Let The LAMP Die: Missionary Language Learning

Back in the mid 1980s, when Sue and I first started our training for Bible translation work, we were introduced to a book called LAMP (Language Acquisition Made Practical). Full of cartoons, wise sayings and practical ideas it was the latest word in self-directed language learning techniques. Though, even then, the ideas behind it were ten or more years out of date.

Seven or eight years later, after significant practical experience, a lot of reading and having helped numerous other language learners, I wrote a paper critical of LAMP called, Speech Led Versus Comprehension Led Language Learning. This was subsequently developed into a paper for the British Association of Applied Linguistics annual conference.

I won’t go into a detailed description of the issues here; I want to keep the few readers that I have. But the problem with the LAMP method is that it places a heavy stress on the language learner memorising phrases and repeating them essentially parrot fashion. This can give an impression of fluency very quickly, but the learner may not have a clue what is being said back to them. Lyman Campbell catches this dilemma in David Sinclair’s excellent guide to cross-cultural church planting (appendix 2).

A worker in India once told me, “When a stranger first starts talking to me in Urdu, I often have difficulty understanding him. Once I catch on to the theme, I do a lot better.” It interested me that this man had probably been using Urdu for twenty or thirty years, and was effective in
relationships and in his work. I encounter similar stories among people who have been working in a language group for five or ten years: “I can understand people who know me, when they are conversing with me, but when they begin conversing with one another, I can easily get lost.”

That worker in India illustrated that even with many more years, the situation may not change greatly. I believe that this profile—limited, though effective, language ability—often results from what Eddie Arthur calls “speech-led language learning.”

Some language learners tell me, “I only learn things that I feel I will have a definite need to say.” One such person, attempting to narrate an action cartoon for me in her field language, was unable to express the idea that “a drop of water fell and put out the cigarette.” She later commented

that she would never want to say that, in any case. This demonstrates a philosophy of language learning that focuses on “things I want to be able to say.” The problem is that five minutes from now someone might want to tell me a story in which a drop of water fell and put out a cigarette, or any of trillions of other possible, ordinary life events that might  have taken place—events which I might never have thought I would need to know how to communicate about.

Something that Campbell also highlights is the fact that the LAMP style learner must continually turn in on themselves to find information for language learning; whereas for the person who focuses on comprehension, every encounter with a native speaker is a learning opportunity.

In comprehension-led learning, by contrast, we aim for our own speech to be largely based on our growing familiarity with host peoples’ speech. Our vision is to move steadily and deliberately toward full comprehension of all we hear and, as a result of that, to keep growing indefinitely.

Don’t get me wrong; LAMP isn’t all bad. In its time it was revolutionary. It provided a daily structure and a wealth of ideas for the learner and these are extremely valuable. When I wrote my article criticising LAMP back in the 1990s, I wasn’t able to offer any better alternatives. However things have moved on in the last 20 years and self-directed language learners have far better options than LAMP available to them. Perhaps the best option is the Growing Participator Approach which you can read about here (there are lots of good links and resources to follow there).

So why am I rabbiting on about a twenty year old argument? Well, the thing is, despite having been superseded by more effective and more theoretically valid models, LAMP is still the language learning method of choice for many missions and mission training agencies. This worries me; if we can’t update our peripheral methodologies, will we be able to make the radical paradigm shifts needed for mission agencies to survive into the future?

By the way, if you are likely to have to learn a language or if you are responsible for training others in language learning techniques and you haven’t taken this course, then you should.

Land and Identity

The British press has been full of stories about immigration, recently. Depending on the newspaper you read, you may have discovered that immigrants threaten the social fabric of the UK or that they bring nothing but economic and cultural benefits. However, you would have struggled to find much about the way in which moving from one culture to another can have on the immigrant.

This song by Gilles Servat captures this side of things wonderfully. It is written from the perspective of a Breton going to live in Paris, but its significance is far wider than that. As someone who is interested in minority languages, I find verse four particularly moving.

I apologise in advance that my translation doesn’t really capture the power of the song. Feel free to correct it in the comments!

