Bible study with non-native English speakers

I’ve been in Taiwan now for over 3 weeks and it’s been kind of lonely at times because finding English-speaking people is not easy. Much of my wife’s family cannot speak English, except for her sister who is a nurse at the hospital. It is amazing how so many people here value the English language. They would love to be able to communicate with someone in English. Since I was yearning to speak to someone in English I set out to find a facet of release. I came here with the intention of starting an English bible study and so I brought with me two bibles in the NLTse. With permission from one of the fellowship’s leaders, I just started an English bible study with a group affiliated with a campus ministry called The Navigators. We had our first bible study last night and we started by looking at Romans 7. I asked them what translations they each brought. Every person brought a different translation: NIV, ESV, NRSV, and I had an NLT. Now I regret not bringing a more formal translation. Being that their English was not at a particularly high level, I too quickly assumed that a dynamic easy-to-understand translation would be more suitable to use in a bible study context. As we got deeper into the study, I found the NLT to be a sort of a hindrance because they were all using a more formal translation than I was using, I quickly reverted to their pulpit bible, the NKJV. I felt more formal with this more formal translation in such a context.

What I have learned is that one must not assume that non-native English speakers will be better off with a dynamic-equivalent translation. It all depends on their level of English training. For those who had a very limited English-language training, an NLT might be suitable but for those with a certain level of English training, I think the T/NIV or ESV is good too. This group of young people obviously had some English-language training. In fact, most young people here know some English. If I had another chance to bring another bible here to Taiwan with me, I would bring my TNIV and even more NASB. It’s a nice balance of formal and dynamic equivalence but yet simple enough that non-native English speakers can understand without much trouble. Around here, English bibles are a little more difficult to come by—especially newer translations like the TNIV. Another thing that I will not forget for the future is that a more formal translation is always better for bible study; especially if you plan to do a more indepth exegetical style of study.

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Author: Kevin S.

A follower of Jesus, a husband and a father. Hobbies include biking, keeping fish if they don't die on me, blogging when I can, theologizing and ministry, and pondering about world affairs.

7 thoughts on “Bible study with non-native English speakers”

  1. You can get all the English Bibles you need at Eslite (I recommend the two branches that are open 24 hours a day: the eight-story XinYi store [the largest bookstore in Taiwan] at SongGao Road #11, Taipei or the headquarters at Dunhua S. Road Lane 1 , #245 — both easy to reach by MRT.)

    You may also want to check at the Page One Bookstore in Taipei 101.

    There is even a Wikipedia page.

    You must have fun on the Dragon Boat Festival. Looking forward to hearing about your adventures.

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  2. By the way, the best translation I’ve found in Chinese (I usually read traditional character versions — reading simplified characters gives me a headache) so far is a translation of the Pentateuch published by Oxford University Press. You can read the introduction here. The author, Peter Feng is quirky in an old fashioned way!

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  3. Iyov, thanks for the info. I plan to visit Taipei at the end of the month June 29-31. I’ve heard about the massive bookstore at Taipei 101 but didn’t know about Eslite. Wow! It sounds exciting already. I do want to get myself a copy of the TNIV when I get there.

    You are blessed to be able to read Chinese. I wish I could but I won’t be here long enough to learn it well. BTW, how many versions of the bible are there in Chinese?

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  4. I don’t know how many versions of the Bible there are in Chinese. This site mentions several versions, but I haven’t seen some of them: I have yet to see the “Recovery Version” or the “Three Self Government Church” version. More versions are mentioned here. I’ve also seen Chinese Catholic Bibles. The bottom line is, there seem to be quite a few different translations.

    By the way, don’t feel bad — linguistic confusion is part of life in Taiwan, with Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, English, and Japanese constantly jostling. You’ll enjoy riding in the MRT in Taipei — the announcements are in Mandarin, then Taiwanese, then Hakka, then a “North American” mispronunciation of romanized Chinese. The latter is conceptually funny by itself, but it gets better — the “North American” version is spoken using the Wade-Giles romanization, but the MRT signs were changed to Pinyin a few years ago. What a disaster!

    Taipei can be lots of fun, and I hope you have a chance to go to some of the more unique places (although the standard tourist spots, e.g., the National Palace Museum, can also be good.).

    I hope you get a chance to visit some different places in Taiwan — I recommend Hualien, Taroko Gorge, and Anping. It may sound extravagant, but internal flights in Taiwan are super-cheap — and of course, there is also the new bullet train. Have fun!

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  5. Thanks Iyov. To my previous knowledge, there were two main versions. I’m glad there are more translations in Chinese than I originally thought.

    It’s nice to know that the internal flights are cheap. I’ll definitely add these destinations to my list of places to visit. I’m on my way to Taichung today to visit another big department store.

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  6. Your frustration with the NLT is one reason I do not teach from it. The NLT works fine in a preaching setting, but in a discussion-oriented Bible study with mixed versions, it is difficult to steer the discussion using the NLT because it is radically different in its approach. I still suggest it is an accurate translation, but again radically different in its dynamic equivalency. In my opinion, the only real way to have a Bible study with the NLT is to have everyone in the group read from the NLT.

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  7. Rick, sounds like you accurately sensed my frustration with NLTse in a bible study setting. Yes, since most of them had a more formal translation, the NLTse seemed so different from the formal translations. Another option is to photocopy a few pages of my NLT for bible study purposes. However, that gets into copyright laws.

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