The Voice: Winter 2003

The Voice

Hug-a-Linguist Days deepens students’ understanding of other languages and cultures

by Andrew De Young

Wycliffe linguist Andy Minch demonstrated to students how he begins to communicate with people whose language he does not know. For the twenty-ninth year, Dordt’s language department welcomed representatives from Wycliffe Bible Translators to campus for the annual Hug-A-Linguist Days. This year, however, the name seemed almost inappropriate. If there was one thing speakers Andy Minch, Chuck Micheals, and Bob Shaw were trying to get across to students, it was that you don’t need to be a linguist to help translate the Bible.

“For every linguist, there are three or four other people making sure they can do their job effectively,” says Bob Shaw, an information specialist who felt the call to missions work after retiring from IBM. Shaw works with JAARS of Waxaw, North Carolina, an organization that assists Wycliffe by providing translation teams with support groups made up of people of a variety of backgrounds and skills.

“Whatever your skill is, it can be used in Bible translation,” says Shaw. Pilots, construction workers, teachers, doctors, and computer professionals are just a few of the people whose skills are needed to assist in Bible translation.

In addition to translating the Bible into a wide variety of languages, Wycliffe also helps develop the communities for whom they are translating. Chuck Micheals, who is involved in community development, worked in the grocery business before getting involved in missions. He found his passion for service and his business experience to be valuable assets in assisting Wycliffe Bible translation teams.

“Community development helps people reach their full potential, but we don’t just meet people’s needs,” says Micheals. “Community development also gives the linguists credibility by giving us an opportunity to model Jesus.” He points out that everywhere Jesus went, he met people’s physical needs in addition to preaching the gospel. Community development, according to Micheals, does the same thing—making people more receptive to the newly translated Scriptures by assisting the community.

“We also like to rub shoulders with the local people,” says Micheals. “It helps us to learn about the culture, customs, and values of the people we’re serving. That knowledge is essential for Bible translation.”

The need to learn about culture and customs in order to translate the Bible is more important than many people realize, points out Andy Minch, the linguist of the group. In a variety of workshops, Minch taught students that communicating the gospel across cultures is more complicated than simply overcoming the language barrier. Culture can be an obstacle as well.

“It’s often difficult to translate particular passages, especially when the culture doesn’t have certain words,” says Minch. “How can I express something that these people don’t have a word for? That’s the challenge.”

Differing assumptions about society, religion, and God also prove to be an obstacle. “Some cultures view the spirit world in a different way than we do,” says Minch. “The legends and superstitions often portray a world where the ‘gods’ are in nature, and on the same level as human beings. It’s hard to convey the idea of a supreme God with a cultural assumption like that.”

But cultural assumptions color the way we look at Scripture, too. In a workshop called “God is Not an American,” Minch showed students some ways in which our American culture affects our reading of Scripture. The cultural assumptions that Americans have, he points out, do not necessarily affect our understanding of the Bible positively.

Minch finds a way to overcome his own cultural assumptions, however, in his ongoing study of languages. Every time he learns a new language, he says, he learns a new way to look at the world and the Word.

“Each new language gives me a different, deeper perspective,” he says. “It’s hard to describe the immensity of what I’ve learned.”

It may be hard for Minch to describe, but it’s something he desperately wants students to understand. He hopes students walked away from Hug-A-Linguist Days understanding that language is a barrier, but it can also be a blessing. And you don’t have to be a linguist to receive that blessing.