Mother Tongue Translation versus Lingua Franca: Some Thoughts on a Missiological Mainstay

Bible translation has been an integral part of Protestant mission. However, Wilson McMahon’s experience as a church planter among the Manobo people in Mindanao, coupled with his research, has led him to question the “translation principle” as an unassailable mainstay within mission strategy. This paper briefly reviews the importance of Bible translation in the past 200 years, the values which have driven it forward, and the principles which shaped its practice. It then presents the responses to vernacular translations of the Bible by Manobo Christians and by Christians from other Lumad people groups on Mindanao.



Wilson McMahon and his wife Irene are from Northern Ireland and have served with OMF as church planters among the Manobo of southern Philippines and as regional directors for OMF in Ireland. More recently Wilson has been working to complete a PhD at the University of Edinburgh as well as serving with Irene as tutors at All Nations Christian College in England. They plan to return to the Philippines in 2019.



Mother Tongue Translation versus Lingua Franca: Some Thoughts on a Missiological Mainstay

Mission Round Table

Vol. 13 No. 2 (May-Aug 2018): 34-39

Bible translation has been an integral part of Protestant mission worldwide since the beginning of the nineteenth century and has become, for the most part, an accepted maxim of good missionary practice. However, my own experience as an OMF church planter among the Manobo people in the southern Philippines’ island of Mindanao, coupled with my own more recent research, has led me to challenge the “translation principle” as an unassailable mainstay within mission strategy.

In explaining my position I shall begin with a brief résumé of the importance of Bible translation to Christian mission in the past 200 years, paying particular attention to the “professionalization” of Bible translation in the latter half of the twentieth century, the values which have driven it forward, and the principles which have shaped its practice. I shall then present the responses to vernacular translations of the Bible by Manobo Christians from the Manobo Bible Church Association of Mindanao (MABCAM), and by Christians from other Lumad[1]people groups on Mindanao, using data gathered in interviews and sermon recordings.[2] I shall conclude with some thoughts on the place of Bible translation as a supposed non-negotiable element to good missionary practice.

Bible translation and mission

The modern missionary movement began with Bible translation at its heart. William Carey, who arrived in India in 1793, along with his colleagues Joshua Marshman and William Ward, gave primacy to Bible translation within their mission polity at Serampore. By 1826, the team at Serampore had finished six translations of the complete Bible and 24 partial translations.[3] As a component of Protestant mission, Bible translation gained additional momentum with the birth of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) in 1804 along with advances in printing technology.[4] The BFBS, and other subsequently formed national Bible societies, provided financial assistance to missionary translation projects and subsidised the printing costs of new translations, allowing them to be sold where they were needed at a price people could afford. In turn, the Protestant missionary movement ensured the success and longevity of the Bible societies. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries missionaries were constantly moving into regions of the world that remained unevangelised and in need of new translations of the Scriptures. Additional impetus was given to Bible translation in the twentieth century with the official incorporation in 1942 of the dual organisation Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT)-Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) under the leadership of William Cameron Townsend. Unlike the Bible societies, the SIL did not, and still does not, publish Bibles but maintains a single-minded commitment to translation in languages where no Scriptures are available and where there is no church.[5]

In short, the past 200 plus years of Bible translation has helped make the Bible accessible in thousands of languages. According to the latest statistics compiled by Wycliffe Global Alliance, Scriptures are available in 3,312 languages, with the complete Bible having been translated into 670 languages, the New Testament (or more) into 1,521 languages, and selections and stories in 1,121 languages as of October 2017.[6]

Bible translation was motivated in large part by the huge confidence western Christians held in the power of the Scriptures to effect the Christianization of communities across the world. Integral to this confidence was the conviction that the Scriptures must be accessible in the mother tongue of the listeners and/or readers, a principle that has always been at the heart of WBT-SIL. In the early decades, SIL was influenced by the linguistic and anthropological scholarship of men like Eugene Nida and Ken Pike. Nida was extremely influential in convincing missionaries and Bible translators of the importance of using the mother tongue in translation. In his 1961 book, Bible Translating, Nida declared that “the closer the form of the Bible is to the speech of a people, the easier it is for them to understand it, and the more readily the message may become a part of their life. The Bible in a people’s own idiom has a dynamic appeal to the inner thought and life.”[7] For Nida, a natural corollary to this principle was that effective evangelism and the growth of an indigenous church were also more likely to follow a mission strategy that prioritised the use of mother tongue Scriptures.[8]

Over and above these well-established reasons for privileging the vernacular Scriptures is the theological case for doing so as famously advocated by Professor Lamin Sanneh of Yale Divinity School in his book, Translating the Message. Sanneh argues that Christianity has become a universal faith because it is essentially a translatable religion. Being translatable allows Christianity to be affirming toward receptor cultures and to “enter into each cultural idiom fully enough to commence a challenging and enduring engagement.”[9]

In assessing the specific value of Bible translation, however, Sanneh moves beyond its obvious benefits for reader comprehension and church expansion and, with specific reference to Africa, contends that mother tongue Scriptures ignited new indigenous aspirations for African Christians, increased their sense of self-worth, and overturned missionary assumptions about the normative superiority of the missionaries’ European culture.[10]

In summary, the twentieth century was a season of growth for Bible translation. When OMF missionaries began church planting on Mindanao among the Manobo in the mid 1970s, it was in response to an invitation from SIL. By this stage, SIL had already been actively translating the New Testament into the languages of the indigenous people groups of the southern Philippines for more than twenty years. To date, SIL workers have completed the translation of the New Testament into 27 of these languages and, for a number of these, the translation of the Old Testament is currently underway.[11] As the task of Bible translation progressed, the SIL leadership looked to partner with mission agencies whose priorities were evangelism and church planting, hence the invitation to OMF. The partnerships were begun with the expectation that when agencies like OMF began to evangelise, they would make use of the vernacular translations that SIL personnel were producing. In light of this, we will briefly consider how mother tongue translations of the Bible have fared among MABCAM members.

Mother tongue translators working on portions of the Tadyawan scriptures


MABCAM members and the vernacular Scriptures

MABCAM currently has churches within the Ata, Matigsalug, Pulanguihon, Talaingod, Tigwa, and Umayamnon Manobo and also among the Dibabawon people.[12] Today there are completed New Testaments in Ata (printed in 2000), Dibabawon (printed in 1977), and Matigsalug (printed in 2011) and Scripture portions available in the Tigwa Manobo and Umayamnon languages. The following is a summary of MABCAM members’ usage of mother tongue translations of the Bible uncovered in my fieldwork.

Interviews with literate MABCAM members about their Bible reading preferences showed that 79% of those interviewed preferred to read the Bible in the lingua franca translation—Cebuano.[13] A total of 83% of those interviewed preferred to read Cebuano and/or English translations instead of the Manobo Scriptures. When interviewees were asked why they preferred the Cebuano translation for personal study, two main reasons were expressed. Firstly, difficulty with reading the Manobo translation accounted for 45% of the reasons for choosing an alternative. “I have a Manobo Bible,” said one, “but the Manobo is longer. It takes a longer time to say something.” “I prefer the Cebuano,” said another, “I can get lost reading the Manobo.”

Secondly, the unavailability of Manobo translations accounted for 29% of the reasons respondents did not read one. This suggests that, from their perspective, there has not been adequate promotion or distribution of these Bibles. The remaining 26% simply responded that they were used to the Cebuano and preferred it.

If we consider the data from sermons and adult Sunday school lessons, there was some variation in the use of language by MABCAM preachers. The most popular configuration is to read the Bible in Cebuano and preach using Manobo with 61% opting for this. The next most popular configuration is to read in Cebuano and preach in Cebuano, which is preferred by 26% of Bible teachers. By combining these figures, we see that 91% of those surveyed prefer to read from the Cebuano Bible as they preach or teach. Only one preacher out of the 23 recorded opted to both read the Bible and preach using the Manobo language. However, with regard to the medium of instruction, a strong majority of 70% prefer to teach and preach exclusively using their mother tongue.

