Communities developing resources and competencies for using their languages
Foundational understanding for language development work of all kinds
Publications, fonts and computer tools for language development, translation and research
SIL offers training in disciplines relevant to sustainable language development.
7,105 languages are spoken or signed. CLICK for map of world languages & regional websites.
SIL's dedication to language development past and present
The principal founder of SIL International was William Cameron Townsend (1896–1982). He began cross-cultural work with the Mayan Cakchiquel people of Guatemala in 1919. By 1929 Townsend’s vision had broadened to include other peoples also needing language development. SIL International (then known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) came into being in 1934 as a summer training program in Arkansas, USA, with two students attending. The enrollment of these summer classes grew each subsequent year.
Kenneth L. Pike (1912-2000) was one of the five students in the 1935 course. He began work on the Mixtec language in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. This work launched Pike into his life-long work in linguistics and the study of language in the context of human behavior. Dr. Pike served as President of SIL until 1979.
L.L. Legters and William Cameron Townsend are the co-founders of the organization which will one day be known as SIL. It begins with a summer of linguistics courses in an Arkansas farmhouse.
Among the five students who attended the second session of the Summer Institute of Linguistics was Kenneth L. Pike (far right).
Language development among the speakers of the Mixtec language in Oaxaca, Mexico, would later spark Pike's interest in phonology and tonal systems, leading to his life-long work in linguistics and the study of language in the context of human behavior.
SIL's first team of single women, Florence Hansen Cowan and Eunice Pike, begins linguistic work in the Huautla Mazatec language in Oaxaca, Mexico. Eunice would sometimes collaborate on linguistic analysis with her brother, Ken Pike.
Watching [Eunice] analyze the sound patterns and hearing her talk about the system’s impact on grammatical structures gave us the practical experience we needed that later helped us teach others. -Judith Pike Schram
Hansen (far left) and Pike (far right) with Mazatec friends
The third session of the Summer Institute of Linguistics offers linguistics training to the largest group of students yet. Participants notable for the contributions they would one day make to the field of linguistics and translation research include Ken Pike, Eunice Pike and Eugene Nida.
Staff and students of the 1936 Summer Institute of Linguistics (from back, left to right): Joe Chicol, Eugene Nida, Kenneth Pike, Walter Miller, Robert Smallwood, Jake Johnson, Eunice Pike, Ethel May Squire, Elvira Townsend, Cameron Townsend, Mr. and Mrs. John Twentyman, Grace Armstrong, Florence Hansen (Not pictured: Joe McCullough, Roland Davies, Landis Christansen, Wilfred Morris)
By 1940, thirty-six language workers associated with the Summer Institute of Linguistics are studying eighteen Mexican languages.
In 1941 the number rises to forty-nine workers in nineteen locations and the first SIL Conference is held in Tetelcingo, Mexico.
Mariana Slocum (right) learns the Tzeltal language from a member of the community.
Kenneth L. Pike receives a PhD in linguistics from the University of Michigan.
Dr. Pike would go on to become the first SIL President, serving for thirty-seven years (1942-1979) and then as President Emeritus from 1979 until his death in 2000. He became internationally known as a linguist, not only for his personal work, but also for stimulating thousands of other researchers. Pike authored many books and articles, taught in universities, and held workshops all over the world.
122 students attend SIL's ninth summer of linguistics training courses. This is the first year that classes are held at the University of Oklahoma. This first of many institutional partnerships lasts for more than thirty years (until 1987).
Townsend's concept of SIL as non-sectarian organization is put into writing and established as official policy.
SIL begins language development partnership with the Navajo people of the USA.
SIL courses begin in Canada.
The wilderness survival training course for new fieldworkers begins in Chiapas, Mexico.
SIL is now involved in language development in three countries: Mexico (since 1936), the US (beginning with the Navajo community in 1944) and Peru (following a cooperative agreement with the Government of Peru in 1945).
The first SIL airplane is christened at an official ceremony in Lima, Peru. Bette Greene begins flying for SIL in Peru. She makes history as the first woman to fly over the Peruvian Andes.
In 1945, SIL founder Townsend and the Peruvian Minister of Education sign an agreement inviting SIL to begin working with ethnolinguistic communities in Peru.
The Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS) is founded to provide aviation and technical service to SIL staff involved in language development in remote areas.
