Why Can't They Just Learn French?
The one question I get asked more than any other in our travels is this:
"There's already a French Bible. Why can't they just read that?"
And it's a fair question. I don't look down on anyone for asking this question at all. You've probably asked this question--at least in your head--and to be honest, I had similar questions even as we began the process of working with Wycliffe.
So, here's the short answer: our desire is for everyone around the world to be able to worship God and read His Word in the language that they think and dream in. We call that their heart language. And for most Africans living in French-speaking countries--their heart language is not French.
Another missionary recently said to me, "In Africa, no one's first language is French." Now, while that literal 'stat' is not exactly true, there was a point he was trying to make. French is a tool that helps them get things done or even survive in more urban settings, but it is not the language that most Africans speak at home or that we would consider their heart language. And if you've had any experience studying a second language, you know that no language will ever speak to you like your heart language.
We want to give them the opportunity to hear God speak directly to their heart.
For comparison, imagine the day you got saved someone told you, "Now that you're a believer, you're going to want to read God's Word to know more about him. But before you do that you need to learn Greek and Hebrew well enough that you can understand it."
That would be ridiculous! And even if you learned it, there would always be a separation between you and this God that apparently doesn't speak your language. How could that ever pierce your heart? How could that come alive to you?
Do you speak another language? Would you say that you speak it at a 25% proficiency? 50%? 80%? An 80% proficiency would be relatively fluent and you have most likely lived among native speakers for some amount of time.
So, suppose you spoke a second language at an 80% proficiency. That would mean, on average, you might miss 20% of the words but you can usually survive and work around those. What would that mean for Scripture?
Let's look at John 3:16. To lose 20% of that verse would mean to miss the meaning of 5 words. For example, you might not understand the word God in that verse. It can have a lot of different connotations in other languages and could be a bit confusing. Or maybe you are not sure what perish means. That's a unique word even in English. Suppose the word eternal gets a bit lost in translation, and so does believe since your typical conversations are not of a spiritual nature. If you've had any experience with languages, you could imagine that you might not get the full understanding of love in that verse either.
So, with 80% proficiency, here's what our verse looks like now:
For _____ so _____ the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever _____ in him should not ______ but have ______ life.
Can you see how maybe we've lost something in there?
We thank God for people like John Wycliffe, who first translated the Bible into English so that we could read it in our heart language! His desire was for the Bible to be accessible to the common man and that meant getting it into a language that he could understand. We live 700 years after John Wycliffe, but the work is not yet done. There are still 700 languages in Africa alone that do not have a single word of Scripture in their language. The Bible has not yet come to the common men and women that speak those languages!
If we did not have the Bible in English today, we would be begging people to help translate it into a language we could really understand. So praise the Lord that we have it so easily accessible to each of us. And pray continuously for those that do not yet have any Scripture.
"No one should have to learn another language to hear and read God's Word." - Cameron Townsend, Founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators