• Print this page

Every Tongue: Preserving Language and Culture

Reforming Society | Rebecca Walker | 11 February 2011
Download PDF


Language is Culture

There is an oft quoted urban legend that says there are a large number of words for snow in Inuit. Whilst this is a myth it points to a very important truth, words and language are shaped by cultural experience. “The mother language, in which the first words are uttered and individual thought expressed, is the foundation for the history and culture of each individual” [1]. Thus when a language becomes extinct, it is not interchangeable for another language; a whole system of thought, a history of a people and way of understanding the world ceases to exist. This means when a language passes out of usage it is in fact the death of a culture.

3,000 of the world’s languages are predicted to disappear in the next 100 years. “According to the United Nations Environment Program, there are 5,000 to 7,000 spoken languages in the world, with 4,000 to 5,000 of these classed as indigenous, used by native tribes” [2]. “Specialists reckon that no language can survive unless 100,000 people speak it. Half of the 6,000 or so languages in the world today are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people and a quarter by less than 1,000” [3]. International Mother Language day on the 21 February was instituted by UNESCO "to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world" [1].

Culture is a Gift from God

In Genesis, God instructed Adam and Eve to spread out through the earth, filling it with children (Genesis 1:28 NRSV). In Genesis 11, when the people came together to try and build a tower, so that they would not be scattered over the earth, God came down and confused their languages. Doing this was a judgement, but it was also a gift. The gift helped to bring about the scattering and diversity that God had in mind when he commissioned Adam and Eve to spread out through the earth, having lots of kids. As we shall shortly see, the end goal of creation is people of every nation gathered again together. However in distinction from Babel, the gathering is in Christ’s name for his glory, not for our own.  

The book of Revelation 7:9-10 NRSV shows us the final goal of salvation, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

God’s desire is for people of all languages and cultures to worship him. Therefore preserving and encouraging diverse languages and cultures is glorifying to God, and as such should be a Christian concern. If as we believe, Jesus is coming back to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, then the state of cultural diversity or lack thereof on the earth is a key eschatological question. If God saw fit to give us different cultures and languages; different ways of seeing the world, and talking about it, should we not do everything we can to respect and preserve that gift?

Method of Empire

Forcing subject people not to use their native tongue, but rather to adopt the language of the dominant culture is something empires have been doing for thousands of years. When Alexander the Great brought subject peoples into his empire, a key tool he used was the imposition of the Greek language (it is because of Alexander the Great that the New Testament is written in Greek; before then Aramaic the language of the Babylonians under the Persians was the lingua franca). Along with the Greek language came Greek culture. This process was called Hellenisation.

When we read the gospels you can see something of the tension hellenisation caused in Israel. The Greek lifestyle seduced some Jewish people away from their faith and their culture. The Pharisees legalism was in part a response to this; they wanted to ensure that their people decidedly remained the people of God.

The expectation that people will speak English is a kind of cultural imperialism. While there are benefits of a shared language, it marginalises minority groups preventing them from sharing their culture, knowledge and identity as there are some things which do not translate across languages. Much knowledge is lost when a language becomes extinct. “More than 80 per cent of countries that have great biological diversity are also places with the greatest number of endemic languages. This is because when people adapt to their environment, they create a special stock of knowledge about it which is mirrored in their language and often only there. Many of the world’s endangered plant and animal species today are known only to certain peoples whose languages are dying out. As they die, they take with them all the traditional knowledge about the environment” [3].

Australian Indigenous Languages

In the 220 years since the British invasion of Australia, many of indigenous languages have become extinct. The following table shows something of the level of cultural devastation that Aboriginal communities have experienced through the loss of their mother tongue language. Bear in mind, these statistics do not include Victoria or Tasmania, and so these figures are conservative. Furthermore, the data comes from figures dated from 1970 through to about 2006, so again this is conservative. For example, this data cites the Kuuku’Yau language as having 21 speakers as of the 1996 Census. However, more recent figures place this at two or three speakers who are all over 70 years of age, meaning the Kuuku’Yau language will become extinct.

table of australian indigenous languages

What Can Be Done?

The basis of all corps ministry with Aboriginal people is good relationships between the corps and the aboriginal communities. From that basis corps could become involved in supporting indigenous language and culture through the following means:

  • Providing space and resources for indigenous language speakers to teach the next generation the language
  • Provide funding and support for the aboriginal communities to produce books and resources in the indigenous language
  • Lobby the government to include primary education in indigenous languages, alongside English for all students, aboriginal or otherwise
  • Ensure all corps signage / promotional materials are displayed in local aboriginal languages as well as English 



International Mother Language Day. [Internet]. [cited 2011 January 12]. Available from: http://www.un.org/en/events/motherlanguageday/.


Garland E. Can Minority Languages Be Saved? The Futurist. 2006;July-August:31-36.


Bjeljac-Babic R. 6,000 languages: an embattled heritage. The UNESCO Courier. 2000;April:18-19.


Lewis MP, editor. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International; 2009.