Of the more than 6,900 reported languages in the world today, several thousand of them still need to be researched. Survey is foundational to translation work and shows where the need is most critical. As surveyors research and later travel to towns and villages, listening to and recording different languages and their dialects, they gather information about factors that will affect the translation process, such as:
Has previous work been done to document or study the language? What information is available on the Internet or in libraries? Has anyone tried doing translation before? What were the results?
How remote is the area, and what type of logistics and transportation would be required to bring outsiders to and from the language group or to bring local translators out to training opportunities?
How many people speak this language, what are their ages, and what impact could a Bible translation bring to this area and the surrounding areas? If a Bible translation project was started today, would people still be using the language when it was completed?
Who else is interested in Bible translation or more generally in the development of this language? Which local, national, regional, or international organizations would be interested in working together?
Is the region relatively stable or are there factors that will continually threaten a project? Is the area hostile to Christianity? Will the government grant visas for foreigners to work on translation in the language area, or will their involvement need to happen in other creative ways?
Language and social complexity
How complex is the language? Is it tonal, meaning that the pitch used to say a word can completely change the meaning? What is the grammar structure? What is the attitude of speakers of different languages in the area toward each other? Are there language varieties that are more prestigious than others? Are there factors that would mean it would make sense for different language teams to work together in a cluster approach?
Have local churches requested translation for certain languages? Are there already people receptive and ready for a Bible translation?
Does everyone in the community adequately speak and understand another language that already has a Bible translation, so much so that they may not need a translation in their primary language? Do they use that second language only for everyday conversation and business purposes, or can they also use it to discuss deep spiritual concepts? Does the Bible already available in the second language meet their spiritual needs, or do they still need one in their primary language?
By studying the information gathered by language surveyors, governments, missions, churches, and non-governmental organizations, Wycliffe can make good decisions as to where to allocate resources for translation and literacy work in cooperation with partners.