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 Though, even then, the ideas behind it were ten or more years out of date.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.

Words in Context

Translation is simple isn’t it? Just a case of finding the right words in the new language to replace the words in the old language; nothing to it really!

Well, of course it isn’t as simple as that. Words combine into phrases which don’t quite up to the sum of the individual parts; has anyone ever really had a frog in their throat?

There are many complexities in translation; not least the fact that words change their meaning according to the context. Nataly Kelly, co-author of the excellent Found in Translation, has just posted an excellent blog post which explores the way in which some common English words have multiple senses according to the context in which we find them.

This infographic captures the issue wonderfully.

Words with Multiple Meanings

Though the example is from English, the same is actually true of every language, including Greek and Hebrew; the meaning of a word is determined by its context. This is why it is impossible to always translate a word or phrase in the Bible by the same word or phrase in English (or any other language for that matter). Languages just don’t work like that.   


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.

A New Reformation?

Church historians sometimes downplay one of the key planks of the Protestant Reformation; the use of indigenous languages in Bible study, worship and disciple making. A great deal is made of the theological influence of Luther, Calvin et al, but language gets much less attention.

However, the Reformation both encouraged and depended on the use of the indigenous languages of Northern Europe. The increasing number of translations of the Bible, prayer books and hymnals encouraged an increase in theological thinking which solidified the break with Rome and led to distinctive expressions of Christianity across the region. The Reformation was not just a theological event it was a cultural and linguistic event too.

Today, we are living through an explosion in Bible translation and indigenous Christianity which dwarfs the Reformation. I wonder what the theological fallout will be from this as people start to read the Scriptures in their own language and apply them to their own situations. I also wonder what side of things the historic Reformed churches will find themselves.

Just thinking.

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.

Good Translation: Bad Translation

I’m currently thoroughly enjoying Found in Translation by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche. It is a fascinating and amusing overview of the world of translation. I’ll give a fuller review when I finish it. Those who are interested in Bible translation will be immediately struck by the fact that the authors never talk about ‘dynamic equivalence’, ‘formal translation’ or any of those other terms which creep in whenever Bible translation is mentioned. These categories, so beloved of Bible translation polemicists, are simply not used in the wider world of translation.

In a recent blog post, Simon Cozens picks up on this theme.

And this is what bothers me about the whole discussion over Bible translation. People have got more concerned about literal versus dynamic, word-for-word versus thought-for-thought, and so on that they forget that when it comes to translation, there’s really only one dimension that matters: is it a good translation or a bad translation? It’s possible to do a literal translation really well, especially in languages that are genetically similar. And this is where I think English speakers are at a disadvantage thinking about translation, because their first experiences of translation tend to be of languages like French or Spanish which have similar modes of expression to English, and therefore they’re tricked into thinking that literal translation is necessarily a good idea. But where a target language has a very different mode of expression from the source, for instance when translating from Japanese to English, or from Hebrew to English, literal translation generally ends up being bad translation.

Make sure you read Simon’s full post, it’s well worth it.

Some of our Ancient Personal History

In the early 1980s, Sue and I felt that God was calling us into mission work in a French speaking country. For us, this naturally meant something, somewhere in Europe; Bible translation in Africa was the last thing on our minds. Over a period of many months we sought advice from the leaders of our church and other people we respected. We wrote to a number of different missionary organisations who worked in Europe and had a couple of interviews; but nothing seemed to work. It was all rather frustrating. Around this time, some friends suggested that we should visit Wycliffe Bible translators to see what they could offer us. To be honest, I thought this was a crazy idea, but Sue, who is a linguist by training, was quite attracted by the thought – so we went along. Over the space of one weekend, God turned our lives around completely. It turned out that my background as a research scientist was just as useful for a Bible translator as Sue’s linguistic ability. Not only that, but Wycliffe had urgent need for people to work in French speaking Africa. All of the pieces fell into place; our calling to a French speaking country and our academic background suddenly made perfect sense. Thankfully, our Church leadership thought the same thing.

A little over four years after our first contact with Wycliffe, equipped with some of the best practical linguistics training in the world, we moved into a Kouya village in Ivory Coast, West Africa. The Kouya are a hardy, strongly independent people who live in twelve villages on the edge of a dense rain forest. At the time we settled into the village of Gouabafla, there was a handful of Christians in each of the Kouya villages, though the vast majority of them had been believers for less than five years. We became part of a first generation church; it was like living in the book of Acts!

The Kouya area is home to a number of different people groups, but non-Kouyas seem to find it almost impossible to learn to speak Kouya. Because of this, most Kouyas speak at least three or four other African languages fluently in addition to French, which they learn at school. It is hardly surprising that when we turned up in the village and said that we were going to learn to speak Kouya, that people were extremely sceptical. If Africans who had grown up in the area didn’t manage to learn it, how could a couple of white, outsiders expect to.

A rather younger Sue and Eddie: Ivory Coast December 1992

I’ve never done anything as difficult in my life. Intellectually, getting my head around a whole new way of thinking and a completly new vocabulary was a huge challenge, but it was the least of my problems. The really difficult thing was going out every day to talk to people knowing that I was making a complete and utter fool of myself. It really isn’t easy being laughed at every day. What’s worse, I found myself thinking some rather unpleasant things. “How dare they laugh at me? I’ve left my nice comfortable home in England to come and help them – they should be grateful.” “Do they realise who they are laughing at? I’ve got a university degree and tons of other qualifications, they are just cocoa farmers.” I’d come to share Jesus with the Kouya, but there were times when my attitudes and thoughts were miles from where Jesus would have wanted them to be. But this is the heart of The Story; God loves men and women so much that he wants them to communicate on his behalf, despite the fact that people are far from perfect. Like all of God’s people, I have a whole series of weaknesses and failings; which makes it all the more bizarre that I would look down on anyone!

