The Power of Language in India
“Ideas travel in the chariot of language. If you want to send an idea into a culture … if you want to bring transformation … language is the way to do it.”
Dr. Alex learned those words the hard way. He was trained to be a doctor, but he knew God was calling him on a different path: to share the gospel with the people of Bihar. Known as the “graveyard of missions,” Bihar is one of the darkest, most impoverished regions of India. With severe overcrowding and high rates of illiteracy and mortality, the future looked grim. But Dr. Alex tried to focus on the positive. At least he had been able to practice their language, or so he thought, while in medical school.
“I thought, if only I perfect Hindi. I would speak in Hindi, I would read the Hindi Bible, and I would try my best to sing Hindi songs. I would give a nice message on Sunday morning in Hindi. That’s it! And I sincerely believed it,” he recalls.
So for the next 10 years, Dr. Alex helped orphans, educated children, and preached God’s Word in Hindi. He thought people understood what he was saying, so the lack of spiritual growth among them was surprising. He noticed that, although some would try to speak to him, many more simply nodded and smiled their replies. It was sobering to learn that those gestures were simply respectful acknowledgments of this cross-cultural missionary in their midst. To discover that they understood only 30 to 40 percent of his words was a crushing blow.
“I never knew my words were not in their heart language. I never knew,” he remembers sadly.
A Language of Top Priority
Dr. Alex first learned what the term heart language meant in 2007 when three men from Seed Company were touring India and requested a meeting with him. By this time, he was the director of a national organization that placed a high priority on “more budget, more missionaries on the field” to accomplish the work. Considering how those missionaries communicated with the people was never a concern. Until now.
Dr. Alex’s three guests asked him what the people spoke, and it was as if he heard the question for the very first time.
“Well, I’m not sure. I thought it was Hindi, but I hear there’s another language called Angika,” he replied.
Dr. Alex would hear Angika spoken in the bazaar by men and women, boys and girls, but whenever he asked anyone about it, no one ever acted like it was a legitimate way to communicate.
“All the feedback I would get is, ‘Oh, that’s a different language. They speak it at home. You don’t have to learn it. Hindi is enough.’ It’s almost like they were saying, ‘That’s their little dialect in the home, but they surely know the language of wider communication.’”
That assumption could not have been further from the truth. One of the men from Seed Company flipped open his ThinkPad and pulled up a list of world languages. When he typed in A-N-G-I-K-A, four lights showed up. As Dr. Alex excitedly asked what that many lights meant next to that language, he got the answer that still amazes him today.
Top priority in the world.
“I’m looking at that screen, and I’m saying, ‘My goodness. Four lights. So long I have been here, and I can’t believe that in my own backyard, I’m sitting among people whose language is considered a top priority of the world!’” he says. “I wanted to get under the table. I was so ashamed of myself. I learned the painful truth that it’s not about us, or our work. It’s about lives being changed, and God getting the glory. At best, we’re unworthy servants.”
Within three months, he had already partnered with Seed Company and 30 leaders from different parts of the region. It was a fine start! But, with the exception of one SIL missionary, no one had experience working with languages. When they first started meeting, they weren’t even sure where to begin. But before long, the group had identified six languages being spoken by over 100 million people in this region of Northern India. Three of them had no Scripture at all.
“Is that fair, or what? They didn’t even have Scripture on an audio device to hear God’s Word. Yet maybe dozens of ministers were using Hindi, and preaching in Hindi, and singing Hindi songs, and reading the Hindi Bible.” Dr. Alex shakes his head at the memory of it. But, together with his new partners in the field and Seed Company, he resolved to change all that.
Translation Takes Off
Translation teams began crafting 25 Bible stories, four to five minutes in length, in each of the six languages. That’s 125 minutes of content in their own languages. Would it make a difference?
After only one month, thousands of people from more than 500 villages had heard—and understood—the gospel message.
“I sat there, and I said to myself, ‘I have never, ever seen this. What has happened? Certainly, there must be God in this. Certainly, there’s something right in this … some power in it … some acceleration,’” he explains. “I said to my assistant pastor, ‘My goodness, we’d better learn this language. What is this happening in front of us?’ [It was] as if you put a key in the ignition and suddenly had power. Suddenly, there was this dynamite … this conviction … this thought that the language means a lot to these people.
“For me, as a cross-cultural missionary, even though I thought that the language of wider communication was okay, it wasn’t okay. That was the day of my conversion. I understood that this is the way God speaks … not in an alien language, but in the language of the heart.”
Over the last 20 years of ministry, Dr. Alex has seen a great deal of pain, and he has heard from his share of critics. They tell him that his approach is not practical, that it takes too much money to translate Scripture into so many different heart languages. But his response never wavers.
“The only thing I can say to them is, ‘May God change your heart as He has changed mine.’ In 10 years of working and translating the Scriptures, I have yet to meet a person who came to me and said, ‘Alex, you’re wasting your time; don’t do this in my language.’ Not even one. I hear just the opposite. Whenever we do something in their language, they say, ‘Thank you for doing this. Thank you.’”