Serving the forgotten language communities in a time of change


In the world of Bible translation, the linguistic and social landscape looks very different from the situation 64 years ago, when the Australian mission community started Wycliffe in Australia as a specialist mission to support Bible translation and training in linguistics.

PART ONE: Surveying the language landscape

How many languages?

According to SIL International’s Ethnologue, current estimates indicate there are 7,099 languages spoken today, and this number is constantly in flux¹.


These numbers, however, are not able to represent the many people in the world who speak two or more languages, and who are choosing to adopt national and international languages as part of their speech repertoire. Urbanisation, mass movement of people through chosen or forced migration, and the growing place of international languages in education and commerce, as part and parcel of globalisation, all contribute to the complex multilingual world we live in today. While some isolated and predominantly monolingual communities do still remain, they are now the exception rather than the rule.

Language loss

A related factor impacting the number of active languages in the world today is language loss, which is happening at a faster rate than ever before in the history of humankind. According to the Ethnologue, 2,467 of the existing languages are endangered².

What does this mean for Bible translation?

According to http://progress.Bible, there are 3,324 languages with some Scripture as of December 2017³. Simple maths might suggest that this means the remainder of the languages need Bible translation. However, multilingualism and reduced numbers of speakers, as language communities undergo language shift, are major contributing factors in this discussion. Wycliffe’s estimates suggest that there are over 114 million people, speaking 1,636 languages, likely to need some form of Bible translation to begin⁴.


PART TWO: The opportunities of multilingualism

God’s mission to restore his kingdom on earth is a ‘here and now’ event. We may look back to the past at what God has done and into the future to what we hope for, but it is in the present that we are called to be God’s people and to make God’s name known. Wycliffe is called to embrace and respond to the linguistic reality of today.

More Bible translation programs now

Traditionally translation strategies considered language communities from a monolingual perspective. Increasing multilingualism, however, is not cause for despair. Local multilingual speakers are well equipped to contribute and take the lead in translating their own Scriptures. In fact, there has never been more Bible translation occurring than now. Currently there are 2,584 active language programs across 170 countries involving the Wycliffe Global Alliance organisations and personnel and many other churches and missions⁵. This is a massive movement.

Serving language communities unbounded by location

Through Bible translation, we also now forge relationships with language communities that are no longer bound to one location. Speakers may be living on traditional land as they have done for centuries, but some speakers are also in enclaves in cities or refugee camps. The Farsi Bible translation (read Iranian Christian diaspora serves Farsi speakers worldwide) is one example of this modern day scenario.

Being present in times of stress

Bible translation today also takes us into language communities who are struggling with identity and an uncertain future as older people see their more mobile grandsons and granddaughters begin to shift away from their heritage language⁶ for a national or international one. With this comes a loss of unique cultural stories and values that have defined a people for generations. The gospel in the heart language of these older people is critical at a time like this. We do not abandon them without hope. The good news may come as an audio Scripture reading of a Gospel, or the Jesus Film, rather than a full New Testament, but it still needs to come in the language that speaks best to them, and it is our privilege to serve for that purpose.


¹ Simons, Gary F. and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2017. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Twentieth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version:


³ http://progress.Bible. Online version 25 Jan 2018.

⁴ Statistics dated October 2017.


⁶ Definition: A heritage language is a minority language learnt by its speakers at home as children, but never fully developed, because speakers grow up with a dominant language, in which they become more competent. Polinsky & Kagan label it as a continuum that ranges from fluent speakers to barely speaking individuals of the home language. Heritage_language#


Pray: Ask God for vision to embrace new opportunities, courage to attempt new ideas, and faithfulness to remain true to God’s calling.

Go: Want to experience first hand what might be involved in Bible translation ministry? Join our short-term trip, Go Mad Vanuatu (June/July), find out more.

This story is from Wycliffe Today – February 2018 Edition (PDF)

About the Author: Barry Borneman, Wycliffe Australia CEO. Find out more


Thanks for your patience...

Waiting is hard, isn't it. But imagine waiting 2000 years for Scripture in your language! Thanks for your patience. And thanks for your generous support which will help bring the long wait to an end...