and yaks, we have success in life.”  Hmm.  Perhaps the Kyrgyz don’t understand the value of education.  Or perhaps they still have a sense of what’s real and what’s not in this world.  Sheep are definitely real; “big dreams” may not be.  The Afghan government, to its credit, seemed to recognize this, and sent teachers to teach the children at home in their yurts.  Apparently it’s working out quite well.  I just hope the Kyrgyz remain unschooled enough to continue to be able to tell fact from fiction. Read more

You can find out more about SIL’s work in literacy and education on their website, and also take a look at a blog of Matt and Liz, friends of ours who are preparing to work with the Ugandan government, helping them to develop education programs in appropriate languages and cultural settings for minority language communities in Uganda.

Hand writing

Language Assessment in Zambia

May 20, 2010 in Prayer, Wycliffe

On Sunday 23rd May I’ll be heading to Zambia for a couple of weeks, to work alongside an organisation called Worldwide Mission, as they seek to reach out to communities in Western Zambia that don’t yet have access to the Bible in their languages.

As ever, the first stage in any translation project is for the various partners to assess in what language and form communities are most likely to engage with the Bible, and to think through how and where projects should be started. I’ll be spending a week with the team of Zambian and South African missionaries in the town of Mongu, helping them to think through how to help the communities decide on the best way forward for any language project.

We’ll be discussing things like:

  • Planning the research trip, to make sure that we’re asking the right questions
  • What languages people use in their daily lives, and which of these they would be most likely to engage with Scripture in
  • Which communities would benefit from Bible translation projects into their previously unwritten languages
  • Which communities could use the same written materials, and which require separate translations
  • Within a language area, which dialect is best to use for the Bible and other materials
  • Who potential partners are in a language project
  • What the language situation is likely to be like in the coming generations

During the second week I’ll be accompanying the team on a trip to some of these communities as we begin to research some of these questions. The aim is that by the end of the time they will feel confident to continue the research in the rest of western Zambia – a large area about the size of England – working alongside many ethnic groups.

Please pray for the time – that it would be profitable for all involved. I haven’t had much time to prepare the workshop as I’m still working in recruitment for Wycliffe UK at the moment, but my hope is that together we can work through the basic principles of the research and that the team will understand the situation sufficiently to be able to continue on their own over the next few months.

I’d appreciate prayer for safe travel too – both internationally and within Zambia – and for safe non-volcano-interrupted flights each way! Laura will be on here own at home for the first time while I’m away, but has several friends around to make sure she survives!

If you’d like to follow my trip, I’m hoping to be able to continue sending updates on twitter whilst in Zambia, which you can find here.

An estimate of the languages spoken in Zambia from

Babel: A Curse to be Broken or a Blessing to be Fulfilled?

March 2, 2010 in Mark, Bible, Bible translation, Language, Mission, Theology

According to Brian, one of the most neglected sections of scripture (in the modern western church) is Genesis 1-11. And yet, Brian says:

The stories of Genesis 1-11 are foundational for understanding mission, salvation, and sin. They describe the world as God intended it as well as the world in which we now find ourselves. They are presupposition for the rest of Scripture. If we miss the message of these texts, we run the risk of mishearing the Bible. read more

I have just been reading about this section of the Bible in Chris Wright’s excellent The Mission of God, which has led me to agree with Brian that these chapters are key to understanding the rest of scripture. If we fail to understand what is happening in these chapters we can completely misunderstand the nature of God’s mission to the diversity of nations he has created.

In Genesis 1-11 we see a pattern of God creating good things, people misusing God’s good gifts, and then, instead of giving up on things and wiping everything out, God by his grace redeeming the situation.

In the beginning God creates everything and puts people in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve disobey him and hide, but God doesn’t destroy them but clothes them and gives them a hope of a redeeming plan. God blesses people with crops and animals, but when Abel gives back to God a better offering than Cain, Cain becomes jealous and kills him. Even in his anger God gives Cain hope however, and promises that no one will harm him. As people continue to sin in ever worse ways, God decides to destroy humanity, but in his grace preserves Noah and his family, giving them hope and a promise of a future as they leave the ark to start a new life.

