Just 2,000 languages to go

Don Hekman ’68


Spring 2011

There are roughly 6,900 distinct languages spoken in the world. Since his days at Calvin, Don Hekman ’68 has paid a lot of attention to them. 

As the interim president of Wycliffe Bible Translators of Canada, Hekman and his colleagues are focusing their energies on the 2,000 languages in which there has yet to be a translation of scripture. As part of the Vision 2025 initiative, Wycliffe-affiliated organizations will at least begin the process of biblical translation in all of the language groups without scripture by the year 2025. 

After 37 years of service in various capacities at Wycliffe, Hekman was asked to serve as interim president for two years while the board undergoes a mission review and leadership search. In this role, he is responsible for the work of 400 Canadian members of the Wycliffe organization from the agency headquarters in Calgary, Alberta. 

“Wycliffe Canada is the second-largest national organization in the worldwide Wycliffe alliance of organizations,” he said. “One of our current goals is to attract a younger generation of linguists, translators, administrators and leaders so that a mature organization is continually renewed.” 

But the heart of the effort, Hekman added, is “to reach the people represented by the 2,000 language groups currently without God’s Word in their language.” 

Prior to his administrative roles in Canada, Hekman worked with First Nations groups in Quebec and across Canada. His first assignment involved guiding a team of Montagnais First Nations people in translating and publishing scripture. Over the years, Hekman has been involved as a translation consultant in 10 different language projects among First Nations groups—out of the 40 to 50 total distinct language groups in Canada. 

Then it was off to the African country of Chad. Hekman’s time in Quebec was helpful preparation for working in Francophone Africa, and for three years he directed the efforts of SIL International (the on-field partner of Wycliffe) work in Chad, a country where more than 100 distinct languages are spoken. 

“Most people do not realize the diversity of language in their own countries, much less the world. Nigeria, for example, has 400 distinct languages. While some are closely related, they are all distinct to themselves,” he said. 

Linguists looking at an unfamiliar language have a complicated job. They have to determine if the language is distinct and viable. Will the language be spoken by the next generation so that the enormous amount of effort needed to record and publish the language is stewardly? What is the best way to develop the spoken language as a written language? 

Hekman said he was always attracted to a career in Bible translation and has noted regular Calvin connections since his Calvin graduation. 

“I remember a conference in Cameroon that drew 80 persons related to language work in that country,” he said. “Ten of those attending were Calvin grads or had attended the college.” 

Hekman also admires the book The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality and Foreign Language Learning by German professors David Smith and Barbara Carvill, calling it a “powerful book with important themes related to cultural awareness through language.” 

After his current assignment with Wycliffe, Hekman looks forward to retirement and a life that’s less hectic, and he is eager to be “less nomadic” and more involved in local church ministry. 

He also hopes for a resurgence of interest in translation and minority language development in the next generation of young Christians. 

“You do need a head for languages and how they function in this work, but also as important is a deep interest in people and communities. You’re not just analyzing verbs, you are carefully observing how communities interact and care for one another. It is an intensely personal ministry—and very rewarding,” he said.