Multilingual Education (MLE) and First Bible Translation Projects – How does Multilingual Education (MLE) facilitate First Bible Translation Projects?

Eberhard Werner



Abstract 1

1 Introduction. 1

2 First Bible Translation Projects – Contexts 2

3 Understanding Multilingualism and Multilingual Education. 4

3.1 Motivation for MLE programmes 5

3.2 Identity, the Self and Multilingualism.. 5

3.3 Special audience of MLE – Children. 6

4. First Bible Translations and MLE Programmes 6

4.1 MLE programmes – Project Planning. 7

4.2 MLE – Literacy and Language Development 8

5. Conclusion – MLE and Bible Translation. 10

References 10




We are concerned with the sustainable use of what we call First Bible Translation Projects within Christian Development agencies. Too many Bible translations and their sub-products were never used, due to the lack of a church, of reading capacity or of education in general. Multilingual education is a discipline that supports mastering the mother tongue as well as the language of wider communication (trade or national language). Thus, writing and reading skills are trained as well as the use of written products. Religious texts are often welcome to serve the task of transition material from one language to another. This is where Bible translation comes in with its oral and written aspects. The lively historical stories and a common theme from the very beginning of creation to an eternal future offer a variety of genres. Language development as a sub-discipline of Bible translation offers support for languages that are on the edge of extinction in developing strategies like Multilingual Education (MLE) for survival. MLE itself follows early-exit as well as multilingual approaches. Literature as the overall discipline of MLE contains linguistics, pedagogy, anthropology and Scripture engagement, and supports the development of MLE programmes. All these sub-disciplines together allow for a successful interplay between the science of Bible translation and Multilingual Education. In this article we will discuss a strategic approach that would combine both disciplines.

1 Introduction

The early days of multilingual education (MLE) reach back to the year 1953 when UNESCO emphasised the use of the vernacular language1UNESCO 1953. The Use of the Vernacular Languages in Education. France. Online: URL: [PDF-File] [accessed 2021-11-10]. The volume presents articles from specialists that gathered in November 1951 in Paris to discuss a continental survey on the use of the vernacular language including all five continents. Discussed were different pilot projects in vernacular education. in education projects. Close to forty years later, in 1990, the World Conference on Education for All, which took place in Jomtien, Thailand, marked another cornerstone in the formation of MLE programmes. At that conference, delegates from 155 countries agreed to make primary education accessible to all children and to reduce illiteracy around the world (UNESCO, 2015). As a further step, in 1999 an annual Mother-Tongue Day on the 21st February was established. Also, during these developments human language was recognised as an intangible living cultural heritage of humanity.2UNESCO 2008. Intangible Cultural Heritage. Living Heritage and Mother Languages. Online: URL: [accessed 2021-11-06]. The awareness rose after it was recognised that globalisation, digitalisation and huge migration movements oriented towards employment increased language death and led to multilingualism, leaving only a few largely spoken languages of wider communication. The document, “The mother tongue dilemma”, from 2003, reflects the economic and social impasse that nation states experience, if large social groups are less or un-educated (see also Kosonen 2013).3UNESCO 2003. The mother tongue dilemma. New York: UNESCO. [accessed 2021-11-06]. However, none of these interventions brought the development of MLE much further forward. Only very local and small projects developed during the last 15 years.

We will first look at mother tongue and first language acquisition, as the research on these topics is central to the understanding of MLE and first Bible translation projects. Secondly, the meaning and function of first Bible translation projects comes into focus. Thirdly, the broad range of MLE strategies is of interest, and fourthly we see the interplay of both as combined attempts for mother tongue education.

2 First Bible Translation Projects – Contexts

First Bible translation projects aim to support a local church or a group of believers who have no, or limited, cognitive access to Bible translations from their surrounding languages. The first translation into their vernacular represents not just a religious document but is also a political statement, as the vernacular is expressed by an orthography and a product that is a representative genre as a piece of literature. The political stance is essentially what links MLE with first Bible translation projects.

First Bible translations in contexts where there is no Bible translation in the mother tongue are products of long-running linguistic and anthropological research. Why is this so?

