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The Heart Language in a Globalizing World

At the 2010 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism, two Americans—Cindi Walsh and Noël Piper—enjoyed meeting an English-speaking Christian sister from Iraq who sat next to them in the plenary sessions. The three women also worshiped together in English until the chorus of each song, when leaders selected another language. When a chorus began in Arabic, the Iraqi woman jumped up and down and turned to the Americans exclaiming, “This is my language! This is how I worship God.”

“She was more exuberant in her worship,” Cindi said. She and Noël gained a greater appreciation for the translation projects of organizations like TGC. They had observed that language is extremely personal.

Choosing to speak or write in a particular language is about more than utilitarian communication.

Heart Language

Personal, resonant language has traditionally been called the “language of the heart.” The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) once considered it the most important language for any given person, especially in multilingual contexts. SIL broadly defines a heart language as “the most effective language for communicating deeply as well as for learning new concepts.”

Prioritizing the heart language has decreased in popularity due to the rise of globalization and urbanization. In cities around the world, communication is becoming more singular as people learn languages such as English or French in order to participate in global commerce. As a result, societies are increasingly multilingual.

Translation organizations like SIL must now pay attention to more than just language communities (“all the people who primarily speak or identify with a certain language”). Instead, a more inclusive approach to Bible translation acknowledges all of the languages within speech communities (“networks of people who share a common repertoire of language varieties and norms for their use”). In other words, in many urban communities around the world, people will use multiple languages for different functions (i.e. trade, education, religious practices, or family life).

In a sense, globalization and urbanization are contributing to the simplification of language barriers. If communities are becoming more bilingual, the communication barrier between individuals is on the decline. At the same time, language barriers also become more complicated. If communities share a repertoire of languages, who decides which language to use in any given situation? This dilemma has further implications for heart languages in contexts like worship and education.

What does all of this mean for organizations like TGC that participate in translation projects for theological famine relief?

Case Study: Swahili

A look at the Swahili language of East Africa shows the complexity behind speech communities. In 2011, International Outreach (TGC IO) translated Finally Alive by John Piper into Swahili and distributed 5,000 copies intended for pastors and church leaders in this region. In the following years, IO director Bill Walsh heard through several missionaries that little need remained for Swahili resources because “most people in East Africa speak English.” As a result, no further Swahili projects were planned.

In 2013, Walsh attended a pastors’ conference in Nairobi, Kenya, and he happened to share a car ride with Ronald Kogo, an itinerate church planter based in this city. Though they’d never met in person, Kogo had helped translate the Piper book project and had previously emailed IO to request more Swahili resources. Walsh was able to ask Kogo about the state of the Swahili language.

Kogo explained that many Kenyan and Tanzanian people are moving to cities. A lot of these transplants speak some English by necessity. Even so, few can read English. “It’s one thing to speak a language, it’s another to learn enough to confidently read a book in a language,” he said. “At the end of the day, their first language is not English.”

Kogo believes East Africa is one or two generations away from a day when everyone in urban areas is literate in English. Yet if that day comes, there may always be people who benefit more through Swahili.

Diverse Challenges for a Diverse World

Mark Dunker, a Tanzania-based trainer of pastors with ReachGlobal, says English is often more useful for educational purposes. “Although Swahili is the heart language for most Tanzanians, our experience is that many prefer studying in English when possible,” he said. English can be more helpful in explaining complex meanings, according to Dunker. He explained that occasionally Swahili vocabulary struggles to communicate some finer points of biblical truths.

An example comes from a lesson Dunker taught his marriage and family class on the concept of biblical submission. No one understood the word submission because there is no adequate Swahili translation. The closest word they found was obedience, which is used in Swahili translations of Scripture; “wives, be obedient to your husbands” (Eph. 5:22). But the true meaning of the original New Testament word requires more nuance.

Dunker’s observation highlights the fact that, despite a globalizing world, resources in many languages are necessary—including the heart languages. In the effort to combat theological famine, communicating biblical truth to the nations requires great wisdom as we seek to reach the hearts of people through the gospel.

Editor’s note: With the help of ministry and translation partners, TGC is finalizing a Swahili version of Prosperity? Seeking the True Gospel for distribution in East Africa. This resource will be available in 2019.

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