SIL International Takes a Serious Look at Multilingualism and Migration

By Steve Quakenbush, Ph.D., Global Scripture Access Services Director and MUSE Task Force Chair SIL International

In a world increasingly characterized by global connectivity and massive movements of people, SIL International is taking a serious look at how multilingualism and migration are impacting the ways we work and the kinds of goals we set. We are seeing that our perspective can be limited by an exclusive focus on heritage or local languages, which we sometimes uncritically refer to as “the language of the heart.”

Considering that the majority of the world speaks more than one language, and that many individuals, families and communities make extensive use of different languages for different functions, it becomes problematic to assume that one language (only) will always and uniquely define and meet the communication needs of a given community. Similarly, it seems problematic to assume that every language represents the same kind of “Bible translation need.” To help us understand the global situation better and to begin translating learning into action, SIL has established a task force on MUSE (Multilingualism, Urbanization and Scripture Engagement). The task force has identified the following set of Five Basic Ideas, which repeatedly surfaced at a global consultation held in Bangkok in March 2017:

  1. We need to recognize that effective Scripture engagement for multilingual people and communities will likely involve multilingual, multimodal (oral, written, artistic, mediated, etc) strategies and products.
  2. We need a greater awareness and understanding of our own core value of “language of the heart.”
  3. We need to consider what effective Scripture Engagement looks like for the range of profiles of multilingual speakers and communities in their varying contexts.
  4. If Jesus is our model for life and ministry, it is noteworthy that he used more than one language depending on the context.
  5. While we recognize SIL’s focus needs to remain on language-related service, we want our efforts to be situated as part of a broader concern for the overall well-being of people who speak those languages.

The MUSE task force is developing awareness and training materials on how issues of multilingualism, urbanization and migration can impact meaningful engagement with Scriptures, with practical implications for language program design. For instance, every active Bible translation program would likely benefit from asking basic questions like these:

  • What characterizes the community this translation is meant to serve?
  • What other languages are relevant for this community in its broader context?
  • How widespread is this community (due to issues of migration for whatever cause)?”

SIL continues to learn in dialogue with partners such as NextMove, a network of agencies learning together about diaspora ministry. We are seeing that diaspora communities, in particular, represent special needs and opportunities for Bible translation and engagement, and we are asking what kind of new organizational structures or processes might help us engage more effectively with diaspora communities.

Together with the Pike Center for Integrative Scholarship, SIL’s MUSE task force is sponsoring a symposium on “Language and Identity in a Multilingual, Migrating World,” scheduled for May 2018 in Penang, Malaysia. A volume of published proceedings is planned as one enduring contribution from the symposium. For more information on the symposium or other aspects of the work of the MUSE task force, please contact

This article is submitted by Jeff Moody of Frontier VenturesFrontier Ventures is a Missio Nexus member. Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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