A vital ‘language’ that Christians won’t use (@soonguy)

English is unique in being a world language. In a review of the new book What is English? And Why Should We Care? (Tim William Machan, OUP), Times columnist and language-use expert Oliver Kamm writes:

“…debates over the nature and purpose of English are long-standing. It’s not only the language but its speakers who are different from the past. In the middle of the past century, about 400 million people spoke English. The total is now 1.5 billion, while the proportion of them living in Britain, North America and Australasia has declined. There is no historical parallel for this growth in English usage and the shift in the language’s centre of gravity.”

That’s over 20% of the world’s population who speak English at a functional level. Since English is the dominant language for websites, along with a majority of books, and much higher education, there is a big incentive for young people in every nation to learn it. With only about 360 million people as first-language English speakers, 80% of that 1.5 billion are using it as a second language. We need to be like the men of Issachar (1 Chron. 12:32) who understand the context of the world we live in and “what Israel should do”.

Of course, in an ideal world, there would be adequate Christian resources, online and offline, text, audio and video, in the heart language of everyone. But failing that, we should be making our evangelistic and discipleship resources as accessible as possible to all second-language English speakers. How?

The concept of simple international English

Of course, every user of English is somewhere on a spectrum of grammar and vocabulary, and many people read their second language better than they can speak or write it. Although TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) recognizes different levels of attainment, there are few specific standards or guidelines to write for second-language speakers. Few Christian groups seem to be aware of the significance of easy-English for literature, books, or online resources.

This lack of appropriate and accessible literature is a huge and largely unnoticed opportunity for the Kingdom. Even Wikipedia has wisely embraced simple English, and a percentage of their articles have easy versions.

By contrast, we have understood the value of connecting with people through English teaching. It is said that more people have come to faith in Japan through a relationship with a Christian teaching them English, than by any other means.

Of course, avoiding jargon in any writing is a related issue. For someone who is an outsider, as well as a second-language speaker, strange religious language is an additional block to easy comprehension.

Christian use of simple English: radio

Frank Laubach was a Christian pioneer in world literacy and the learning of English. He developed word lists of simple words to use in easy-English, graded at 500, 1000 and 1500 words and published by Syracuse University.

Voice of America developed a similar word list of 1500 words and an associated style, which they termed ‘special’ or ‘specialized’ English. This has been adapted by FEBA Radio in the past, and is now at the core of the daily radio programme Spotlight. The programme has a Christian worldview, is broadcast on radio stations around the world and is freely available online. The UK-based Spotlight team say, “Our young and technologically savvy audience is increasingly listening to Spotlight on our new Spotlight App for both Apple and Android devices.”

Christian use of simple English: literature

The easy-English outreach SOON paper (produced by UK-based SOON Ministries) goes back over 50 years, and was inspired by the work of Frank Laubach. It is, sadly, ceasing paper publication during 2015, although copies will remain online, with the permission for others to reuse all the published articles in any way.

Volunteers with MissionAssist (formerly known as Wycliffe Associates UK) have been working on both a simple translation of the Bible, and matching book-by-book commentaries. After 20 years work, the entire Bible has now been covered, and everything is available for free download from EasyEnglish.info. The team writes:

“The Easy-English Bible project started in the early 1990s after a request from an overseas mission worker wanting commentaries which most people in his region with rudimentary English could read. It was realised that a new subset of English, which follows forms of grammar to help express complex ideas in simpler words and sentences, was needed. The rules followed included the use of one topic per paragraph, no passive verbs, split infinitives, idioms, rhetorical questions, or ambiguous pronouns. As each book and commentary was completed, it was put online. Last year very nearly five million people in 228 countries visited the website.”

Manna Publications also offer free-to-download commentaries in easy-English (and French).

There are several other Bible translations which are very accessible to second-language English speakers. The Easy-to-Read (ETR) version is particularly simple and readable. The NIrV was produced with second-language speakers in mind. Both the NLT and CEV are very accessible. The Jesus Book (NT only) is of comparable simplicity to the ETR.

Happily, many of these versions are now freely accessible online. Bible Gateway offers a wide range. The YouVersion phone app gives instant access to a remarkable 1000+ Bibles in 750+ languages (and some audio Bibles), which are also viewable on their Bible.com resource.

Immerse yourself in easy-English to write it

“How difficult it is to be simple” – Vincent Van Gogh

It does not always come naturally, either to write simply (see these quotes from famous writers) or to write in easy English. One way to get a sense of international English is to read one of those easy Bibles. If you use the YouVersion smartphone app, why not switch to an easy version such as ETR for a time?

Guidelines for writing in easy international English:

  • Restrict your vocabulary to about 1500 words, and find easy equivalents, or other ways to express meanings, for words which are outside this range.
  • Always avoid ‘christianese’ jargon, and rephrase all religious concepts in neutral language.
  • Use short sentences and simple sentence structure, with no more than one subsidiary clause in any sentence.
  • Use active verbs rather than the passive tense.
  • Avoid idiomatic use of words, as well as regional idioms or illustrations from your country, which may not be understood elsewhere.
  • Edit repeatedly, and if possible have others proof-read for you, particularly those who are themselves second-language English speakers.

Many of these recommendations will make your written English more readable even for first-language speakers.

Apply journalistic writing principles too: the use of catchy headings and subheadings, quoted instead of indirect speech, and embed truth within personal stories and storytelling. Journalism has several centuries experience of attracting and holding reader’s attention, and good writing needs the gifts of a journalist, not a preacher.
Read some books on journalistic writing, and get the free ebook guides from the Plain English Campaign, based as it happens in the north Derbyshire town where I grew up. There is much good advice online. See this recent series of short posts about effective writing, on the Church Mag blog. And be aware that there are differences between writing for the Web, and writing for print. In your nearest town, you may find evening classes about writing.

“Let it go! let it go! Can’t hold it back anymore!”

Often, mission groups or other teams own the copyright to various Bible translations or discipleship booklets which are culturally appropriate for use in the Majority World. But tragically, they restrict distribution to print media, often for purchase (with probably minimal financial return). This desire for control, paper-only paper distribution and financial return will likely result in very limited readership, perhaps only a few hundred each year. But they could “let it go” online, out into the wild, as free downloadable texts in whatever formats are most suitable – specially those which work well on mobile phones, the only device most people will use to access the Web. Do this, and distribution could jump into the tens of thousands!

This need for a “let it go” approach in world missions is a strong emphasis of Distant Shores Media. Download director Tim Jore’s free ebook Christian Commons.

Learning mobile ministry

Any evangelism or discipleship strategy for the Majority World which fails to put mobile phones at its heart, will not achieve its potential. Understanding the incredible potential of mobiles needs that ‘men of Issachar’ insight. Mobile phones have already transformed communication across Africa and Asia – see infographic below. Read more posts about the significance and reach of mobile.

Check too the online resources, training and annual conference of the Mobile Ministry Forum – it is not too late to book for their April conference in Netherlands. And follow the news and updates on the Indigitous blog, which also includes details of their digital ministry training days across Africa, Asia and beyond.

Almost unlimited potential

Free digital distribution, combined with easy international English, has huge potential for the Kingdom across the Majority World. “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (Isaiah 43:6-7)

Infographic: 5 Billion People to Use Mobile Phones by 2017 | Statista
You will find more statistics at Statista

‘Easy button’ photo credit – by User:Yskyflyer – own work (2 feet from my computer, On my Desk). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

About soonguy

Tony Whittaker is coordinator for Internet Evangelism Day | Team member, SOON Ministries, Derby UK. Contact him here.