Genesis 10 and 11 then give two sides to the same story as people inhabit the earth. In Genesis 1, and again in Chapter 9 God has commanded people to go and fill the whole earth. Chapter 10 tells us that they did this – spreading out and occupying all the different lands, developing different languages. Chapter 11 then tells us something of how this came about – again as an act of God’s grace despite man’s disobedience.

Chapters 10 and 11 obviously aren’t in chronological order – chapter 10 tells of various peoples filling the earth and starting to speak their own languages, whereas chapter 11 starts by saying that at that time everyone spoke the same language. Instead, Chris Wright proposes viewing chapters 10 and 11 as two sides of the same story – one describing what happened and the other describing through what means it happened. One giving an account of the diversity of God’s creation as his people inhabit the earth and develop their own languages and customs, the other showing that once again this blessing only occurs as a result of God’s grace, despite the best efforts of mankind to rebel and take a different path.

This is a great example of why we need to read the Bible in the context of the whole story. To read Genesis 11 in isolation would leave us believing that everyone speaking the same language was a good thing, and that the linguistic diversity that we see around the world today is the result of a curse due to the rebellion of mankind. Our logical response is then to want to reverse this – we want everyone to speak the same language (as long as it’s our language) and everyone to understand each other. Why not just teach everyone English?

But reading Genesis 11 in context gives us a much different perspective. The confusion of languages at the tower of Babel was in fact following the familiar pattern of God creating something good, man rebelling and disobeying/misusing the responsibility, but God nevertheless going ahead with his blessing out of his grace.

God has already told people twice (in chapters 1 and 9) to inhabit and fill the earth. As a former sociolinguist I’ve seen first-hand that when a two groups go their separate ways, in just 3 or 4 generations their language (and probably their culture) tends to diverge to the extent that they struggle to understand each other and they become very much distinct and unique language communities. As God sent out his people to fill the earth, he did so knowing that they would form different communities and cultures, seeing the world from different perspectives, honouring him through different languages, the very nature of their praise reflecting the character of their creator.

But the people had other ideas. Their desire in coming together at Babel was twofold – firstly to make a name for themselves, and secondly to avoid being scattered across the face of the earth – in direct disobedience to God’s command to fill the world.

So God confuses their languages. But far from being a curse or an knee-jerk reaction to blatant rebellion against his command, the confusing of languages and scattering of peoples was in fact God continuing with his original plan that we see commanded in chapters 1 and 9 and worked out in chapter 10 – that people would inhabit the whole earth.

In Genesis 1-11 we see again and again (with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Babel), God’s punishment which may seem at first to be a curse, but far from rescinding the good things he planned for creation, the punishment is actually a means through which God sets his people back on his original path of blessing.

We shouldn’t then be surprised when in the following chapter God calls Abraham with the intention that he be a blessing to the nations. Or when on the day of Pentecost God speaks through the disciples in a multitude of languages – to each person in their mother tongue (when he could have easily allowed them to all understand Greek or Aramaic). Or when we see in Revelation 7 a vision of people from every nation, people and language standing before God’s throne.

God’s plan from the start was that people fill the whole earth, that they speak different languages, and that they see the world in different ways. His intention was that the diversity of languages and cultures, just like that of the rest of creation, reflect his glorious creativity and imagination.

Mankind rebelled against this, as we have against so many of God’s gifts and the responsibilities he’s given us. But through his grace he doesn’t reverse his blessing but rather redeems the situation so that people of all nations can be united in Christ, bringing glory to him in all their immense diversity – just as he intended all along.

A map where each red dot shows the centre of one of the world’s 6,909 languages (via

Google Translate: Swahili… bado kidogo

August 27, 2009 in Mark, Africa, Language, Swahili

In the last couple of days Google has added Swahili to the list of languages supported by its Translate service. On one hand I’m very happy to see this addition as I think it has the potential to be a big step forward for development in east Africa. However, from first impressions the service still has a long way to go.