Est-ce par espérance
Ou est-ce par désespoir
Tu as quitté ta terre
Pour travailler ici

Maintenant tu découvres
Dans tes soirs de solitude
Sous le regard des autres
Que tu es différent

Il est là, là, il est en toi, en toi, le pays
Et tu dis, c´est sur, je reviendrai,
Là-bas, si je peux,

Tu écoutes des musiques
Et des chansons de là-bas
Coeur serré tu les chantes
Sur ton lit dans le noir

La langue de ta mère
Elle ne t´intéressait pas
Maintenant tu veux l´apprendre
Tu n´as plus honte de toi


Dans un bar tu retrouves
D´autres enfants de là-bas
Vous faites dans vos rêves
Un pays plus beau qu´il n´est.


Was it hope, or was it despair, that made you leave your homeland, to come and find work here?

And now, in the lonely evenings and the glances of others, you discover that you are different.

Chorus: It is there, there inside you; there is your land. And you tell yourself that one day, you will go back if you can. Yes.

You listen to your music, the songs from back home. Lying on your bed, a lump in your throat, you sing them to yourself.

The language your mother taught you; you didn’t care about it. Now you want to learn to speak it; no longer ashamed of who you are.


In a bar you meet up with some folks from back there. In conversation you recreate a land better than reality.


If the video doesn’t show up, you can find the link here. If you liked the song, it comes from the album Zenith, which is ridiculously expensive on Amazon.

Did Pentecost Reverse Babel?

When considering the significance of tongues throughout the pages of Scripture, one may begin to wonder why God desires to hear His praise in every language. Why not just teach everyone Korean, the language of Heaven? Instead, He seems to desire strongly both an array of languages and praising lips from each one. In Revelation 7, readers discover that in eternity, it is not merely one voice that lifts its praise to Almighty God. In eternity, it is one voice in many languages.

This excellent quote from Ed Stetzer comes from an article which is well worth a read; Why we should all care more about tongues. Ed is a good and thoughtful writer on mission issues and it is well worth adding his blog to your regular reading list. However, this particular article did have one section that raised my hackles just a little.

What do we see here? Essentially Acts 2 records the reversal of Babel. Instead of man reaching for the dominion of God, God comes to the dominion of man. In Babel we see man grasping for unity apart from God through their own strength and for their own glory. At Pentecost we see God bringing man together in unity for His glory through His gospel. (Emphasis mine.)

Those who have followed my writing over the years, will recognise that I have often stated more or less exactly the opposite.

Which brings us to Pentecost. Sometimes people say that at Pentecost, God reversed the Tower of Babel, but that is exactly what He didn’t do. At Pentecost, God underlined the linguistic diversity that He introduced at Babel. (Emphasis not in the original).

So which of us is right?

Well at the risk of sounding wishy-washy, I reckon that we both are. Ed is a missiologist who generally writes about Church planting; he approaches the issue of mission and language diversity from that angle and highlights the direction of mission. I come at the same question from the perspective of a Bible translator and for me, language diversity and its sanctification at Pentecost is the most important issue.

Through reading Ed’s work and interacting on twitter, my understanding of Babel and Pentecost has been broadened – I don’t know if Ed feels the same, but I hope so.

The broader perspective here is that Scripture is multifaceted and one person’s perspective rarely captures all of the meaning in a passage. I need to hear the perspective of mission practitioners in other fields and (more importantly?) the point of view of Christians from very different global contexts in order to fill out my understanding of God’s Word. If the only authors we read are ones who share our cultural and religious heritage we are cutting ourselves off from a broader understanding of Scripture.

By the way, if Ed’s comments about centrifugal mission have sparked an interest, you could do far worse than watch this thirty minute video from the John Godingay.



