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Language Surveyors: Paving the Way

“Language surveyor? What’s that?” Zoe has had to answer these questions more often than she can remember. In 2014, she attended TOTAL It Up* (Taste of Translation and Linguistics) in Dallas, Texas, a five-day course designed to be an intense but fun introduction to Bible translation. Convinced of the vital role of language survey, she immediately signed up for a six-month survey course. For the past few years, she has been serving in an Asian country, collecting language data from various unreached people groups for language teams in the field.

Language surveyors play a very important role in Bible translation and language development work. They pave the way by going into the field to collect data about the languages and how they are used. Analysis of the data collected yields invaluable information for strategic planning of language projects such as the vitality of the language, who speaks it, what contexts it is used in, and which dialect is understood by the greatest number of people and hence has the widest reach.

A surveyor typically collects lists of words for common objects, actions, relationships etc. from several data points and compares them in order to determine how similar the languages are. Finding respondents who can speak clearly (they need to have most of their teeth!) and are willing to take the time can be a challenge.  The surveyor records stories and texts from the different data points and tests intelligibility by finding out how well people at one data point understand the recordings from another data point. The extent of multilingualism and other information may be collected through participatory methods, questionnaires, interviews and observation. The Ethnologue, a database of information about every known language on earth (there are currently 7099 known living languages) published by SIL, includes information about location, dialects, population, literacy rates, writing systems etc., much of it contributed by surveyors in the field.

Zoe says, “It’s not just an academic exercise.” She elaborates that there are millions of speakers of these little-known minority languages, and many of these people cannot hear word of God in a language that speaks to their hearts. This makes them unlikely to be receptive to the gospel message. More than that, many of these minorities feel ignored and unvalued, and to have someone from outside reach out to them and show an interest in their language and culture is a great boost to their self-respect. Zoe tells of an experience in a remote village where a lady gripped her arms and was so welcoming, saying that no-one had shown interest in their culture before. They had also never encountered Christianity before.

Speakers of minority languages which have yet to be surveyed usually live in remote and inaccessible areas. Getting to them often requires long hours of driving along narrow winding mountain roads or hiking. But the scenery along the way can be breathtakingly beautiful! Zoe says that those who like to travel off the beaten track and are naturally curious about other cultures are ideal for this role, as long as they are also able to manage the extensive recording and data analysis required. She also warns that a willingness to try new foods would be an asset! The experiences are not always comfortable, the work can be long and tedious, and finding suitable respondents is not always easy, but it is rewarding to be one of the first outsiders to visit a place. She remembers collecting a wordlist one summer in a house with a corrugated metal roof which became like an oven by the end of the day and, on another occasion, a man who laughed at many of the words on the wordlist, which made it a very long job!

What is her motivation to continue? She says that since many Christians in Singapore are blessed with so much, we should be willing to bless others in turn. She also realises that many depend on the data she collects, such as translators who need to select a reference dialect to work in, or evangelists and church planters who need the translated materials for their outreach and discipleship efforts. Ultimately, the goal is to reach the millions who have yet to hear the gospel because of the language barrier. That’s what keeps her going!


Zoe has a background in IT and youth work. In 2013, she became a member of Wycliffe Singapore and now serves as a language surveyor in an Asian country.

* For more information about TOTAL It Up, see https://www.wycliffe.org/events/total-it-up.
A similar programme is Camp Wycliffe in Thailand, see https://www.wycliffe.sg/campwycliffe-2018.

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