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Mar 25

Wycliffe’s Competitive Advantage

Posted by: Steve Marr

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Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article about how most of the 6,000 languages in the world will likely disappear in the future. See

Many of these languages are spoken, not written; and therefore, likely to be lost. The lost languages of the Native American tribes are an example close to home. Many languages are already lost forever.

Wycliffe Bible translators are universally regarded by experts in the field as the best organization on earth as translators of dying languages. It is the best organization in history. There is no other organization even remotely comes close.


The Wycliffe organization takes simple people, very often without advanced formal education, teaches them how to go into a primitive society, work with the people in such a way that they are willing to cooperate, listen to the language, make an alphabet for the language, and begin preaching. Furthermore, they begin preliminary translations of the New Testament into this language.

No other organization has accomplished this. No other organization has developed the training that can make skilled linguists out of average people. No other organization has the opportunity to train people who are willing to commit to the years it takes to go into a primitive society and do this work.

Wycliffe Bible translators go into Indonesia to do translation work with tribes. The Indonesian government is officially Muslim.  A Muslim government is generally not very open to working with Christian missionaries. The government allows this for a very simple reason; it cannot send bureaucrats in to supervise the tribes because the tribes don't have an alphabet.  They are illiterate. The bureaucrats find it almost impossible to gain control over the tribes or even monitor the tribes because nobody in the tribe can do the paperwork. The bureaucrats always have paperwork.

Muslim linguists in the universities don't know how to speak these languages either. Even if they did, they don't have grammar books, dictionaries, or a written alphabet for these tribal languages. They recommend that the government invite Wycliffe missionaries into these tribal areas to provide grammars, dictionaries, and an alphabet for these tribes. Then, they send these materials to the linguists in the state universities. It's a quid pro quo arrangement, and the politicians in Indonesia go along with it.

What linguists in Indonesian Muslim universities recognize should also be recognized by everybody else. Nobody except Wycliffe missionaries is going to do the grunt work necessary to create dictionaries and grammars for these tribal societies. There is a race against time. These societies are literally dying out. If somebody doesn't get in there and make dictionaries, these societies are simply going to die off. There will be few traces of them in 2115. The children will move to the cities, and their children will have no recollection of any aspect of these tribal societies.

If I were a senior official with Wycliffe, I would recommend focusing the organization's efforts on providing digital translation programs for the future. This is moving at a rapid rate. Microsoft will have a program by the end of this year that will enable people who use Skype to talk with other people in major European languages. The program will translate the spoken word in real time. This is an incredible advance. You can speak English and a Frenchman hears you in French and responds in French.  Then, you hear back in English. In theory you could conference in multiple languages at one time. Once this technology is available, we can be certain that Google is going to imitate it and offer it for free. Once Google imitates it, it will be possible for the people at Wycliffe to concentrate on making these programs work with obscure tribal languages. It is simply a matter of organization and economic resources.

Translation software is going to enable tribal cultures to move into the 21st century with more of their culture intact. They're going to have to change somewhat, but that is preferable to totally dying off. The digital revolution is moving so fast that I think it will be possible to enable these cultures to make the transition without completely abandoning the existing local social orders. Their children are going to change one way or the other. They are probably going to move from their tribal societies into urban areas where depersonalization is universal. This ends the old culture within one generation. This will happen regardless of steps taken to preserve culture.

The technology is almost here and will likely be developed within 5 years. The only way to train linguists and motivate them to go into the field to do the grunt work that is required, is to persuade them that it is part of an evangelistic effort. Wycliffe is the only organization that does this effectively. I really hope Wycliffe will pursue this because time is moving on these cultures.

Jesus said, “Haven't you read this passage of Scripture: 'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’” (Mark 12:10a, NIV) In ministry and business we can do well by finding opportunities that others ignore. Wycliffe has created a major opportunity.  They have been invited into countries where other Christian missionaries have been expelled.  How they handle this opportunity will bring many lessons for all of us.

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