First, the basic idea of MLE corresponds with first Bible translation programmes4First Bible translations, new Bible translations and revision Bible translations must be differentiated. New Bible translations and revisions are in contexts where there is at least one existing and used Bible translation. New Bible translations differ from revisions in so far as they do not follow the genre of a traditional Bible translation as revisions do, when they keep to a specific translation style, vocabulary, grammar use or phrasing. First Bible translations as part of the science of Bible translation therefore globally offer a huge field of experience in linguistics pragmatics, translation science, anthropology, pedagogy and psychology (Werner 2018:135-164). that start with the mother tongue, but hold to the language of wider communication or the national language with regard to reference Bibles, the language of glossaries, reference material or the involvement of supportive institutions.5For instance, Bibles in ‘Kurdish’ languages in Turkey, which belong to the Indo-Iranian language family, refer to Turkish Bibles and exegetical material, although Turkish is from the Turkic language family. The same with language learning material such as dictionaries, primers or reading products, which also refer to Turkish.

Second, a translation is only successful if the mother tongue idiom is well-researched, and phonological study, orthography and the oral recordings match the written text. Therefore nowadays computer programs like Scripture App Builder6Most common is Scripture App Builder a computer app from SIL International that very easily merges a written text with audio and makes them available in the App Store. Scripture App Builder. Dallas: SIL International. Online: URL:­scriptureappbuilder/ [accessed 2021-10-10]. offer text and audio together to reach illiterate as well as literate persons. Other tools like FieldWorks Language Explorer (FleX) support the phonological and morpho-syntactic analysis of a language.7FieldWorks Language Explorer. Dallas: SIL International. Online: URL: [accessed 2021-10-10]. FleX allows interlinearisation and builds up a lexicon during the interlinearisation. The linguistic analysis allows the description of the grammar, vocabulary and text discursive features of the language.

However, first Bible translations and a good linguistic analysis show only limited success and do not help languages on the edge of extinction.8A tool to describe language assessment is the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS) by Paul Lewis and Gary Simons, who expanded Fishman’s GIDS scale. On this scale the status of a language is described and put in the wider context of expectations of development- Most languages that are under a dominant national language for more than fifty years are in the area of 6b and “threatened”. The language is only used in family and not in the public realm. SIL International 2020. Language vitality 2020. Dallas: SIL International. Online: URL:­about/­endangered-languages/language-vitality [accessed 2021-10-10]. As the EGIDS scale reveals, it is important to focus on literacy and the use of the mother tongue as a written language for children to develop reading skills. By reading, ideas are expressed, discussed and taken further, traditions are fixed, and identity is built. Belonging and identity are central to a healthy ethnocentrism, which allows demarcation from “the other” and marks identity. Conscience is the main feature in this. It is built by enculturation and constitutes identity, the self and belonging (Käser 1998:130-131; Iurato 2015:8-81, 94).

In the process of Bible translation, the evaluation of the linguistic inventory of a mother tongue and the dictionary of that language are in focus. Bible translation encompasses many genres such as narrative, poetry or prose.

3 Understanding Multilingualism and Multilingual Education

Multilingual education, as the name states, is oriented towards multilingualism. It is based on the premise of “first-language-first”. Therefore MLE starts with the mother tongue, also called first language (L1), and transitions to the language of wider communication or a national language (L2).9The transition bridge from L1 to L2 starts with an introduction to L1, oral proficiency in L1, and well trained reading and writing skills, before moving over the bridge to focus on reading and writing in L2, oral proficiency in L2, literacy fluency in both languages, introduction in both and finally lifelong learning in both languages. SIL International 2015. Multilingual Education. Brochure. Dallas. Online: URL:­brochure­_2015_a4_­english_web.pdf [PDF-File] [accessed 2021-11-10]. Different conceptions of MLE projects are discussed. A standard MLE approach is led by the central government or local authority and is oriented towards vernacular languages (L1) that are different from the language of higher education and economics (L2). Due to the political system, MLE programmes, if introduced at all, range from early-exit transitional programmes to full bi- or multilingual school education systems. However, it is the mother tongue (L1) that is the focus in most programmes, and is, at least in the beginning, used as the language of instruction. Nonetheless, the language of wider use (L2) is central to the higher education system, which is why it is of interest to the combination with Bible translation attempts.

3.1 Motivation for MLE programmes

Historically, national school systems focus on only one language as the language of instruction. In countries with more than one national language this leads to different school systems, which adhere to one language of instruction, like a French school, a German school or an English school. Those who don’t speak the language of instruction are forced to learn the language to follow the lessons. In some cases this is enforced, in others the pupils are left on their own. Either way, if the pupils are not able to follow the instruction the danger of abandoning any educational achievement is high, or thus opportunities to enter the higher school system are also missed. Obviously, this not only affects the individual, who suffers the most by the loss, but also such a social system generates a lot of uneducated people that burden the economic system. If people are educated in their mother tongue they make the best use of their cognitive potential, and in so doing the encultured shared encyclopaedic knowledge, the mother tongue lexicon, and the perception of the world are easily accessed, and new ideas are more easily formed (Thomas & Collier 1997).

