Astonishingly, about 7,000 languages are spoken among the 7 billion-plus inhabitants of Planet Earth, according to National Geographic magazine ("Vanishing Voices," July 2012). Writer Russ Rymer reports that one language dies every 14 days and that nearly half the current total will likely disappear by the next century.
One reason for the decline is that more and more communities abandon their native tongues to embrace English, Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic or Spanish — languages that are much more prevalent and widely used by multiplied millions of Earth's citizens. Modern communication tools and international commerce particularly pressure this embrace.
Some would suggest that this migration to majority languages is a good thing, a significant step toward simplifying such matters as education and business in large cities and other multilingual communities. In the United States, state legislatures push initiatives declaring English to be the official language and, thus, the only option for getting a basic education.
Others might see it differently.
Another way of referring to "native language," of course, is "heart language." Languages originate not simply as tools for simple communication but as reflections of distinct cultures with generations of development. Words in each culture describe life as it has been and what it has become, including a group's most cherished values. Just as climate, natural resources, locations and ways of life vary, language differs. It reflects the culture and helps preserve it for succeeding generations.
Today, even we Midwesterners have people in our communities who were born into different cultures or raised speaking a different language than our own — more than in years past. Reactions to this phenomenon of local diversity vary from indifference to resentment to acceptance.
The proliferation of U.S. colleges and universities has literally brought the world to America. For generations, Baptists and other faith groups have helped international visitors orient themselves to American communities. Many Baptists became surrogate families to these students and their families understandably bewildered by life in America. They have genuinely introduced these families to their faith.
These days, local-church missions volunteers return home and report on their experiences, invariably including statements of understanding and appreciation for the culture of the people to whom they had reached out, whether the visit was domestic or overseas. There are exceptions, but volunteers almost always expand their horizons in healthy and positive ways.
One of the critiques of the so-called modern missionary movement of not so many years ago was the effort of many missionaries and some mission boards to be paternalistic. In other words, people who accepted Christ were taught to do church and practice their faith as if they were Americans or Brits or whatever the missionary was. In overseas settings, that approach raised suspicion that missionaries were not only messengers of God but might also be foreign spies.
Today, of course, the emphasis is placed on reaching people, with the goal of creating indigenous churches that serve God without sacrificing personhood distinctives or positive aspects of the culture. A healthy aspect of this approach is the ongoing effort to make the Bible available in indigenous languages. Bible societies still produce new language versions where none previously existed.
Appreciation of cultures and languages that are foreign to us is primarily an issue of respect. Respect of another's opinion or of another's feelings has been known to turn potential adversaries into fast friends. Beginning a relationship with a one-sided or mutual lack of respect is virtually impossible. This is an attitude often born out of fear of the unknown or even the unfamiliar.
I have mixed feelings about the death of languages and even cultures.
Still, even if researchers are correct about the rate languages die, thousands will survive — each of them representing distinct people groups. People of faith will continue to have great opportunities to introduce Christ in heart languages, clearly the most effective method for sharing the ultimate message for all humankind.
Editor of Word&Way, Bill Webb continues to recover at home from injuries suffered in a cycling accident in May.