Ethnolinguistic People Group: A definition

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It’s a term we throw around all the time in missions.

We are always talking about ethnolinguistic people groups. If you have been paying attention to the conversation, there are thousands of them all over the world (almost 10,000 to be specific). Furthermore, almost half of them are unreached (around 4,000), but what are they?

Let’s start with ethnolinguistics. Here is how Wikipedia defines it:

“Ethnolinguistics (sometimes called cultural linguistics) is a field of linguistics which studies the relationship between language and culture, and the way different ethnic groups perceive the world.”

Did you get that? Ethnolinguistics deals with both language and culture. Unlike a simple discussion of race (which is an artificial concept), ethnolinguistics takes several factors into consideration, including a person’s first language. So, it is a more holistic picture of a person’s identity. It concerns itself with the major factors that connect people together. People from the same ethnolinguistic people group speak the same, often look the same, and frequently think the same.

But why are we so concerned about people groups?

The discussion about ethnolinguistic people groups is important for a number of reasons. When we talk about the great commission, we talk about reaching the “nations.” However, if you think about it, there was no China or Kenya or America when that passage was written. How then should we understand the command to go unto all the nations? It is best to think of this as referring to all the peoples of the world. Jesus, in his final command to his rag-tag group of followers before the ascension was to go and make disciples of all the peoples of the world. That is ethnolinguistic people groups.

Understanding the way people groups break down helps us do missions. If we can understand the way that the peoples of the world gather and identify themselves, then we are better at the task of sharing the gospel with them. We can do proclamation in their language and in their cultural way of seeing the world.

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Keelan Cook Administrator
Senior Church Consultant
Keelan leads the Peoples Next Door project and is a Senior Church Consultant with the Union Baptist Association in Houston, TX. He is working on a PhD in Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In previous years, he spent time as a church planter in West Africa with the IMB and doing ethno-graphic research in Washington, DC with NAMB.
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