Consider, therefore, the implications of these facts for speakers of other tongues – for speakers of languages that have only recently emerged from predominantly oral to written cultures, for speakers of “dying” languages  and for speakers of languages and dialects restricted to local use. The very scope of English makes it a ready instrument of empire. It bears within it the imperial history of Britain and America, which includes a highly developed discourse of justification for colonialism and domination (consider terms like “errand in the wilderness,” “new world,” “virgin land,” “manifest destiny,” “advancement” and “progress”) that can’t be eradicated simply by legislation or policy, but need to be addressed at the level of language itself – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the euphemisms in which we cloak our greed, the biases that favor th point of view of the privileged…


Learning a language also sensitises us to the various filters through which history and culture come to us. That England is not God’s native language is an important piece of news that a few people haven’t quite registered yet. The church would do well to deliver the news in any number of ways…

From Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (p.19 & p.180)

Books I Have Read: Found In Translation

One of the great delights in life is reading a book by someone who really loves what they do and who communicates it well. Over the years I’ve read some fascinating books on subjects as far apart as quantum mechanics and molecular virology. Popular science writing is hard to do, but when it is done well, it is wonderful.

Found in Translation by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche is a superb example of a book written by practitioners who have a gift for explaning their subject. It is informative without being heavy, funny without being flippant; and as much as a non-fiction book can be a page-turner, this one manages to be one.

In my line of work, translation tends simply to mean Bible translation, but this book covers a whole gamut of fascinating fields of translation beyond that of Holy Writ. I have sometimes wondered how sports stars manage to ply their trade in a country where they don’t speak the language – now I know. It would be futile to try and list all of the aspects of translation that are covered in this book, so I won’t try. However, if you like words and you are looking for something good to read on the beach this summer; this should be in your bag (especially if you are involved in Bible translation).

Just a couple of remarks in passing. It was gratifying to read a whole book on translation that never once mentioned dynamic or formal equivalence, These terms which are so often debated on Bible translation blogs (including, sometimes, this one) are simply not a part of the everyday translation lexicon.

One sad omission from the section on literary translation were the two finest translators of great literature; Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, the English translators of the Asterix books. Other opinions on great translators are available – they are just wrong!

I should mention that one of the authors of Found in Translation kindly sent me a copy; however, I’d have been just as positive about it if I’d paid for it myself. It really is an excellent book.

Languages In Nigeria

Next month, I’m travelling out to Nigeria, where I will be speaking at a retreat for my colleagues out there. It was a nice encouragement to read this peace in the Nigeria Guardian which is very complimentary about Wycliffe’s work there:

FEBRUARY 21, the International Mother Language Day, provided an opportunity to take a critical look at our languages as Nigerians. Because of the second fiddle nature Nigerian languages have assumed in our own society, it is pertinent to ask: Who is Killing Nigerian languages — foreigners or the language owners?

Incidentally, Nigerian languages have enjoyed a wide range of support from the Occident, the U.S in particular. One such support is from Wycliffe, a US-based organisation — established since 1942 to translate the Bible into every language spoken in the world. Giant strides have been made by the organisation as it has completed 700 translations. Currently, it supports languages spoken in 90 countries, including Nigeria. In keeping with its vision, Wycliffe has deployed human, financial, special-designed software and other resources to build orthographies for hitherto non-written languages, educate native speakers to read and write their languages, build glossaries in these languages while preserving the histories and cultures of language owners, etc. Unknown minority languages spoken by 10,000 and 1,000,000 speakers now have written documents, thus preventing the languages from extinction.

Pertaining to Nigeria, some ongoing and finished bible translations, which are due to the effort of the Wycliffe teams and native speakers of the languages include: Ezaa, Ikwo and Izii languages of the Abakaliki cluster (spoken in Ebonyi State: Abakaliki, Ezza, Ohaozara, and Ishielu LGAs); Benue State: Okpokwu LGA), Alago (a first language spoken in Nassarawa State: Awe and Lafia LGAs), Dadiya (a first language spoken in Gombe State: Balanga LGA; Taraba State: Karim Lamido LGA and Adamawa state: Numan LGA, Huba (a first language spoken in Adamawa state: Hong, Maiha, Gombi, and Mubi LGAs), Hyam (a first language spoken in Kaduna: Kachia and Jema’s LGAs), Ichen or Etkywan (a first language spoken in Taraba State: Takum, Sardauna, Bali, and part of Wukari LGAs).