The first edition of the Ethnologue, a catalog of the world's known living languages, consists of ten mimeographed pages describing forty-six languages or groups of languages. The 17th edition of Ethnologue: Languages of the World, released in 2013, lists 7,105 languages.
A formal agreement between the Philippine Department of Education and SIL was signed on February 28, 1953.
SIL's Richard Pittman (left) with Philippines President Ramon Magsaysay (right), circa 1957.
SIL begins offering linguistics training in the UK.
SIL personnel begin language development work in Papua New Guinea, the first location of SIL fieldwork in the Pacific.
Men from the Barai community in traditional attire.
SIL celebrates twenty-five years of language development service in partnership with the world's ethnolinguistic minority communities.
In December of 1961, a cooperative agreement with the University of Ghana marks the beginning of SIL's language development service in Ghana, the first SIL program in Africa.
In 2012 SIL celebrates fifty years of language development partnership in Africa.
Dr. Benjamin Elson is appointed Executive Director of SIL. Elson had attended SIL's summer linguistics courses at the University of Oklahoma in 1942 and joined the organization soon after. Along with his wife, Adele, Elson had been involved in linguistic research and language development service with the Sierra Popoluca community of Mexico from 1943-1953. The Elsons would frequently serve on the staff of a number of SIL training programs.
Elson's Linguistic Creed, composed in 1987:
We believe that language is one of God's most important gifts to man, and of all human characteristics, language is the most distinctly human and the most basic. Without language, culture and civilization would be impossible.
We also believe that any language is capable of being a vehicle for complicated human interaction and complex thought, and can be the basis for a complex culture and civilization.
Therefore, all languages deserve respect and careful study.
As the most uniquely human characteristic a person has, a person's language is associated with his self-image. Interest in and appreciation of a person's language is tantamount to interest in and appreciation of the person himself.
All languages are worthy of preservation in written form by means of grammars, dictionaries, and written texts. This should be done as part of the heritage of the human race.
Every language group deserves to see its language in print and to have some literature written in it.
Minority language groups within a larger nation deserve the opportunity of learning to speak, read, and write the national language.
Cameron and Elaine Townsend make the first of eleven trips to the Soviet Union. Cameron Townsend's observations of multilingual education in the region are recorded in his 1972 book, They Found a Common Language: Community Through Bilingual Education.
In 1971 SIL purchases one hundred acres in southwest Dallas, Texas, USA for the future location of SIL International's headquarters. In time the International Linguistics Center would also provide office space for partner organizations, as well as classrooms and administrative space for academic training (first Texas SIL and later the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics).
Top: Land purchased for the future ILC shown in a 1971 aerial photo.
Bottom: By 1995 the ILC includes four office buildings around a landscaped quadrangle, an RV park and meeting room for seasonal volunteers, a dormitory for students and visitors, a dining hall, a swimming pool and extensive hiking trails showcasing the unique escarpment landscape.
The first year-round linguistics training program begins at the newly-established International Linguistics Center in Dallas, Texas, USA.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding is presented to SIL "in recognition of its inspired outreach to nonliterate tribes people, recording and teaching them to read their own languages and enhancing their participation in the larger community of man."
Two SIL staff members receive a research grant and recognition for the first portable computer designed for use in linguistic field work.
Well before the personal computer became a commodity item, two SIL staff members acted on their dream of using one in linguistic field work. Dr. Joseph Grimes (then also serving as a linguistics professor at Cornell University) and Gary Simons, a Ph.D. student of Grimes minoring in Computer Science, concluded that a computer would be needed to support Simons’ dissertation research in the field. Grimes and Simons applied for and were awarded funding for the project. Bill Hemsath, an engineer working in Cornell’s Psychology lab, built the computer to their specifications. Gary and Linda Simons then used the machine to collect and analyze language data while conducting language surveys in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (1976-1977).
The ETP-8L (Electronic Text Processor -- 8-bit, Low Power) had an Intel 8080 processor, 16K memory (at a cost of $100/K at the time of production) and a five inch CRT display (eight lines of text, thirty-two characters across), all housed within a waterproof case. Data was stored at 300 bits per second on cassette tapes with a portable cassette recorder.
This cutting-edge project was funded by a research grant from the National Science Foundation, and was chosen by the Linguistics program of NSF as their project of the year for inclusion in NSF’s annual report to the United States Congress in 1977.