3.2 Identity, the Self and Multilingualism

Conscience and thought are the main driving forces of the self, the identity and the personality. All of them are only cultivated if the mother tongue is valued and allowed to be used and developed. It is easier for children to address two or more languages if one language is managed well. It is also easier to learn to read and write in the mother tongue than in any extra language. Thus, transition from a well-known orthography and writing system to another is easier than starting it all in a foreign language. An exception are bilinguals, who develop their own vocabulary and morpho-syntactical memory for each linguistic context. On the other hand, thought, conscience and the perception of the world are central and form identity and the self (Fabbro 1996: xii, 89-90).

3.3 Special audience of MLE – Children

The audience for MLE programmes is young children that recognise the difference in their mother tongue from the language of the news, their neighbours or that spoken by most people in their country. Training material for the first year is essentially produced for them. The interplay of the officials and the MLE conductor is central. UNESCO promotes MLE,10UNESCO has emphasised the importance of mother tongue since 1953. Mother Tongue Day was established as a reminder. UNESCO 2014. Multilingual Education. Why is it important? How to implement it? Online: URL: [accessed 2021-10-10]. and declares mother tongue to be a central piece of child education.11Malone developed a resource kit to evaluate MLE needs: MTB MLE resource Kit: Including the Excluded. She developed this kit to recognise the different parts and agents in MLE programmes. All nations were asked to join the mother tongue declaration, which most did. For this reason, training material must be approved by the national school officials. It must be in accordance with the training material of the national language pupils. However, the MLE training is aimed at avoiding extra workload for the pupils of a mother tongue which is not the national or language of wider communication, as this often leads to frustration. In some countries, the mother tongue training is held outside the normal school system. However, such an approach shows only limited success and does not help languages on the edge of extinction.

4. First Bible Translations and MLE Programmes

In Bible translation the mother tongue (L1) is the centre of attention. Starting with the phonological inventory, proposing an orthography, working through the morpho-syntactical and text discourse register, the transition to translation is an essential step to discover a mother tongue. The mother tongue speaker is the basic subject to guide these steps. They are the ones who know about their language best, although they may not be best in translation, if they do not understand the task of translation or are not able to work in a team.12Kiraly suggests a social-constructive approach in translation. The translators start to discuss their translation processes and their results and thereby focus on a mutual approach to reach the goal of a translation following the Skopos of the project (2000:4). The outcomes of first Bible translation approaches are also central to MLE and educational material like primers, first reading literature and audio-visual instructions on arts and other communicative expressions. Not only the written word, but also drawings, crafts, sculpture and music are foundational elements to express culture. Up to now the link between first Bible translations and MLE is essentially in the realm of linguistics and anthropology.

4.1 MLE programmes – Project Planning

First language acquisition is normally and globally finalised by children during their fourth year of life (Clark 2009:14). After this process, education in school should start with training in reading and writing and other learning experiences. Ideally, after the finalisation of the first language acquisition process, an MLE programme would be started for children. Multilingual persons and their developmental processes are discussed below.

Susan Malone published an MLE project planning tool for MLE projects (2010). She herself set up programmes and is experienced with different contexts, such as Papua New Guinea in 1991 (Malone 2010:3), Asia, Africa and the Pacific. Other examples and a focus on 11 Southeast Asian countries are presented by Kosonen and Young (2009).

MLE programmes have different levels of approximation by the language groups involved. An example of an 8-year programme is aimed at a language situation where functional bilingualism or multilingualism is needed (Malone 2010:17). This is often the case in large societies with many officially recognised languages.

There are some MLE programmes which aim at a 3-year transition, in cases where a mother tongue is not officially recognised, but flourishing at home, that is a level 6b on the EGIDS scale (see above). This is not highly recommended, and tends to occur in contexts with limited acceptance of MLE programmes. Such projects start reading and writing the mother tongue for one year in school (2010:16). In this first school year the national language or the language of wider communication is maximally used for 20% of instruction or as small-scale language learning material. School year one or grade one has the scope of training in the mother tongue to read and write at 80%. In the second school year a 50% transition to the national language or the language of wider communication starts by introducing the orthography and the phonemic system of the national language or the language of wider communication. Also, transitional material from the mother into the national language is provided. The other 50% is aimed at reading and writing the educational material of 2nd grade or school year in the mother tongue. In the third year, education moves to a transition of 80%, and only 20% in mother tongue education. School year four will join the national school system. It has to be emphasised that the regular educational school material of the 1st and 2nd school year needs to be in the mother tongue, whereas the 3rd school year mainly brings the pupils and the national language or the language of wider communication together. Thus, in MLE, the cognitive abilities were trained in the mother tongue to learn and manage language. The basic principles are always the same.