It took two years of hard work before we became at all comfortable speaking Kouya, and even then it remained a huge struggle to say things in a way that people would understand what we were going on about. But there is nothing in the world to compare to the thrill of being accepted into a community that is completely different to your own. We used to love the expression on people’s faces when they would realise that we were speaking Kouya rather than French. Complete strangers would stop in market and say “aya, the world has changed, the toubabs (white people) are speaking Kouya”. We became something of a tourist attraction in our village. When family members or friends came from elsewhere in the region, they would be brought to our house to meet the tame Europeans who could speak Kouya. It was hilarious! Mind you, not every one was pleased to see us. There were some people who were very suspicious of our motives. Some thought we were spies and more than one person asked where we kept our radio that we used to report back to our government in Washington: it was hard not to laugh at that one. Others thought that we had come to write a book about the Kouya language that we could sell for a fortune back in our home country. At first we were very defensive about these sorts of accusations, but as we learned more about the Kouya and about the colonial history of the country, we realised that the Kouya had good reason to be suspicious of the motives of Europeans. History wasn’t really on our side. Despite the suspicions that some people harboured, most people were delighted to see us in their village. . The Kouya loved it that people from outside were making the effort to speak their language. They were used to outsiders not even bothering to master the basics, but here was a couple who had come all the way from Europe and who were chatting away in the language. Our being there gave them a sense of value and self-worth. Kouya people would tell us that their language was not a real language  like French; it couldn’t be written down and it didn’t have a grammar. Over time, we were able to help the Kouya to write their language down and we could show them that it didn’t just have a grammar but it had a very complex and elegant grammar that was often far richer than the French they learned at school. They loved that!

It took a further twelve years and input from a team of Kouya and Europeans before the Kouya New Testament was finally ready to be published. During that time, we saw the small church grow in numbers and maturity. I’m not sure how much impact we had personally in the process and I’m absolutely convinced that we learned more from our Kouya brothers and sisters than they learned from us. But there is one thing that was clearly communicated to the Kouya through our presence in their village: God cares for them. They may be a small ethnic group, more or less ignored or unknown by the larger groups around them: but God sent his servants to live amongst them and God speaks their language. I loved it when an elderly Kouya said to me that the Kouya were just as important as the Americans, French or Germans, because God spoke their language, just the same as he did for those others.

Language Culture and the Benefits of Bible Translation

Three years ago, I wrote a longish blog post (part of a chapter of my unfinished book) which included the following…

Just as each culture brings something new to humanity, so does every language. Each language is capable of expressing some things better than all other languages. Why else to coffee shops sell cafe latte rather than milky coffee? On a deeper note, each language has the ability to express itself in ways that other languages can’t quite manage. There are subtleties of meaning and inference that just can’t quite be transferred from one language to another without losing something. And this is really important, because that means that each language can say things about God and is capable of praising God in ways that other languages can’t quite reach. When God multiplied the languages at Babel, He also gave us the possibility of understanding Him and praising Him in new ways. Babel was a judgement, but at the same time God blessed humanity immeasurably and revealed even more of us to himself.

A recent article in Christianity Today by Jost Zetzsche covers similar ground, but takes things a step further than I did. Jost suggests that the wealth of translations available to us today gives us a breadth of insight that can’t be achieved through reading the text in the original languages.

Every new rendering of God’s Word in a linguistic set of human expression—a language—enriches the worldwide church in her understanding of God, regardless of whether we speak that particular language. Our thinking and imagination are necessarily confined and constrained by our own language and its assumptions. But when we encounter another language—and as it confronts and interacts with the biblical text—it can expand our understanding of God and our world. This is true in our dealings with the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic source texts, yes, but also the more than 2,000 target languages into which the Bible or parts of the Bible have been translated.

Take this example from a number of Chinese Bible translations. We know that God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is confined to heshe, and it. Modern Chinese, however, offers another possibility. In modern Chinese, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is he, 她 is she, and 它/牠 is it). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.
In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: . But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that God has no gender aside from being God. This translation discovery was an aha moment for Chinese believers. But knowing this benefits us as well—even if we don’t understand Chinese—because it expands our comprehension of God’s divine character.

There is no automation in this process. Translation is not a magical act where a unique facet of God is unearthed each time a new translation is published or a language is “conquered.” But as each faith community matures, discoveries like the Chinese divine pronoun can add to our understanding of God. In the case of the Chinese pronoun, it took a maturation process of 100 years and a member of the native church to reach this revelation.

Mission scholar Andrew Walls says similar things in parts of his work and the IVP Dictionary of Mission Theology article on language, linguistics and translation says the following (p. 201)

This means that divine revelation is much larger and richer than the capacity of any finite language to contain it. Consequently when the biblical message is translated into another language, whatever loss is incurred in subtle shades of meaning is always compensated by gains in fresh theological insights.

The implication of all of this is that translation is a part of God’s ongoing self-revelation to humanity and not simply a pragmatic add-on to solve the problem of incomprehension.

Whatever you think of these ideas, you should read the original article in Christianity Today and have your thinking challenged.

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

Voices United for Mali

When you get artists from across a country as culturally diverse as Mali producing a song, you end up with a wonderful mixture of languages and cultural styles. In this superb video there is singing and rapping in Bambara, Sonniké, Songhai, Tamasheq and even a little French.

This is the Mali I love; colourful, welcoming and amazingly musical.

Bruce does a great job of unpacking the lyrics to this song – it isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems at first.