The use of vernacular Scriptures elsewhere on Mindanao

To eliminate the possibility that MABCAM members’ use of Scripture might be an isolated case, I investigated Scripture use among indigenous Christians from other people groups on Mindanao who are not members of MABCAM: (1) the Sarangani Blaan people of southern Mindanao, (2) the Dulangan Manobo of western Mindanao, (3) the Obo Manobo of central Mindanao, (4) the Matigsalug Manobo of central Mindanao, and (5) the Agusan Manobo of northern Mindanao. I travelled to the regions of Mindanao where each of these people groups reside and spent time interviewing church leaders and/or Bible translators. Christians among all of these groups have access to a translation of the NT in their mother tongue and some to portions of the OT.

Church leaders among the Sarangani Blaan reported that in 1980, when the NT was first published, Blaan was the dominant language of use among Blaan Christians and within their churches. Since then, however, the scene has changed and they admitted that many Blaan Christians have Blaan, Cebuano, and English translations of the Bible in their homes and that it is uncertain which translation they prefer. They also believe that the majority of pastors are now using the Cebuano Bible for preaching and teaching. Only one of the three leaders I interviewed admitted to using the Blaan Bible for his own personal study or sermon preparation. Nevertheless, these leaders were generally positive about the place of the indigenous Blaan language among their churches and made reference to the presence of good Blaan songwriters within Blaan-speaking congregations and their preparations for translating the OT into Blaan.

Investigations into Scripture use among the Obo, Matigsalug, and Agusan Manobo revealed that all three of the NT translations available to Christians within these groups are seriously underused. Those interviewed said that the Cebuano translation of the entire Bible was generally the preferred option within congregations, and that as translators and church leaders they were committed to Scripture Engagement programmes with a view to educating local churches on the value of owning, reading, and studying copies of the Bible in their mother tongue.[14]

In contrast to this scenario of declining interest in the use of vernacular translations of the Bible is the example of Christians among the Dulangan Manobo in western Mindanao. The Dulangan Manobo NT was completed in 1988 and is still the only translation being used in the more than 100 Dulangan-speaking congregations. “We feel close to our language,” said one of the Dulangan leaders. “Our young people also read the Manobo Bible, even though they attend school.” The story of Bible translation and the current standing of the Dulangan NT is remarkable. The Dulangan church leaders and Bible translators believe the dominant role of the Dulangan language and Bible in church life has been the critical factor in the numerical growth and maturity of Dulangan Manobo churches.

In summing up the findings from data on Mindanao, it would appear that, with the exception of the Dulangan Manobo Christians, there is a general disinterest in the use of mother tongue Scripture among Lumad Christians on the island.

Analysing the data

The general disinterest in vernacular translations of the Bible among MABCAM members and Christians from other indigenous people groups can be attributed to what we might describe as the “Visayanization” of Mindanao’s Lumad cultural space.[15] We shall consider four factors that influence this process.

1. Demographics

The irruption of settlers into the world of Mindanao’s cultural minorities, particularly since World War II, has led to mixed-ethnic communities of Lumad and Visayan settlers developing in the island’s hinterlands, which in turn has led to intermarriage and other forms of cultural assimilation. Anicia Del Corro, translation consultant to the Philippine Bible Society, has shown that increased connectedness between Philippine indigenous people and those from a national language group can bring on what she calls “accelerated language change” within the minority language and even lead to language loss.[16]

2. The influence of schools

The power of education to impact language use among indigenous Christian communities is also a by-product of the Visayanization of the Lumad heartlands. Areas of interior Mindanao settled by Visayans very quickly became the locations for new schools. The Philippine state’s provision of schools in these more remote sections of the island was naturally available to the children of Lumad and settler families alike, and became another potent element in the cultural upheaval absorbed by Lumad communities. The language of the classroom has always been that of the majority people and those interviewed from all the above groups referred to the importance of fluency in Cebuano if their children are to gain an education.

​​​​​​  At the dedication of the Tadyawan Scripture portions in 2004

3. The training of church leaders

Generally speaking, student pastors from within Lumad communities are trained in Cebuano and/or English, which, according to those interviewed, has a profound effect on language attitudes among pastors and within congregations. This is a feature of ecclesial life among indigenous communities that has its origins in the Visayanization process, but has also been helped along in the past by foreign missionary polities. The effects of these policies means that leaders, trained under these circumstances, are less inclined to use vernacular translations of Scripture when teaching or preaching and struggle to explain biblical concepts using indigenous terminology. OMF’s training programme among the Manobo was centred at a Manobo Bible school and Manobo language was used as the medium of instruction. Even so, OMF missionaries still preferred to teach the Bible using the Cebuano translation.

