If you speak more than one language, you are bilingual or multilingual. If, on the other hand, you only speak one language, you are monolingual. You might be greatly impressed that others can speak more than one language and wonder how they do it. Some language communities use only one language, but for most of the world, multilingualism is the norm.
Groups that communicate using several languages might assign each language to specific categories of usage and/or vocabulary:
One language at home.
A different language in education or business conversations.
Another language for religious purposes.
Fluency can be as narrow as a subset of vocabulary and topics for a specific usage. For instance, a scientist in Switzerland uses English for lab work and to author papers. His English vocabulary might be limited to these categories. For everyday conversations, he speaks French or Swiss German.
Under other circumstances, fluency expands, and the multilingual expresses herself equally in several languages. This can be the case when someone lives abroad for an extended time, and she actively pursues fluency in the local language. It also occurs in locations with distinct language communities living in close proximity who have frequent interaction with each other.
Open international borders give rise to populations beyond native speakers that communicate in an increasing number of languages. Some of these are the lingua franca—a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different—of international communications, business, education, and more. A quick internet search reveals an almost complete consensus of the top languages used internationally: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Portuguese, Russian, German, Arabic, French, Japanese, and Hindi*. Although each of these is the mother tongue of multiple millions of speakers, additional millions learn them for an opportunity at a better life.
India is an incredibly multilingual country, with a population of around 1.4 billion and more than 450 distinct languages. Most Indians speak at least three languages fluently. They might additionally understand a few more. Children may receive education in three languages.
The most linguistically diverse country, though, is Papua New Guinea (PNG), with more than 850 languages spoken among a population of under nine million. Language speakers vary from three to 300,000. The current trend in PNG includes formal education in English and social communication in Tok Pisin or Hiri Motu. Limited vernacular education occurs in some language communities. The languages of wider communication impinge upon minority language usage and often weaken or endanger their existence.
A strong local language goes hand in hand with a strong culture and identity. As minority languages in PNG die out, a correlation exists with a loss of culture and social fabric. Strong mother-tongue usage bolsters community identity and support, undergirding clan and family ties.
The Gapapawai are one example of the complexities of multilingualism. Numbering around 3,000, they live in a coastal region of eastern Papua New Guinea. Isolated access—no roads, no internet, rare cell signal—to the outside world requires a five-and-a-half-hour boat ride across open ocean, followed by a two-hour, bone-rattling ride in the back of a truck. When the Gospel arrived decades ago, it was in English—a language they did not speak or understand. More recently, Scripture was translated into Gapapawai and recorded.
Gapapawai speakers love their language and are proud of it. They only speak other languages when they engage with non-Gapapawai, including relatives through intermarriage with other people groups. Gapapawai children are educated in English, and their skills are proficient for simple communication but not fluent enough to grasp deep spiritual concepts of Scripture.**
Why does multilingualism matter in the mission of Faith Comes By Hearing? Because we are committed to provide Scripture recordings in the language that communicates God’s Word clearly to every single audience. For Gapapawai speakers, this means the Gapapawai language. For all multilingual communities, this involves deciphering which language among their several is best for them to engage with eternal Truth. For Faith Comes By Hearing, this focuses our efforts to get God’s Word in every language that still needs it—whatever that language may be. Want to learn how we do that and how you can join us?
* Different lists overlap but may not be identical:
** Information about the Gapapawai sourced from personal correspondence with a linguist/translator who worked among them.