Speaking of Nigeria, it’s nice to have the excuse to show this excellent photo of Sue doing some translation consultancy work there, a few years ago.

Sue consulting Nigeria

Praying in Our Own Languages

Many in Kenya’s Bibleless people groups believe their languages have no value… “A man in the Sabaot community of Western Kenya prayed aloud in his mother tongue in a gathering. Afterward, another man stood up and apologized to God for him praying in a language God wouldn’t understand; he then prayed in Swahili so God would understand.” (Read the full story.)

This is why I got so emotional when I heard Kouya being used in an international gathering! Thanks to Hannah for pointing out this article to me.

The Queen’s English?

The Guardian has a fascinating article on the way English is spoken in Ghana. It seems that there is a debate going on in Ghana between those who believe that Ghanaians should speak ‘the Queen’s English’ trying to mimic so-called ‘received pronunciation’, because they think that sounding English is prestigious, and those who value being multilingual and prefer to sound Ghanaian when they speak English:

“The idea that intelligence is linked to English pronunciation is a legacy from colonial thinking,” said Delalorm Semabia, 25, a Ghanaian blogger. “People used to think that if you speak like the British then you are as intelligent as the British. But now we are waking up to the fact that we have great people here who have never stepped outside the borders.”

It is great to see that Ghana (in contrast with some neighbouring countries) takes pride in its own languages:

Ghana has nine indigenous languages that are officially sponsored by the government, including Akan languages spoken widely in the south. A further 26 languages are officially recognised and at least double that number are also spoken. Unlike its francophone neighbours, which were forced under colonialism to teach only in French, Ghana has always maintained the use of African languages in its primary school education.

And at the same time Ghanaians want to make English their own, as Semabia says:

“For us, English is our language – we want to break away from the old strictures, to personalise it, mix it with our local languages, and have fun with it. The whole point of language is that it’s supposed to be flexible and it’s meant to be fun.”

Amen to that!


An Old, Old Problem

Archaeologists have recently unearthed fragments of a prayer letter from the first Roman missionaries to England along with part of the a response from one of their supporters. You might find it interesting.

Dear Friends,

Well we’ve been in England for a year now and we are slowly getting used to life here. You wouldn’t believe the weather. The climate is no where near as comfortable as the weather back home in Rome, it is far too cold most of the time. You wouldn’t believe what the nationals call summer – it’s more like a cold spring. Please, no one mention the rain! We are also getting used to the local food, which isn’t very inspiring. The English boil everything till it has no flavour and have never heard of olive oil, garlic or herbs and, what is worse, an amphora of wine costs a whole week’s support. (editor’s note: this paragraph shows that central concerns of many missionary prayer letters have not changed much over the years.)

Of course, the nationals don’t speak Latin, so we’ve been learning the local language so that we can teach them about Jesus. It’s hard going, but we are slowly getting there. One of our concerns has been to find a way to communicate Christian truth in English. It takes time to think of how to express even the most basic ideas. For example, how should we say “Deus” in English. We could use the Latin word, but that would make Deus sound foreign, so we’ve decided to settle on the English word “God”. There are some more difficult questions still to come. 

Meanwhile, our…. (the fragment ends here.)

And here is what we know of the reply.

… What do you mean you are using the English word “God” to describe “Deus”. Don’t you know that the Northern European “Gods” are nothing like the God of the Bible. They drink, they fight, they kill people. What is worse there are lots of them. They are nothing like the “Deus” of the Bible. If you use the word “God” you will be changing Christianity entirely, it will be a false Gospel, heresy. The word “God” could simply never be used to describe the loving Triune Deus of the Christian faith. The Father, Son and Spirit are nothing like Odin, Thor or those odious “Gods” from the frozen north. I demand that you change…

OK, this isn’t entirely serious, but it does illustrate a serious point. Over the last few months, Bible translators have been criticised for using the word “Allah” to translate the Greek “θεὸς” in some contexts. We are told that “Allah” is not the same as “θεὸς” so we should find another word to use.

