Learning to Speak the Gospel in Unwritten Languages

With more and more Christians in the U.S. becoming interested in engaging the unreached, it’s important to recognize some of the challenges involved with this much-needed ministry. One such challenge is sharing the gospel with an unreached and often illiterate people group that has never had its language written down. This scenario is much more common than you might imagine.

It has been estimated that of the 7,099 living languages, 3,233 of them do not have a developed writing system.[1] This is important because people need to hear and understand the gospel in their mother tongue, or, as it’s sometimes called, their heart language. Here in Papua New Guinea, (PNG) where we currently serve, there are more than 800 documented languages. That’s right, 800 languages, not dialects! We have been called the “Modern Tower of Babel” because of the number of languages and cultures represented in a single geographic space the size of California.

Although the government language in PNG is English, the second and most commonly used “language” would be Tok Pisin, which is a simplified form of the language that evolved around the exploration and plantation eras for the purpose of trade and work. It is used for communicating with those who speak another language.[2] Tok Pisin is a mixture of several distinct languages, including German, Portuguese, Dutch, and French. It becomes contextualized by the grammatical and linguistic influence of any one of the other 800 languages that may be using it as their second language.

All of this is important because we want to teach, baptize, disciple, and train faithful men who can teach others (2 Timothy 2:2). Of all the venues available to an omniscient God, He chose the written text to preserve His words.  In tribal missions we face the challenge of communicating the written Word of God to illiterate people groups and then helping them preserve it for the next generation. So where do you start? What does the process of Culture and Language Acquisition (CLA) look like?

An Unexpected Breakthrough

We sat underneath the thatched roof of the open “gathering” house on the little hill where we lived. The sides were all open and the breeze carried the smoke from the fire in our ground pit across the jungle canopy.  A man turned his leaf tobacco on one of the smoldering logs and it shriveled as he pulled it back out of the fire. We were learning the Inapang language, which had never been written down before. There was no Rosetta Stone here, and although we had a good grasp on the noun usage at this point, we were moving into the world of verbs. We had been trying to figure out how to ask “What are you doing?” in Inapang in order to elicit some verbs. This “fun CLA challenge” was turning to pure frustration. The linguistic volleying back and forth had gone something like this:

“How do I say ‘What are you doing’ in your language?”
    “I am sitting on a log.”
“Yes, you are, but how do I ask this question in your language?”
    “What question?”
“What are you doing?”
    “I am sitting on a log” (long missionary sigh here…)

There isn’t another job in the world that reminds you more often of what one of our mentor’s coined as our “not-enough-ness.” So, on one particular morning, we prayed and walked out the door with all of our not-enough-ness and started trying for this phrase again; it seemed we were quickly headed toward another language F-A-I-L. Bill, my husband, went inside the house to get some water for all of us. He got sidetracked with an infestation of bugs and started using the broom to knock down newly formed cobwebs and nests.  It was quite the noise inside and as another villager approached the house, he looked at his sister and asked what I knew must have been, “What is he doing in there?”  I dove for my recorder and tried not to look completely desperate as I asked the man, “Please say that again.”  He looked a little strangely at me and repeated his question to his sister, “Anə arəgobain na?”  Sweet Praises!  Bill came out and tried out the phrase and a whole new world of verbage began to open up to our Inapang language-learning minds!

As we progressed in learning the Inapang language, we focused on various aspects of their culture, from material objects to worldview issues. We addressed one tier at a time, slowly processing the data for grammar and culture as we had been trained to do.  The purpose was to be able to accurately translate the Word of God and then teach a curriculum titled “Creation to Christ.” We wanted our teaching to focus on this specific context with specific examples from their own culture, clearly presenting the good news in their heart language. 

The language of a people group is so closely tied together with its culture that it is impossible to learn one well without the other.  We had been taught this principle, but now we were seeing it firsthand. We watched slowly as the One who mixed the languages so long ago began to graciously help us put this one back together in its written, grammatical form.  We also saw Him simultaneously exposing their worldview as we lived among them so that we could apply the truth of the gospel from the foundation up.  As we watched God at work in this unreached place, we fell more in love with the Omniscient One. We saw His Power.  We needed His Power to reach these people and they needed His power and grace to set them free. Powerful God.  Needy Men.  Who knew learning an unwritten language could be so absolutely devotional?

Worth Every Sacrifice

Learning an unwritten language and culture and presenting the gospel as broken “not-enough” human vessels is humanly impossible. But, with God all things are possible.  Those who went before us paved the way with such good principles and processes to follow. Thanks to those guiding principles and God’s morning-by-morning new mercies, we did learn the Inapang language.  We did provide an alphabet and literacy classes.  And, by God’s grace, all of our friends in eight Inapang villages have had the opportunity now to hear the gospel. Many of our friends believed and were granted new eternal destinations and the hope of life with God.  One of my dear village sisters shared about her faith with a visiting mission pastor, saying,

Before, I was totally in Satan’s prison worshipping all kinds of evil spirits. We lived to have our own names lifted up and exalted. I did not ask for God’s Word to come to me, but He sent it in his grace through missionaries and a helicopter.  He came to us.  He found us and He saved us.  I have heard God’s talk explained clearly in my own mother tongue and I am forever, eternally changed.  I am God’s child.  Now, I just do what He asks me to do each day and look forward to being with Him one day in heaven.

Learning an unwritten language while living among the unreached in a third world village is a demanding, full-time job, and it is the hardest thing that we have done as a family.  It cost us all––parents and children––our “normal” rights as Westerners for an entire decade.  Our family saying is, “We will never sacrifice our family, but we will always sacrifice as a family.” At the same time, God was teaching us that as we “sacrificed” small earthly things for His sake, He would give back the blessing a hundredfold.  We wouldn’t change the effects CLA had on our family for anything in this world, because we have seen it’s out-of-this-world effects on our friends who have heard the good news clearly in their own mother tongue and have come to love God because He first loved them. He is worth it.

–– To hear more from believers in Inapang, go here. To understand more about tribal church planting and training for reaching unwritten languages, go here. To learn more about Ethnos360, go here

–– For previous posts in this series on reaching the Inapang with the gospel, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.


Kelley Housley currently serves as a Literacy consultant and Missionary Trainer for Ethnos360 in Papua New Guinea. She has lived and served among the Inapang people group with her husband, Bill, and daughters, Madison and Sabra, since 2004. They are currently working to complete a translation of the New Testament in the Inapang language.

[1]This data is taken from Ethnologue, which also states the following: “We don't always know, however, if the existing writing systems are widely used. That is, while an alphabet may exist there may not be very many people who are literate and actually using the alphabet.”

[2] The term pidgin is often used to refer to a language used to communicate between two groups that speak different languages. 

Sign up for Radical Updates

If you would like periodic updates on Radical and the ministry of David Platt, please sign up here.