4. The challenge of the translated Bible

A considerable number of those consulted mentioned difficulty reading the vernacular text of Scripture. This enigma can, in part, be traced to the influence of Visayanization. Del Corro draws attention to how “accelerated change” within a spoken language may not be reflected in the language of a particular Bible translation. The ramifications of this are that as a spoken language changes, the language of religious text remains static and can sound archaic to a modern reader. Proximity to settler populations and a language that holds out the offer of increased prestige are two potent factors, according to Del Corro, that lead to accelerated change within a language.[17] Translations of the NT that take longer than ten years to complete can be overtaken by change. Words and phrases from the indigenous language drop out of use while vocabulary and idiomatic expressions from the lingua franca are assimilated into the everyday speech of the minority people. This explains why some Christians within MABCAM churches, and those surveyed within the wider context of Mindanao, expressed difficulty in reading translations of the Bible in their mother tongue. In addition to the factor of language change, the level of difficulty involved in reading a vernacular translation can also be traced to the latter having arrived later on the scene, long after a lingua franca Bible has become “dug-in” and established as being the only authoritative and legitimate version. Smalley draws our attention to this very dilemma for the mother tongue translator: “A new translation in a new language . . . may be rejected because it does not literally match the translation in the dominant language of the area, even if [clearer] and more accurate.”[18]

The issue of prestige was also implicitly referred to by some of the participants as a factor in the choice of Bible translation. Mariana Slocum, who was involved in the translation of the New Testament into the Paez language in Colombia, insists that prestige is a vital component in promoting use of a newly introduced vernacular translation,[19] and Smalley points out that people will switch to other languages “for more prestigious purposes like education, writing or public expression without resentment or threat to their identity as speakers of the lower language in the hierarchy for local, informal situations.”[20] The motivational power of prestige could be detected in participants’ references to the importance of fluency in Cebuano for education and the admission that indigenous Christians who had graduated from tertiary education preferred to read and teach from a Cebuano or English translation of the Bible.

In light of the above, how do we account for the loyalty Dulangan Manobo Christians demonstrate towards their mother tongue Scriptures? In short, the Dulangan did not experience Visayanization to the same degree as the other indigenous peoples that I consulted. Though the Dulangan, as with Lumads in other regions of Mindanao, endured the impact of immigrant settlers and loggers arriving in the 1960s, the violent nature of this encounter led them to reject assimilation and move on to settle in areas where no immigrants had as yet penetrated.[21] This lack of an interface with Visayan settler culture rendered them more immune to being Christianised by Visayan evangelists and becoming fluent in the Cebuano language. When they began to respond positively to Christianity it was through literacy classes, begun in the mid 1970s, in which they were taught to read their own language using Dulangan portions of the Scriptures as reading materials. From the beginning, the only Bible that Dulangan Christians were familiar with was the Bible in their mother tongue.

In summing up this section, it seems clear that a confluence of factors, linked with the wider cultural trend of Visayanization, have engendered language change among the Lumads of Mindanao. Despite a continued commitment to conversing with each other in their mother tongue, the upheaval of language change for Lumad Christians has resulted in a preference for reading and teaching the Bible in the Cebuano language. How, therefore, do these findings impact the long-cherished partnership between mission and Bible translation?

Reflections on mission and Bible translation

The struggle to establish vernacular Bible translations at the centre of ecclesial life among the Lumad Christian communities of Mindanao reveals that indigenous Christians will not inevitably opt for a mother tongue translation of the Bible if it is available. This state of affairs is not unique to Mindanao, as the very existence of the SIL Scripture Engagement scheme highlights.