The early-exit MLE programmes are mentioned here, because they allow for a combination with first Bible translation projects if the vernacular (L1) is linguistically researched by a phonological and grammatical description. Still, we need to keep in mind that normal MLE programmes go for longer transitions. They start from the beginning of school and endure the whole school education time, leaving options to be trained in other languages.

The following overview shows the project plan:

Stage I – learning takes place entirely in the child’s home language.
Stage II – building fluency in the mother tongue. Introduction of oral L2.
Stage III – building oral fluency in L2. Introduction of literacy in L2.
Stage IV – using both L1 and L2 for lifelong learning.

4.2 MLE – Literacy and Language Development

Literacy is another discipline that is in focus with regard to MLE and Bible translation. The term describes the ability to read and write. Over the course of time, the academic discipline of literacy was concerned with processes of oral-aural perception and writing and reading, from a pedagogical, psychological and sociological point of view. In Bible translation the focus of literacy is on the fluency of reading and writing as well as the oral perception of spoken texts, so that the production of reading material like primers and transitional literacy or audio products for language learning comes into focus. Today apps like PrimerPro13PrimerPro 2020. Dallas: SIL International. Online: URL: [accessed 2021-10-10]. or Bloom14Bloom. Dallas: SIL International. Online: URL: [accessed 2021-10-10]. are easily set up to produce transition or reading material, based on local and contextualised material that can be easily built in (e.g. pictures, drawings, and songs). MLE, accompanied by these apps, helps mother tongue speakers to produce such material on their own. The availability and easy use of these apps make the language development process sustainable and financially independent. The products are all available online and can be used in different formats, such as PDF, Power Point presentations or video sequences.

Language development is firstly a term that describes first or mother-tongue language acquisition, and secondly it is an academic subject with a broad application. For our purposes, the focus is on language endangerment as the entangling force of language loss. Activities to slow down or hinder language loss would fall under the subject of language development. MLE offers a strong foundation and a transition bridge from a mother tongue to a national language or the language of wider communication (see picture Malone 2010:13). In this, the recognition of the mother tongue as a national or world heritage by the national government or UNESCO goes first. Secondly, the public awareness of the culture that overlays a mother tongue is raised by official language activities like MLE projects. MLE approaches also aim to bridge cultural differences between the mother tongue community and the national community. This is done firstly by the approach to both language groups in the school system, and secondly on the official level, by the reciprocal development of an MLE project by officials of both social groups. There will also be a linguistic approximation since both languages are public and will be mutually recognised, developed and used in specific contexts, without questioning the importance of a national language or the language of wider communication. The local use of a mother tongue within families or social groups is not in contradiction to the use of the national language for higher education and economic reasons.

5. Conclusion – MLE and Bible Translation

For many reasons Multilingual Education (MLE) is an important tool to manage different languages. The economic win for a society is by reaching out to larger social groups. MLE and first Bible translation projects have in common that the linguistic prerequisites go together. A thorough understanding of the language and culture is basic to translating and understanding a huge text like the Bible. At the same time, such understanding is also important for preparing material for MLE programmes. The overlap is in the interest to develop reading and writing skills in children and adults. The extra gain in MLE is that identity and a sense of belonging are built up and this leads to cognitive management of, at minimum, two languages. First Bible translation projects profit from capable mother tongue speakers, who would know how to write and read their language.


Clark, Eve V. 2009. First Language Acquisition. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fabbro, Franco 1999. The Neurolinguistics of Bilingualism: An Introduction. Hove: Taylor & Francis.

Iurato, Giuseppe 2015. A Brief Comparison of the Unconscious as Seen by Jung and Lévi-Strauss. Anthropology of Consciousness 26/1, 60–107. Arlington: American Anthropological Association.