In 2010, Dr. Gary Simons was appointed SIL's first Chief Research Officer.
Clockwise, from bottom left: Gary Simons and Bill Hemsath with the finished machine, introducing the computer to a multi-generational gathering in the Solomon Islands, carrying the computer into a remote field site, Linda Simons enters data, Gary Simons and a Solomon Islands colleague use the machine to collect and review language data, Simons hikes to the administrative center on Santa Cruz Island (Solomon Islands) to tap into the nearest power source.
SIL receives the UNESCO International Reading Association Literacy Prize for literacy work in Papua New Guinea.
Dr. Ken Pike (right) receives the first of fifteen nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.
William Cameron Townsend, founder of SIL, dies on 23 April at the age of 85.
Known to many as Uncle Cam, Townsend was a champion of the cultural dignity of the world's ethnolinguistic minority communities and inspired hundreds of young linguistic trainees to become involved in research and language development.
The organization marks 50 years of service in partnership with the world's ethnolinguistic minority communities.
The number of communities involved in language development partnerships with SIL tops 1,000.
Although this is the last year for SIL courses at the University of Oklahoma, SIL academic training is offered in several US locations (North Dakota, Oregon and Texas) and around the globe. International locations include Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the UK.
Learn more about training oppportunities: SIL Academic Training.
Dr. Kenneth L. Pike and a student, from the cover of the 1987 course catalog of what was then known as the Canadian Summer Institute of Linguistics.
The "Shell Book" concept is developed in Papua New Guinea. A basic book format, often incorporating the work of local artists, is developed with room for text, which is added later. In this way, the same book can be adapted for use by many different language groups for literacy and multilingual education.
Learn more about SIL's involvement in literacy and education.
UNESCO grants Consultative Status to SIL, enhancing SIL's ability to serve in advocacy for the world's ethnolinguistic minority communities.
Around the world, SIL works in partnership with communities, government agencies and other NGOs.
Vernacular Media Services becomes an official SIL service located in Waxhaw, North Carolina, USA.
SIL software developers release the first official version of LinguaLinks. The software suite offers an integrated set of tools designed to facilitate efficient and consistent data collection and analysis for personnel involved in language and culture-related fieldwork.
Version 1.0 includes:
SIL continues to develop innovative software solutions for language and culture description and documentation. Learn more about SIL's work in technology development: SIL Software.
As organizations begin to take advantage of the communicative possibilities of the Internet, SIL launches its public website. SIL.org provides access to information about linguistics and about SIL's language development work.
SIL is given Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC), allowing SIL to designate official representatives to UN headquarters in New York and UN offices in Geneva and Vienna.
SIL serves as an advocate for ethnolinguistic communities, assisting them in raising awareness of their needs to governments, organizations and individuals whose policies and practices can promote and facilitate language development.
Learn more about the work of SIL's Office of International Relations and the high value SIL places on partnerships.
Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, who served for many years as the President and President Emeritus of SIL, dies on 31 December at the age of 88.
Pike was among the first students to attend the summer courses in linguistics organized by William Cameron Townsend in the 1930s. Following his initial linguistics training, he began fieldwork with the Mixtec community in Oaxaca, Mexico. In early years he sometimes collaborated on research with his sister, Eunice Pike, who was involved in language development with another community in the region.
Pike served on the faculty of several academic institutions and was recognized for significant contributions to the field of language and culture research. A prolific writer, his notable works include Phonemics: A technique for reducing languages to writing and Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior.
FieldWorks 1.0 is released. The initial version of the program includes WorldPad, a word processing program with the ability to use complex scripts and a Data Notebook with list editor function for compiling language and culture research.
Development of FieldWorks continues. Click here to learn more about FieldWorks and download the latest version.
Representatives from UNESCO and SIL initiate plans for a joint project to promote multilingualism on the Internet during meetings held 20-22 January.
Technology for redendering complex scripts such as SIL's Graphite are a key factor in making computing techologies accessible to people from all language communities.
"It's really great to see the enthusiasm of the SIL team here. With partners like you we can go a long way toward achieving these goals."
-Paul G. C. Hector, UNESCO Information Society Division member.
Left to right: Jesse Johnston (SIL International Relations Officer), Paul Frank (SIL Vice President for Academic Affairs), Davide Storti (UNESCO Information Society Division member), Paul G. C. Hector (UNESCO Information Society Division member), David Pearson (SIL Representative to UNESCO
As SIL marks its 70th anniversary of service, personnel from fifty countries are working in partnerships with more than 1,300 language communities in seventy countries. Formal training in linguistics, literacy and translation is available in more than twenty locations worldwide.
