Category Archives: Language

Local language Bible studies at seminary

These days in Nigeria it seems that formal education is pretty much exclusively an English-only affair and seminaries are no exception. So the experimental elective Sociolinguistics for Pastors running in ECWA Theological Seminary Kagoro has sought to shake things up a little. And with the encouragement of Provost and Chaplain, we have tried to encourage the setting up of some local language Bible studies, to complement the existing English language Bible studies.

A survey of languages and interest in local language Bible study led to the formation of around 20 groups, some with large numbers of students, some with just a handful, and leaving others where only 1 or 2 students in the seminary reported ability in that particular language.

The bigger groups include these languages: Gbagyi, Tyap/Kataf, Jju, Koro, Jaba/Hyam, Gworog/Kagoro, Kadara/Adara, Tangale and various Hausa dialects.

There were at least some already translated materials for all of these languages except Kadara, so we connected the groups with existing translation teams where possible or helped students find translations in their languages. and were helpful in this, though some older translations (Gbagyi and Tangale) were not available online yet.

Smaller groups included these languages: Gure/Tugbiri, Eggon, Mada, Ninzo, Nikyob and Kurama.

Some of these communities have completed New Testaments, but others (Tugbiri, Nikyob) have only early work in progress or none at all (Kurama).

As we launched the idea of local language Bible studies, we recognised there were likely to be some difficulties, and so we developed the following guide for non-English Bible Study Groups.

Instructions for non-English Bible Study Groups

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”


The most important reason to study in the vernacular is…

to help each other understand and be changed by the Bible in all areas of our life.

and the second is like it…

to prepare yourself for mission in areas (of life, of the country) where that language is used.

There may be other reasons, but please focus on these two reasons first.

What will we study first?

Luke 22-24 in preparation for Easter and because most communities begin translating Luke.
Then each group is free to choose something interesting to study. It may be more fruitful to choose a book or a large section of a book to study rather than attempting a topical study. This helps you to hear the Bible as it was intended to be heard.

What do we need?

  1. Written or audio recorded translations of Luke 22-24.
  2. The Basic questions below.

The Basic questions

After reading/hearing a large section, ask the big question:

  • What seems most important or most striking about what we just heard?
    Are there any surprises?

Then decide how best to divide the passage into sections.

For each section, ask:

  • What does it say?

    • (Check that you all share an understanding of what is written in the Bible. Don’t assume everyone understands or agrees.)
  • What does that mean?
  • How should that affect our thinking and our living?

    • (What do we learn about God? What is it wise for us to do or think?)

Some suggestions

  1. Keep discussion in the language of the group as much as possible. Use other languages only when needed to communicate clearly, not to impress each other or to pretend you understand.
  2. Read longer sections than you normally study. This helps you to hear everything in proper context and is a good discipline.
  3. Focus on the meaning of the Bible, rather than debating which translation is better.
  4. Use all translations to help you understand the Bible better, but not to impress or boast in front of others.

What if…

…I don’t speak/hear my vernacular/mother tongue:

You might benefit more from joining another language group if you hear that better, including perhaps the Pidgin or Common Hausa groups.

…I don’t read the language well:

You can listen to a recording or make sure a fluent reader reads the passage aloud clearly. Try to follow the printed text.

…our language has no Bible translation

You can refer to other language translations and to biblical languages if that helps you to understand things better, but keep discussion in the group language. Perhaps you might want to think about how to put it in your group’s language.

…the translation seems to have problems or is an early draft

You can refer to other language translations and to biblical languages if that helps you to understand things better, but keep discussion in the group language. If you want to help the translation team improve their work, make a note of possible improvements and an explanation.

Where can we get written or audio translations? for languages that already have a published New Testament, including Tyap, Jju, Hausa (audio only), Eggon, Mada, Ninzo, Pidgin.

Other languages will need to contact local Bible translation teams to get the translation, whether a finished product, a trial edition or an early draft. If a team shares a trial edition or an early draft of their work with you, it is good if you pass on any questions or suggestions for improvement that arise.


Making the most of being confused

Looking back I sometimes think I spent large chunks of my childhood not really knowing what on earth was going on, and being quite aware of it (yet not particularly troubled by it). And I’ve come to realise that being confused, and being aware of being confused is actually quite a helpful thing. In particular, where translation is concerned – and Bible translation is my own focus – I think there’s a lot you can learn from situations where you are confused. And rushing to sort out the confusion may well make you miss a wonderful learning opportunity. Are you confused yet? Let me explain with a riddle:

Living in Nigeria I’ve often heard friends talking about ‘licking an orange’. That just sounds odd to me. But watch someone ‘licking an orange’ and they are really ‘eating’ the orange.

