Many minority languages are endangered. When are they a strategic priority?

Photo by Steve Evans
Photo by Steve Evans

We’ve been learning the trade language, or lingua franca, of the eastern Himalayas. Learning the trade language is important not only for getting around and shopping in the market but also for catalyzing work across the area. We interact with speakers of minority languages through a language of wider communication (LWC) just as they do whenever they are away from their community. We can work widely in a trade language but not always deeply. We’re trying to communicate spiritual things to a person’s heart through language meant for business.

“Heart language” is an expression to describe the language that matters most to a person. It’s a useful refrain of Bible translation. But for our purposes it might better be called “home language.” Sociolinguists observe that this one factor more than any other is what makes a language vital: that it’s spoken at home, by parents to children. It is, in fact, a mother tongue.

Consider also that our church planting work centers around the home. From “person of peace” (see Luke 10) to house churches, we look for homes that welcome God’s message and messengers. Many missionaries use the Greek word for ‘household,’ oikos, to emphasize the significance of these homes in the biblical accounts and in their strategies.

We train the members of this kind of home to spread the good news across its network of relationships. We look for opportunities to get the message into the language of the home, even if we ourselves don’t speak it. Every community already has communication paths and patterns to bring outside news in.

It may not be strategic for outsiders to learn minority languages (though it shouldn’t be beneath us). It’s not even a possible task for one person or team — there are at least thirty spoken in our vicinity. But it is a priority to make room in our strategies for the good news to get from trade languages into “home languages.” For both Bible translation and church planting, the home is at the heart of our concern.