King Solomon said,“of making many books there is no end.” There are millions of books, both true and ficticious, covering every possible subject. Imagine how many things we read in a day besides books, newspapers, or magazines. We read instructions (sooner or later), road signs, billboards, medicine bottles, letters, signs for businesses, house numbers, labels on food or drink containers, T-shirts, tattoos, bumper stickers, the Yellow Pages, text messages, and so on. However, this is only possible if ours is a written language, and if we are literate. Many in our world do not have this skill that most of us take for granted. Where would we be in this world without the skill of literacy? Can you imagine a GI overseas asking his buddy to read him the love letter he just received from his gal back home? Illiteracy can be dangerous. When someone cannot read the sign that says “Wrong Way” and enters the freeway going the opposite direction of traffic flow, or when an illiterate mother gives her child the wrong medicine because she cannot read the label, lives are endangered. We owe a great debt to those who patiently taught us to read!
Literacy is like the ability to ride a bicycle. Once you have it, it stays with you for life. Monolingual people who speak an unwritten language, however, are always illiterate, and there are still well over three thousand unwritten languages in our world. These unwritten languages are without a single verse of the Bible. As Christians, we realize the importance of the written Word of God and Christian literature in the heart language of all people. To reach this goal on the foreign field, the missionary must learn the language, analyze the sounds, develop an alphabet, and then write or translate books. The Advanced Missionary Training program of Baptist Bible Translators Institute (BBTI) trains missionaries to do all of this.
The first step is to create an alphabet. Languages vary greatly, and an alphabet that serves one language may not work well for another. The linguistic skill to develop a well-suited alphabet for a particular language is called phonemics. A phonemic alphabet has one letter for each significant sound in that particular language, makes the ability to read and write much easier. This is one reason why Spanish is relatively easy to read. Our English alphabet, however, is not phonemic—our symbols often do not match our sounds and achieving literacy is a long process. Furthermore, our reading ability is often poor and our spelling skills atrocious.
Having only five vowel symbols to represent eleven vowel sounds makes English vowels especially difficult. Listen to eleven different vowel sounds as you pronounce these words: beat, bit, bait, bet, bat, Bob, but, boot, book, boat, and ball. If English had a phonemic alphabet, it would contain a separate symbol for each of these vowel sounds. It is several centuries too late to write English phonemically, but it is not too late for the thousands of unwritten languages. We need well-trained missionaries who will go, learn the language, develop a writing system, translate Scripture, and teach the people to read it.
Between the making of books and the reading of them is the missing link of literacy. A book, however true and helpful, is of no value to a man who cannot read it. Those mysterious marks on the pages may be as intimidating to him as Einstein’s theory of relativity is to us normal folk. Handing a Bible to a man in his heart language is of little or no use if he cannot read it, but he can be taught. Both children and adults can learn to read. However, they must first be motivated. I once offered a man a free booklet containing a Bible story that we had translated into his formerly unwritten language. I expected him to be excited about finally having a portion of God’s Word in his language, but he asked, “What do I need that for?” He had lived his entire life without a book. Neither his father, nor his grandfather, nor any of his ancestors had ever owned one. Why would he need a book? Obviously, he needed to be motivated. People simply do not read if they do not want to. A skilled literacy teacher works to create a desire to read by providing plenty of relevant and interesting reading material such as their folk tales or history. He wants to get the people “hooked” on reading.
Using the science of phonemics, a BBTI graduate can give an unwritten language an alphabet that precisely symbolizes the sounds the native hears. Then choosing a literacy method that matches the people’s way of thinking and doing, he can teach them to read. BBTI graduates have used the knowledge gained in phonemics and literacy classes in several parts of the world. Cherith developed an alphabet for the Kamea language of Papua New Guinea. She and Sarah have taught the Kamea people to read their language and the trade language, Pidgin. Michele did the same in Vanuatu with the formerly unwritten language of Akei. Dan not only taught literacy in Uganda, but also trained several native literacy teachers. Bruce worked with the government of his Latin American country to teach literacy in the public schools. Sarah trained literacy teachers in a closed Asian country.
Putting a previously unwritten language into print gives it a special identity and dignity. When a man reads the Bible in his own language, it becomes personal instead of foreign as he sees that neither he nor his language are inferior to God and realizes that the message of God’s love is for him. A people’s culture, history, and heritage are all tied up in their language, and unwritten languages are on the endangered list. If they become extinct, at least one generation is left in a linguistic “no man’s land” where the people lose their heart language but do not fully understand the trade language. Writing these languages and teaching people to read them helps to preserve cultures, but more importantly, it gives them God’s words —words that they can learn to read for themselves!