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July 18, 2017Missiology

Literacy, Orality, and the Web (Part Two)

What oral communication can accomplish in Bible translation projects that print communication alone cannot
Literacy, Orality, and the Web (Part Two)

Read Literacy, Orality, and the Web, Part One (How to Make an Oral Preference Society Prefer Reading).

What Scripture Communication Medium Should Come First?

Before going any further, let me say that suggesting a primarily oral society should remain in their primary oral communication situation is soft racism. People who promote this don’t realize that such a comment reveals racial bias. Some Africans interpret Western proponents of orality as “white people implying that Africans can be kept in a state of illiteracy because this is their natural and preferred state.” The goal of this article is to examine natural scripture distribution; it is about diffusion through multiple paths.

If we now understand the importance of oral scripture distribution, why do so many mission agencies still assume that printed scripture should precede oral scriptures? If they are supportive of non-print media in general, why do they still view those as secondary? There are a number of reasons.

First, it may be that print learners simply cannot conceive of how an oral medium can effectively and accurately transmit the scripture text. It is difficult for people from a print culture to believe people from an oral culture can learn and recall significant amounts of information with accuracy by just hearing it. This is one reason why literacy strategists believe reading is the only legitimate method for accessing scripture. Anything less would produce inconsistencies and inaccuracies because of memory lapses.

Literacy workers’ concern about accuracy may be well-founded if they assume verbatim retelling of a written text. However, this does not mean oral cultures are incapable of recalling important themes and concepts by hearing and repetition. Karl Franklin illustrates this tension in saying, “There are, undoubtedly, many variations of what someone means by an “oral translation.” For example, to some it means that the oral rendition must follow in detail a prior, written translation. To others, it means that native speakers have heard the stories a number of times and can spontaneously and without notes retell them.”

Addressing a print learner’s assumption about an oral learner’s memory retention, Walter Ong explains, “Thought and expression in oral cultures is often highly organized but calls for organization of a sort unfamiliar to and often uncongenial to the literate mind.” This does not suggest a person from an oral culture can listen to the Book of Genesis on a digital player one time and then remember the entire text. It takes repeated listening, just like a print learner goes back to the printed text to recall information. Brown explains:

A person from a print orientation might object, saying that the people need a book to look things up in, but…oral communicators don’t look things up; they retrieve them from their memory. The print-oriented person is amazed that an oral communicator can happily listen to a tape repeatedly, day after day, and even more amazed at how quickly he or she memorizes it. In oral cultures people easily memorize large portions of Scripture.

Repeated hearing and retelling is key in oral cultures. During the process of hearing, the oral learner recalls images from memory that help him or her to describe settings, situations, and actions important to the text. Apparently, print readers are not as good at making mental pictures of what they read. As Ong puts it, print readers are visually-oriented to the printed words, sounding them out in their mind as they read.

Second, Western mission agencies engage with the printed scripture differently. Being able to do an inductive Bible study with colorful highlighters can’t be done with an oral text. Word studies cannot be conducted either, if there are no printed texts to cross-reference. And how does one build a concordance of the Bible from an oral text anyway? These methods all assume Bible study can only be done one way. Yet oral cultures have applied inductive learning methods in other ways. I can’t comment on individual word studies, but studying the key concepts behind the key theological words does not seem to require a printed text.

If the goal of print-oriented literacy is primarily about seeing as many people as possible engaging with the translated scripture text, then oral communication—which comes in a variety of forms—holds the key. This does not mean literacy training for the purpose of reading should not be promoted at all. Rather, a variety of literacies that already exist within the oral culture apart from the Western framework need to be included.

Oral Scripture Distribution

Today, more people, including SIL academic leaders, recognize that people in primary oral societies more typically have a repertoire of languages and a range of literacies. Many now recognize that things such as oral communication and cultural knowledge are forms of literacy. Each form carries a unique role in the community.

For example, reading and writing literacy could be in the national language, whereas religious literacy may be in the local language distributed through oral means. The question is, which literacy forms help a scripture text to become more localized (i.e., the community views it as their text)? Do they see the distinct marks of foreign importation and adaptation, commonly associated with print scripture? Or do they view the text as having the look, feel, and sound of something naturally at home in their culture?

Anthony Pym writes, “The goal of localization is to get a maximum amount of information to a maximum amount of people.” To achieve this, he states that constraints on the movement of texts need to be removed. This thought suggests that communicating scripture through only one medium, such as print, impedes the movement of the text within its location. Sustained movement is the very thing that literacy training was meant to achieve, and as Pym says, it depends greatly on distribution, hence literacy workers’ desire to create more readers.

In this case, distribution does not mean scripture book sales. It means the scripture text is moving in and through the local culture and being assimilated in natural ways. In fact, Pym asserts that the notion of “localization” is replacing “translation” precisely in order to involve more language, cultural knowledge, and intuitive knowledge.

Who then, in primary oral cultures, are the scripture distributors, if they are not the sales people, readers, translators, or literacy workers? The answer is they are the oral Bible storytellers, the people who act out meaning through drama, and the poets. For the Meyah people of New Guinea, they are the songwriters who take their lyrics straight from the printed scriptures. The songs are naturally distributed by community members as they sing them in the gardens, at church gatherings, during celebrations, and in the dead of night when they are afraid. However, the Meyah people were doing this long before they had a printed Bible. The source text of their early scripture songs was missionary oral teaching. They were assimilating and distributing the gospel text this way one hundred years before they even had a way to write their language.