Käser, Lothar 1998. Fremde Kulturen: Eine Einführung in die Ethnologie für Entwicklungshelfer und kirchliche Mitarbeiter in Übersee. 2. ed. Lahr: Liebenzeller Mission. [Engl.: Foreign Cultures: An Introduction to ethnology for overseas Development and Christian Aid workers.].

Käser, Lothar 2004. Animismus – eine Einführung in die begrifflichen Grundlagen des Welt- und Menschenbildes traditionaler (ethnischer) Gesellschaften für Entwicklungshelfer und kirchliche Mitarbeiter in Übersee. Bad Liebenzell: Liebenzeller Mission. [Engl.: Animism – An Introduction].

Kiraly, Don 2000. A Social Constructivist Approach to Translator Education. Empowerment from Theory to Practice. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Kosonen, Kimmo 2013. The use of non-dominant languages in education in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam: Two steps forward, one step back. In Carol Benson and Kimmo Kosonen (eds.): Language issues in comparative education, 39–58. Online: URL:­media/1624-language­-issues-in-comparative-education.pdf. [PDF-File] [accessed 2020-10-10].

Kosonen, Kimmo & Young, Catherine (eds.) 2009. Mother tongue as bridge language of instruction: policies and experiences in Southeast Asia. Bangkok: Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization

Lewis, M. Paul; Simons, Gary F. 2010. Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman’s GIDS. Revue roumaine de linguistique 55/2, 103–120. Online: URL: [PDF-File] [accessed 2020-10-10].

Malone, Susan 2010. Planning mother tongue based education programs in minority language communities: Resource manual for planning and implementing mother tongue-based education programs in non-dominant language communities. Dallas: SIL International. Online: URL: [PDF-File] [accessed 2020-09-04].

Malone, Susan 2018. MTB MLE resource Kit: Including the Excluded. 2nd ed. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Online: URL: [accessed 2020-09-04].

Schüle, Christian & Schneider, Christof 2010. Wie das Gedächtnis funktioniert. Die Grundlagen des Wissens. GeoKompakt 15, 61. Hamburg: Gruner & Jahr. [Engl.: How the memory functions.].

Wayne, P. Thomas & Collier, Virginia 1997. School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students. Resource Collection Series 9. Online: URL: [accessed 2020-11-20].

Werner, Eberhard 2011. Bibelübersetzung in Theorie und Praxis: Eine Darstellung ihrer Interdisziplinarität anhand der Ausbildungspraxis. Hamburg: Kovač. [English Translation: Werner, Eberhard 2013. The Mandate for Bible Translation – Models of Communication and Translation in Theory and Practice in regard to the Science of Bible Translation. Dallas: SIL International. Online: URL:… [PDF-File] [search for Eberhard Werner SIL] [accessed 2020-08-10].

Werner, Eberhard 2018. Erst-, Revisions- und Neubibelübersetzung – Ein Überblick und Perspektiven -, in Werner, Eberhard (ed.): Yearbook on the Science of Translation: 13th Forum Bible Translation 2017 – 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, 135-164. Nuremberg: VTR. [Engl.: First-, Revisions- and New Bible translations – An Overview and Perspectives.].


Online resources

Bloom. URL: [accessed 2020-11-30].

European General Data Protection Regulation 2018. [accessed 2020-11-30].

Fieldworks Language Explorer. URL: [accessed 2020-11-30].

PrimerPro 2020. Dallas: SIL International. Online: URL: [accessed 2020-10-10].

Scripture App Builder. Dallas: SIL International. Online: URL:­scriptureappbuilder/ [accessed 2020-10-10].

SIL International 2015. Multilingual Education. Brochure. Dallas. Online: URL:­english_web.pdf [PDF-File] [accessed 2020-11-10].

SIL International 2020. Language vitality 2020. Dallas: SIL International. Online: URL: [accessed 2020-10-10].

Scripture App Builder. URL:­builder/­Scripture-App-Builder-02-Building-Apps.pdf [accessed 2020-11-30].

UNESCO 1953. The Use of the Vernacular Languages in Education. France. Online: URL: [PDF-File] [accessed 2020-11-10].

UNESCO 2003. The mother tongue dilemma. New York: UNESCO. [accessed 2020-11-06].

UNESCO 2008. Intangible Cultural Heritage. Living Heritage and Mother Languages. Online: URL: [accessed 2020-11-06].

UNESCO 2014. Multilingual Education. Why is it important? How to implement it? Online: URL: [accessed 2020-10-10].


Keywords: bible translation, multilingualism ; children’s education ; pedagogy ; first bible translation ; educational factor ;