There are approximately 7,000 living languages in the world today. Translation of biblical content into every one of these languages is notoriously challenging, not only because of the magnitude of such an undertaking, but because most of these languages are relatively small (fewer than ten thousand speakers each). The scale of the undertaking has always been beyond the aggregate capacity of organizations focused on translation. The need is still greater than the supply, and the need is continuing to increase.
In people groups all over the world, the Church is on the rise. People groups that were unreached up until recently now have a Church that wants the Bible and other biblical resources in their language. Instead of primarily focusing on a “push” model that starts from the outside and uses institutional capacity to translate biblical content into another language, a new model is emerging. Many organizations are finding that the open collaboration of the global Church to meet their own need for biblical content in their own languages (a “pull” model) is a far more capable approach. This is especially true in light of the almost inevitable need for ongoing revision of translations in order to maintain precise meaning transfer as languages change over time.
Today, most biblical content—especially content designed for Bible translation and study—is available in English. This serves the elements of the global Church who speak English (whether as first or second-language speakers) but does not extend beyond to those who do not. However, by looking at global patterns of language use from a missiological perspective, a pattern emerges that suggests a strategy where every language in the world could be treated as of equal priority, whether it has 3 speakers or 30 million speakers. In this model, massive parallelization of the translation process is possible, because the model is built on the aggregate capacity of the entire global Church.
The pattern that emerges is this: the people groups of the world collectively speak about 50 languages as key languages of wider communication. Due in part to globalization and the worldwide advance of mobile communication technologies, multilingualism is becoming the norm in every language community. Truly monolingual societies are all but nonexistent, due in part to the economic advantages of learning the language of commerce in a given region.
This pattern of global multilingualism in a relatively small subset of key languages suggests a missiological strategy: if content is made available in these key languages, it is thereby available to all second-language speakers of those languages. Given that the key languages of wider communication have been correctly identified, 100% of all people groups would have access to the content in those languages, through patterns of bilingualism.
These key languages of wider communication are called “gateway languages” and the strategy that uses these languages for the translation of biblical content into every language is the Gateway Languages Strategy.
A “gateway language” is a language of wider communication used for translation of content. When content is available in a Gateway Language (GL), people who are bilingual in that GL can translate the content into any other language (OL) that they speak. Thus, a Gateway Language (GL) functions as a conduit through which content passes by means of translation into other languages. For example, if content is available in English (a GL), then any second-language speaker of English could translate it into their first language. If the same content were also available in French and Spanish (also GLs), then the second-language speakers of all three GLs would have access to it.
The Gateway Languages (GLs) of the world are the smallest number of GLs that cover 100% of all other languages (OLs) of the world, through global patterns of bilingualism. The list of Gateway Languages of the world is not static, because languages are dynamic and global patterns of bilingualism even more so. Thus, the list of GLs only represents a snapshot at a point in time. As sociolinguistic factors at the macro level (e.g., a new language policy affecting education in a country, launch of a satellite providing communication infrastructure to rural regions of many countries, etc.) and the micro level (e.g., the opening of a rural school taught in a language of wider communication) continue to affect patterns of language use, the Gateway Languages of the world will be affected.
Classification of Gateway Languages
Three levels of Gateway Languages have been identified: international, regional, and national. GLs at each level have characteristics that make them unique from the other levels, but their function as a GL is consistent.
Gateway Languages at the international level have most or all of the following properties:
Has a relatively large number of speakers.
Has a substantial number of second-language speakers (functions as lingua franca).
Has official status in more than one country.
Has a linguistic community not defined strictly along ethnic lines (multiethnic, pluricentric language).
Has one or more standard registers (varieties) which are widely taught.
Association with linguistic prestige.
Use in international trade relations.
Use in international organizations.
Use in the academic community.
Has a significant body of literature.
Examples: English, French, Spanish, Arabic.
Gateway Languages at the regional level have most or all of the following properties:
Used as a lingua franca across regions of more than one country.
A linguistic community not defined strictly along ethnic lines (multiethnic) but geographically centralized.
Generally contained within a contiguous region on a single continent.
Use in regional or local trade relations.
Examples: Swahili, Hausa, Serbo-Croatian, Fulfulde.
Gateway Languages at the national level have most or all of the following properties:
Primarily associated with a single country (or more than one, in the case of sociolinguistic factors).
Has status as the national or official language used in the country.
Most first-language speakers are citizens of the country with which the GL is primarily associated. To the extent that the citizenship of a country is ethnically homogenous, the linguistic community is defined along ethnic lines (e.g., Vietnamese, Thai, Khmer, Laotian, etc.).
Used in country in education, commerce, mass media, and government at the national level.
Examples: Mandarin, Nepali, Punjabi, Indonesian.
Gateway Languages are of “translational” value, in that they function as conduits for translation of content. Distinct from this translational value of Gateway Languages, some languages that are not GLs have an elevated missional value to the Church that speaks that language. That is, while not necessarily required for translation, some OLs are of immense value for evangelism, church planting and discipleship. These languages may be considered “Priority OLs” as described in this chart:
|Language Type||Primary Value||Resources Needed|
|Gateway Language (GL)||Translational (may also be missional)||Source texts + exegetical resources + translation training resources|
|Priority OL||Missional (some translational)||Trustworthy Bible translation|
In some situations, a Priority OL may enhance the usefulness of the GL resources by providing another source text for use by translators. In this regard, Priority OLs may provide a supplemental gateway function.
Observation of global patterns of multilingualism suggests that all people groups in the world are (or will soon be) collectively multilingual in about 50 so-called “gateway languages.” If content is made available in these world Gateway Languages, the global Church could access the content and collaborate together in translation of it into every heart language spoken by the global Church. This suggests the value of a strategy that provides essential resources for Bible translation and theological education in all of these key languages: the Gateway Languages Strategy.