Of course, this issue is a lot more complex than the purveyors of sound-bite theology would have use believe.

The Canadian Bible Society helpfully comments:

… centers around the use of the term “Allah” for God. While there is some legitimate debate in some languages where Islam is the dominant religion about whether this is the best designation to use, it is commonly accepted as a general term for God in many, if not most, of these languages. Semitic languages such as Arabic commonly use “Allah” where English uses “God.” The word “Allah” does not belong to Islam, although Muslims do use it. The word is actually closely related to the Hebrew term “El” and “Elohim” used for God in the Hebrew Bible.

The Arabic language is closely related to Hebrew (south Semitic and north Semitic respectively) and the term “Allah” is the direct cognate of the corresponding Hebrew term. In a number of languages Christians have been using the term “Allah” for many generations. In fact, in one country Christians have actually gone to court to retain their right to use this term when a Muslim dominated government tried to restrict its use for Muslims only. Truthfully, if we compare the origins of words used for God, the English / German term is among the most pagan. “God / Gott” was originally the designation used by our pagan ancestors long before the introduction of Christianity in northern Europe.

Which takes us back to where I started.




A Question About Numbers

Cross-cultural missionaries, such as myself, place a great deal of emphasis on Revelation 7:9.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.

The statement that people from every tribe, people and language (or tribe, tongue and nation in other translations) is a very precious one to people who are involved in bringing God’s Word to the minority groups of the world. It is a huge assurance to know that there will be representatives from every people group in eternity. Or will there?

Lately, I’ve started to have a few doubts about the way in which this verse has been read. I’m not sure of my ground here, so I’ll tread lightly, but let’s ask the question: does this verse really say that there will be people from every ethnolinguistic group in heaven?

The first thing to note is that this passage occurs in the Book of Revelation and belongs to a literary genre called apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature uses an awful lot of colourful, descriptive language which was never meant to be taken literally. You can get into all sorts of doctrinal and practical confusion if you forget that Revelation is apocalyptic and start taking it literally.

Secondly, John’s description of the crowd is clearly not meant to be taken literally. He says that the crowd could not be counted. Of course it could, if everyone stood still for long enough and someone had the patience, the could have counted the crowd. This is clearly a figurative statement indicating that there were an awful lot of people there! If John starts off by using a deliberate hyperbole, it doesn’t take a huge leap to imagine that the rest of the phrase is not to be taken too literally either.

My third point is a pragmatic one. Nations have been coming and going all through history and many ethnolinguistic groups simply vanished from the map long before the Christian Gospel made it to their part of the world. I’m not sure what would need to happen or how a special case could be made for these groups to get a special dispensation for representation in eternity.

Does it matter if this passage was not intended to be taken literally? Well it would probably mean that a lot of mission publicity material would need to be rewritten! Seriously, I don’t think it should make a great deal of difference because our responsibility to make disciples at home and around the world would not change in the slightest. The Church would still have a call to witness to Christ at home and around the world.

So why ask the question? Because the Bible is important and we have to take reading the Bible seriously, we shouldn’t accept a possibly dodgy reading just because it fits our missionary strategy or we have never thought to question it before.

I’d value your thoughts on the interpretation of this verse in the comments.

Bible and Mission Links II

I’m not sure where I came across the link to this, but David Rattigan has an amazing set of New Testament exam questions. Readers of Sellers and Yeatman will recognise the style. Here are a couple of examples.

2. Who did what, to whom, and in what year? Explain your answer.

3. Discuss, in no more than 2000 words, nothing in particular, with reference to anything you like.

ABC has an excellent new site devoted to the King James Version. There is an awful lot to explore here and it is worth giving some time to it.

Last month, Wheaton College held a conference on Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective. All of the papers are now available as both video and audio downloads. The speakers include such luminaries as Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh. I can’t imagine a reason not to get hold of these talks.

Mark Woodward posted an excellent piece on the Son of God translation controversy (I have to declare an interest in this post as you will see if you read it).

Lastly, Clayboy (among others) highlighted this excellent guide to English as she is spoken and understood: