Reflections on Technology, Scripture Engagement, and Language Development

In the days when communities were largely isolated, travel impossible and modern communication and technology unavailable language development specialists from western countries worked with one community at a time, usually with one or two couples living and working alongside community members for up to 30 or 40 years. It was a slow but thorough process in a world that changed slowly.

Today we live in a world of constant change. Communities that were being transformed thirty years ago by the introduction of roads that connected them to the towns and cities are today being transformed by the arrival of phones and tablets that now access the internet and connect them to the global community. Language may remain a barrier and new terms such as digital language vitality are being used to describe the ways a language is used in the digital realm.

Technology and infrastructure change rapidly. Deeper attitudes and worldviews change more slowly. The arrival of a dictionary or a Bible will not immediately lead people to wanting to read if they have not done so before, but it will open a path for those who want to. Some children born today will never remember a time a when the Bible was not in their language, and on their phones. Some will not remember life before there were thousands of articles in their language on Wikipedia. Some, but not yet all.

Many languages are categorized as threatened or endangered. Some will die out as younger people move towards speaking another language for the majority of their interaction. In some of these effort is being made by a section of the community to maintain the language. Other languages still appear to be strong and sustainable but are perhaps not used in a written form.

Language development is defined as ‘a series of ongoing planned actions that a language community takes to ensure that their language continues to serve their changing social, cultural, political, economic and spiritual needs and goals’. I took a course in it but you can get a brief overview of some elements from this wikipedia article on Language Planning

A community needs both capacity and a desire to see their languages sustained in future generations and used in new ways.

Overlapping themes: Language Development and Scripture Engagement

Language Development and Scripture Engagement

The work of Language Development and Scripture Engagement is more than linguistics and translation. Both of these are highly specialist and complex tasks but success involves something even more complex – people living in society.

Specialist tasks use specialist terms, which I may have oversimplified in my chart but here’s the twitter length version of some lengthy issues.

New ‘stuff’ (corpus planning) includes new material made available in any format or genre eg story books, text books, printed dictionaries, web-based spell checkers, calendars, posters, cds, dvds, online video, live or recorded drama,

New confidence and enthusiasm (status planning) can be about attitude change both in the speakers themselves and surrounding culture that ensures the language will continue to be used.

New Speakers/Users (acquisition planning) can be about the ways language is passed on to a new generation or how new people acquire language and new skills.

New Places where people use the spoken or written language (Domains of use) might include Home, School, Work, Market place, Social groups, Religious functions, Entertainment, Radio, TV, Blogs, Facebook, Websites, Texting, Government and Administrative, Medical info, Signs, Posters, Public information etc.

The Scripture Engagement side of the diagram is a little more self explanatory, but the paper and book linked to go into greater depth. A ‘successful’ Bible translation program isn’t just about translating the Bible, it is about seeing the translated scripture impact people’s lives. In the same way ‘successful’ language development is not just about creating written versions of a language and offering new opportunities for use, it is about seeing people use their language with confidence, pride and enthusiasm in new ways that are meaningful to them.

There are many factors and many ways to address both scripture engagement and language development.Translating the Bible into Action Current SIL Scripture Engagement courses focus on Wayne Dye’s Eight Conditions and also use Translating the Bible into Action (Hill and Hill) which covers much of the same issues from a slightly different angle.

Both of these resources identify key barriers to engagement and are valuable in considering wider Scripture Engagement principles. Many of the principles don’t just relate to scripture, or to engaging audiences in minority languages.

Whether through simple websites, social media, video, or adaptations of games and interactive apps the many new avenues of engagement offered through digital technology face the same barriers, adding in a few technical barriers and additional complexity.

This post is from a handout I used in some training over Easter 2015 where we explored how Dye’s conditions can be used as a grid through which to view specific challenges in a digital world. See Eight Conditions for Engagement with Digital Scriptures.


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