An example of a translation of the Bible in a minority language suffering similar vicissitudes within a changing cultural context is that of the Scottish Gaelic Bible. Following its completion in 1801, Protestant missionaries evangelised in the Highlands of Scotland using the Gaelic Bible and Gaelic-speaking evangelists. The success of this mission was in turn reinforced by the formation of Gaelic school societies which taught highlanders of all ages to read the Gaelic Bible and were, according to Donald Meek, probably “the most powerful of all missionary forces within the Highlands.”[22] Nevertheless, despite the strong link established between evangelical spirituality in the Highlands and Gaelic language, Meek declares that in the mid-1990s the need to use Gaelic in Highland churches had declined, Gaelic-essential charges had vanished from mainland Scotland, and the Highland churches were, for the most part, not resisting this “erosion of language.”[23] If one takes time to study what has led to the erosion of the Gaelic language, the critical factors involved are remarkably similar to those that have stimulated language change among the Manobo and other Lumad groups on Mindanao.

What must be borne in mind, however, is that these examples from the Scottish Gaelic and Mindanao contexts also reveal that having access to the Bible in one’s mother tongue is not an essential ingredient for a positive response to the gospel. The history of evangelization by Christian Missionary and Alliance missionaries among the Sarangani Blaan in the 1930s to 1940s reveals how Blaan people responded to the gospel in large numbers, decades before translation work began on the NT. There was a strong Blaan church in existence previous to the translation of the Blaan NT and, even as the Blaan translation is now losing ground to Cebuano and English translations, there was no suggestion from the Blaan church leaders that there has been a decline in Blaan churches that paralleled declining interest in reading the Blaan Scriptures. Similarly, the declining popularity of the Gaelic Bible is not in itself indicative of a declining Christianity within the Scottish Highlands.

In a similar vein, there is no iron-clad logic connecting a reading of the Bible in one’s mother tongue and a deeper, more transparent comprehension of the text. My examination of data from MABCAM Bible readers has shown that Manobo Christians are vigorous students of the Cebuano Bible and their comprehension of it is not handicapped by their preference for the Bible in the lingua franca. Kenneth Nehrbass, an SIL translator, in a 2014 issue of The Bible Translator, reports how he designed and conducted an experiment to test the validity of the maxim that “speakers who are fluent in a vernacular and language of wider communication (LWC) will inevitably understand the Scriptures better in their ‘heart language.’”[24] Nehrbass conducted his experiment among the southwestern Tanna-speaking people of Vanuatu for whom the trade language was Bislama. His conclusion was that “multilingual speakers can work out the meaning equally in the LWC or vernacular,” and contra Nida’s declaration, “they have an overall more positive experience reading and answering questions in the LWC.”[25] Nehrbass does not, of course, advocate downgrading the importance of translation into the vernacular. He does, however, recommend discarding the heart-language argument as a reason for vernacular Bible translations and admits that, “Despite ‘vernacular education movements’ many language communities will never use their written mother tongues to the same degree they use the written lingua franca. In most countries, a strong education is one that fosters literacy in the LWC.”[26]


In light of the above, what then of Sanneh’s thesis mentioned above? We would do well to remember that Sanneh’s context is Africa and in Translating the Message he consistently reminds his readers of that reality. Vernacular Bible translation in Africa had to compete with the colonial European languages of domination, and less frequently with other African majority languages.[27] The appeal and power of mother tongue Bible translations in Africa was its elevation of the dignity and potential of the local culture over against a colonial narrative that endorsed the superiority of European language and culture. On Mindanao, Cebuano is the language of a separate ethnic group that holds the reins of power on the island. Its resemblance to a foreign power is more ambiguous. It is undoubtedly a closely related Philippine language that is easy to learn, provides the opportunity for wider communication within a multiethnic environment, and is a prestige language that offers educational and employment opportunities for the rising generation of young Manobos.

Orville Carlson presents the first Lisu Bible to a Lisu Christian from Burma (Northern Thailand, 1968)

In comparing Sanneh’s conclusions with those of this paper, the critical factor is the context, and it is the context that is vital in providing the conclusions of this paper. I wish to state very clearly that I am not advocating or predicting an end to mother tongue translations of Scripture. Undoubtedly, several readers of this article have lived experience of the crucial place a vernacular translation of the Bible has played in the spiritual life of the communities in which they serve. An important example of this is the vital place that the Bible printed in the Fraser script still occupies among Lisu Christians in southwest China.[28] This is only one example among many of the crucial role that Bible translations in indigenous languages continues to play. What I believe my own research and wider reading suggest is that absolutizing the “translation principle” is not a sustainable option for mission strategy. The potential of a mother tongue translation of the Bible should be determined by context and, in particular, how indigenous peoples interact with their LWC, rather than by uncritical loyalty to a supposedly inviolable principle.