Continue reading Making the most of being confused

A time to plant or a time to kill?

Several people balancing on each other to form a very precarious looking human tower at the Gworog traditional festival 2014
Human tower at the Gworog traditional festival 2014: Writing Gworog can be rather precarious too!

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about the Gworog project. That’s largely because the project has faced personnel management issues and then a funding crisis, and then technical problems and they just haven’t had much for me to work on. I’ve also been pretty busy. But yesterday I had a (nother) meeting with the Gworog translation coordinator and 3 other linguists and literacy people to help come up with a plan for a really necessary meeting.

Perhaps to you “Community Orthography Consensus Meeting” doesn’t necessarily sound like the world’s most exciting knees-up but it could really be a matter of life and death.

Let me back up and explain a couple of things about the Gworog language. Continue reading A time to plant or a time to kill?

Correct Beer

For several months we were all mildly tickled by a massive billboard advert we would pass on our way back from church each Sunday.

In astonishing simplicity it proclaimed “Correct Beer” in huge lettering beside a row of bottles. I was about to snap a picture but just before I did they changed the advert. (Fortunately Google is my friend and here we are:)

Why were we amused?

Because everyone knows (even our children) that the choice of beer isn’t a correct/incorrect kind of choice, but a preference. “Correct God” maybe, “Correct Answer” when you have claimed that 2+2=4, but not “Correct Beer”.

So then why was that phrasing chosen?

Taking note of how I have heard Nigerians use the word “Correct” it seems to be focussed less on a mathematical notion of rightness than on a general affirmation that something is good and praiseworthy. It’s not simply something that can be verified scientifically or a fact which is demonstrably true. And thus clothing which is smart might be described as “Correct Dress”. (I am often complemented by checkpoint soldiers/police on my wearing of “native dresses”, but that’s another story.)

In other words, “Correct” in this Nigerian English means something like “Best” in my own dialect and the praiseworthiness of the beer is just an assertion of the advertiser’s opinion. If in fact the choice of beer was a correct/incorrect matter, then really there would not have been so much need to advertise it; it would have been self-evident.







I think there may be a link with this post on the idea of a ‘correct text’ and biblical inerrancy, but I haven’t explored that yet.

Stomach Infrastructure?!

Sometimes – and especially when crossing cultures and using languages of wider communication – I come across things that people have written where I understand all the words but haven’t the faintest notion about what is really meant. Here’s a prime example, from the Nigerian news site

He said: “This year will be a year of the empowerment of our people. While we are doing projects, we will be doing stomach infrastructure.

“Our stomach infrastructure this year will go round the people. We will transform the state in all ramifications.”

A crazy autocorrect mistake? A Nigerianism? Politicianism? Or some jargon I have never come across? Suggestions and answers please below.

(Image courtesy WebMD)


It sounds odd when you put it like that… but actually it’s just how we say it

I spent the last week working with the Koro Ashe Translation team again. They are based 3 hours to the west but we worked this week in Jos. (If you receive news and prayer requests from you might have heard mention of them as they are supported in particular by some British churches.)


Some more interesting features of Ashe language came out in Luke 12, where Jesus says he has come not to bring peace but division. ‘Peace’ is expressed as ‘lying heart’ (that is, ‘restful mind’) which had me rather puzzled until it was explained. And where I was expecting a mother-in-law to pop up divided against her daughter-in-law, we ended up with ‘grandmother’. Ashe uses ingkoko ‘grandmother’ and then wife-of-her-son in this situation. That is one of those situations where it sounds odd in English, but everything is OK as far as the Ashe translation is concerned; they had done their job well. Merely translating the 3 English words ‘mother-in-law’ piece-by-piece would have been perplexing and meaningless and also not faithful to the original Greek.

Unexpectedly familiar: ‘Bean pods’ of Luke 15

Last week I made a discovery that surprised both me and the translation team I was working with: that the ‘bean pods’ the young prodigal of Luke 15 wanted to ‘fill himself with’ neither the generic food scraps we might think, or the sloppy grain-husk-porridge people feed pigs with here but were the fruit of a tree very familiar to us in West Africa.

To be fair we are not the first people to have made this discovery since the information was sitting in dictionaries and translators’ helps waiting to be uncovered, but the fact is we were all so sure we understood what the boy fed the pigs that we didn’t even consider it might be wrong. Continue reading Unexpectedly familiar: ‘Bean pods’ of Luke 15