The Web as a Vehicle for Literacy and Orality

I mentioned earlier how some literacy workers wanted the oral learners they served to develop a cultural value of reading for learning, self-improvement, and even enjoyment. This goal can be quite challenging when oral learners don’t see the practical value of reading in their own language. More typically, they realize the importance of literacy in the national language for economic reasons or due to nationalization pressures. Now the process of globalization is pressuring oral societies to read. But it is more likely also providing additional ways to utilize their oral learning and communication skills.

There are few regions the Internet has not penetrated. In 2010, the global Internet-connected population exceeded two billion people, and mobile phone accounts already number over five billion. Easy access to the web and social media tools is creating a new dynamic for multi-media learning and communicating.

New media professor Clay Shirky writes: “The social uses of our new media tools have been a big surprise, in part because the possibility of these uses wasn’t implicit in the tools themselves.” Perhaps a surprise to Bible translators, church planters, and literacy workers is how the web and new media tools are providing ways for primary oral cultures to utilize their repertoire of languages and literacies.

For example, a BBC journalist reported how Zambian farmers were delighting over their new writing system. Their Shanjo language had never been written, and now it was like a miracle because they could begin to read in their own language. The journalist also casually mentioned at the end of the article why some of the teenagers were now motivated to read in their own Shanjo language, rather than the regional language—they commented that reading in Shanjo could improve their oral skills for “cutting songs and videos in Shanjo.”

Digital Tools to Save Language

Another BBC report highlighted how “small languages are using social media, YouTube, text messaging and various technologies to expand their presence.” With the help of a linguist, the speakers of these small languages have produced online “talking” dictionaries.

Desert Nomads Seek Cell Phone Towers

Another writer discussed how the web and social media has influenced where a group of nomads chose to set up camp. In the past, a source of water was the primary factor. Now, it is where they can find mobile phone coverage. Besides staying connected with their nomad friends, they use their phones to show videos of their exploits as an enhancement to their storytelling. They also share audio and visual media with one another.

Indian Web-Based Oral and Written Translation

In India, a remote community began experimenting with Bible translation as a web-based communal process. It seems literacy is a prerequisite for anyone doing translation this way. In the past, translation work was more exclusive, typically done by a small group of literate people.

With this community, both literate and non-literate people orally processed and, you could say, orally translated the text before converting it to typeface on the website. Community members working at another web hub read the web-based text out loud for the literate and non-literate people in their group to orally process. They improved the web-based text by applying the same process the first group used. Other community members worked directly with the written text over the web, offering improvements on spelling, choice of words, and sentence structure. This is a situation where the scripture text (i.e., meaning) was moving back and forth between oral and print media in apparently natural ways.

Print, Audio, and Visual Scripture for Everyone

Faith Comes By Hearing (FCBH) is known for their work in producing audio versions of the Bible in various languages. They are motivated by the fact that fifty percent of the world’s population is non-literate. To date, they have provided audio scriptures to 2.7 million people in over 627 languages. FCBH offers free access to audio Bibles through streaming and podcasts, while the Bible.is app for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices now offers access to audio text in more than 650 languages.

FCBH realizes the significance of the times. This is the first time in history when nearly anyone can access the printed, oral, and visual scriptures through the touch of a web app icon. In partnership with Bible translation and film agencies, their goal is to see that every language has access to the Bible in all three mediums via Facebook, Smart TV, SMS, computer terminals, and smartphones.


Web-based social media tools are bringing the written and oral text together in ways not seen since the development of the Greek alphabet, when the written text co-existed with the oral text for a time. How is the co-existence of oral and print media localizing the scripture text in natural ways?

During the past several decades, the primary goal of many literacy workers in Bible translation projects was to see as many people as possible engaging the printed scripture text in their mother tongue. Scripture access and distribution was of high importance in achieving the goal. Looking back, it seems apparent that focusing primarily on print distribution has not achieved that goal. Maybe this is simply because the people they served did not want to give up their cultural preference for learning and communicating important things through oral means.

Now that oral Bible storytelling, audio recording, and film dubbing are becoming more acceptable ways to communicate the scripture text, distribution of the text is occurring more naturally. It is as if all of the cultural literacies are being tapped to achieve what the literacy workers have wanted from the beginning. Oral learners are finding new ways to communicate important things through media they value most. They don’t need to give up those values in order to talk on another culture’s values. Social media may be Western technology, but the word “social” is key. The tools enable people to connect with one another in new ways, and this is how texts are being localized.

Still, it’s easy to imagine the web and social media tools generating greater interest among oral learners to develop reading and writing skills, considering how they now see the value of tapping all media methods for communicating and preserving important things. As Shirky says, “When you aggregate a lot of something, it behaves in new ways, and our new communications tools are aggregating our individual ability to create and share at unprecedented levels of more.” The web is providing people with a way to aggregate all sorts of cultural literacies in order to communicate the scripture text to all people, languages, nations, and media preferences.

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Literacy, Orality, and the Web (Part Two)