One of the main problems for Google is that Swahili is an agglutinative language – meaning that it puts morphemes (grammatical parts of words) together to form longer words. So it can be difficult for a machine to know where the morphemes (parts of the word carrying meaning) begin and end.

Here are some very simple examples that I tried putting into Google:

Swahili Morphemes English Google Translate
kupika ku-pika to cook cooking
ninapika ni-na-pika I am cooking I cooked
nilipika ni-li-pika I cooked I cooked
nitapika ni-ta-pika I will cook I cooked
sijapika si-ja-pika I have not cooked I cooked
apike a-pik-e let him cook apike
umepika u-me-pika you have cooked has cooked
tutapika tu-ta-pika we will cook we cooked
watakapopika wa-taka-po-pika when they will cook will kakopika
mlipokuwa mnapika m-li-po-kuwa m-na-pika when you (pl) were cooking as they were cooked
ikipikwa nasi i-ki-pik(w)a na-si if it is cooked by us it be boiled us
bado kidogo bado ki-dogo not quite yet still little

To be fair, from what I’ve seen the translations of single words isn’t bad at all. Where it falls down is in the grammar – translating Swahili past, present, future and negative-perfect tenses all to English past!

Going the other way, here a few English examples I tried:

English Swahili Google Translate English back-translation
many people watu wengi watu wengi many people
many trees miti mingi miti mingi many trees
many elephants tembo wengi wengi tembo many elephants
many cars magari mengi wengi magari many cars
I am cooking ninapika I am kupikia “I am” to cook with
I cooked nilipika mimi kupikwa I to be cooked
To be fair, from what I’ve seen the translations of single words isn’t bad at all. Kwa kweli, kutokana na yale ambayo nimeyaona, utafsiri wa maneno ya pekee siyo mbaya Kuwa na haki, kutokana na yale I’ve amemwona zote maneno ya wimbo sio mbaya wakati wote. In truth, coming from what “I’ve” he has seen all words of song not bad all the time

At this point it looks to be a decent dictionary (although with nothing like the depth of the excellent Kamusi Project), and actually does ok with set phrases. However once you get past the set phrases that it knows it seems unable to understand the relatively simple grammar and come up with a meaningful translation.

This is obviously a work in progress, as the “Contribute a better translation” option shows. It would be interesting to know whether Google takes these user contributed translations and tries to work out how the grammars and structures of the languages compare, or whether it simply remembers the set translation in case anyone enters the exact same phrase again. The first would be fascinating to investigate, whereas I fear the second would be like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.

The language of church

April 20, 2008 in Mark, Church, Language

Our church at the moment is an Anglican church, which can mean a variety of things, but in our case means it’s quite traditional. In an average morning service, there are probably 5 words that I can only guess their meaning from the context, and dozens of others that I wouldn’t hear during the rest of the week.

And the idea of using different vocabulary in church to the rest of life isn’t confined to traditional churches. We were listening to a sermon online today from a church that is very alive and fruitful in many ways, but some of the words used probably hadn’t been used in regular English conversations for well over 100 years.

Why do we do this? Why do we use special old words when we’re talking to God that we would never use if we were talking to our next door neighbour? I’m not sure, but here’s some possible ideas:

  1. We think that God understands old words better. God is old. He’s been around for thousands of years – maybe he’s like our great-grandparents and longs for the good old days. Maybe if we use old words we’ll get his attention and he’ll really understand us.
  2. We’re used to using a Bible with old words. Since God speaks to us in old English, it’s only fair to reply in the same language.
  3. We want to impress other people. If God speaks old words and we do too, maybe people will be impressed that we’re close to God and know his “lingo”…
  4. We’re scared to use the same language in church as we do in the rest of our lives. If we do, that will mean that the rest of our lives are actually connected to what we do in church and we’ll have to give our whole lives to God, not just Sunday mornings.

Are there other (more genuine) answers I’ve missed? I’d love to know, because there are people who are much more godly than me, who I really respect as Christians, who use old English words. Am I missing out on something because I only use simple words…?