[1] The term Lumad refers to the indigenous, non-Muslim peoples of Mindanao.

[2] This data was gathered by the author over a four-month period of fieldwork in Mindanao between October 2014 and April 2015.

[3] E. Daniel Potts, British Baptist Missionaries in India 1793 –1837: The History of Serampore and Its Missions (Cambridge: CUP, 1967), 81.

[4] William A. Smalley, Translation as Mission: Bible Translation in the Modern Missionary Movement (Georgia: Mercer University, 1991), 27.

[5] Philip C. Stine, Let the Words Be Written: The Lasting Influence of Eugene A. Nida (Atlanta, Ga: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 23–24; Boone Aldridge, For the Gospel’s Sake: The Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Studies in the History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

[6] Wycliffe Global Alliance, “Scripture and Language Statistics 2017,” (accessed 25 July 2018).

[7] Eugene A. Nida, Bible Translating: An Analysis of Principles and Procedures, with Special Reference to Aboriginal Languages, rev. ed. (London: United Bible Societies, 1961), 32.

[8] “The Bible in the language of the people has proved to be the primary and fundamental prerequisite for an indigenous church . . . no really successful indigenous work has ever been accomplished without some of the Bible in the local language.” Nida, Bible Translating, 35.

[9] Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact of Culture, 2nd ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008), 73.

[10] Sanneh, Translating the Message, 193.

[11] It is worth remembering that SIL field workers are also responsible for the production of literacy primers and training schemes that have taught multitudes of Mindanaons to read. They have also produced alphabets, dictionaries, and songbooks in the mother tongue for several of Mindanao’s minority peoples.

[12] The Dibabawon do not consider themselves Manobo but are very similar in terms of culture and language.

[13] Cebuano is the language of wider communication for the majority of Mindanao’s provinces.

[14] Scripture Engagement is a programme within SIL that helps “language communities consider and plan for access to Scripture in the languages and media that serve them best.” (accessed 10 July 2018).

[15] The twentieth century witnessed large-scale migration of settlers from the Visayan islands of the central Philippines to Mindanao. The term “Visayan” has become a general term for referring to the dominant lowland-dwelling people for the majority of the island’s provinces.

[16] Anicia Del Corro, “Bible Translation Overtaken by Change,” The Bible Translator 66, no. 3 (2015): 302, 309.

[17] Del Corro, Bible Translation, 302.

[18] Smalley, Translation as Mission, 85.

[19] Mariana Slocum, “Goal: Vernacular Scriptures in Use. A Case Study from the Paez of Colombia,” (accessed 10 July 2018).

[20] Smalley, Translation as Mission, 142.

[21] Douglas M. Fraiser, “Loggers, Settlers and Tribesmen in the Mountain Forests of the Philippines: The Evolution of Indigenous Social Organization in Response to Environmental Invasions” (PhD thesis, University of Florida, 2007), 82-107. This thesis can be downloaded at (accessed 14 July 2018).

[22] Donald E. Meek, The Scottish Highlands: The Churches and Gaelic Culture (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996), 28-29.

[23] Meek, The Scottish Highlands, 39.

[24] Kenneth Nehrbass, “Do Multilingual Speakers Understand the Bible Best in Their Heart Language? A Tool for Comparing Comprehension of Translations in Vernacular Languages and Languages of Wider Communication,” The Bible Translator 65, no. 1 (2014): 88.

[25] Nehrbass, “Multilingual Speakers,” 100.

[26] Nehrbass, “Multilingual Speakers,” 103.

[27] “Protestant missions in their translation work made mother tongues the centrepiece of mission. This involved the abandonment of European languages and of alliance with the commercial monopolies of the West, and a commitment to indigenous priorities.” Sanneh, Translating the Message, 162.

[28] Aminta Arrington, “Hymns of the Everlasting Hills: The Written Word in an Oral Culture in Southwest China” (PhD thesis, Biola University, 2014).

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