A new phonetic symbol, the labiodental flap, is proposed by SIL linguist Dr. Ken Olson and accepted by the International Phonetic Association for inclusion in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a standard for representing the sounds of the world's spoken languages.
"We are closer than ever to the day when commonly available computers will be able to work with all of the world's languages; when all languages will have a digital voice."
- Dennis Drescher, SIL senior software developer
At the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia, SIL releases a package of free, open-source software.* The package includes Graphite, a font rendering engine which has been added to applications including Firefox, Thunderbird and OpenOffice. This breakthrough technology allows languages with complex scripts to be typed with a standard keyboard, making it possible for speakers of languages with complex scripts to write and publish content in their own languages. This development represents an important milestone in the process of making technology accessible to all of the world’s language communities.
SIL staff presented the software during session two of the WSIS Round Table, an event sponsored by New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) under the auspices of the African Union. While the initial focus of SIL's presentation "A Digital Voice for All" was on Africa, the session addressed global issues affecting everyone.
The script used for the N'Ko language of West Africa is written from right to left, one of many factors that lead to complexity in script engineering and find an answer in technologies like Graphite. The Conakry N'Ko Font is available for free download from SIL's ScriptSource.
*The package includes the Keyboard Mapper for Linux, a set of smart fonts, Graphite and various Graphite-enabled applications, all free and open source.
The government of Papua New Guinea creates a set of commenmemorative stamps celebrating SIL's fifty years of language development in the Pacific island nation.
In Peru, SIL celebrates sixty years of language development. The National Congress of Peru honors SIL Peru by passing a congressional motion: "To salute and congratulate the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) on the 21st of September 2006, the day of the Sixtieth Anniversary of its creation."
SIL is appointed the registration authority of ISO 639-3, the three letter codes identifying specific languages.
A booklet and DVD providing HIV/AIDS information is released in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The materials are designed to connect with the rural population and to be easily adapted for use in multiple languages - PNG has an estimated eight hundred living languages.
Men from one of PNG's many language communities celebrate the new HIV/AIDS materials now available in their mother tongue.
The Advocacy Kit for Promoting Multilingual Education: Including the Excluded is the result of a major partnership effort between UNESCO and SIL.
The Advocacy Kit is a collection of five booklets that provides information and ideas for making education systems more responsive to communities that are not fluent in the language of schooling. Numerous education specialists and experts from inside and outside the Asia-Pacific region contributed their research findings and experiences in MLE.
During celebrations for International Literacy Day, Burkina Faso's First Lady Chantal Compaoré decorated two organizations with the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Palmes Académiques (Academic Laurels) for literacy. Receiving the awards were Director André Aguila on behalf of SIL Burkina Faso and General Director Boureima Ouedraogo on behalf of ANTBA (Association Nationale pour la Traduction de la Bible et l'Alphabétisation).
The awards recognize significant literacy contributions by each organization to minority languages in Burkina Faso. First Lady Chantal Compaoré sponsored the 18 September event and addressed those in attendance. The Minister of Literacy and Non-Formal Education was the main speaker.
Left: General Director Boureima Ouedraogo of ANTBA (a regional partner of SIL) receives the award from First Lady Chantal Compaoré.
Right: SIL Burkina Faso Director André Aguila, from France, receives the award on behalf of SIL.
SIL marks seventy-five years of service in partnership with over 2,550 of the world's ethnolinguistic minority communities. SIL staff are currently involved in nearly 2,000 language development projects in progress.
The 16th Edition of Ethnologue: Languages of the World is published, listing 6,909 known living languages.
SIL's Non-Roman Script Initiative (NRSI) launches ScriptSource. This new website provides valuable information about the scripts and alphabets used to represent the world’s languages, as well as a platform for collaboration and development of software that supports these writing systems, such as fonts and input systems.
“The launch of the new ScriptSource website is an important advance and is part of SIL’s contributions to language development around the world. ScriptSource not only allows us to better share our knowledge about the world’s languages, but provides a venue for others to also share their understanding of writing systems. Together with the Ethnologue, ScriptSource allows researchers, teachers, and language community members to quickly locate vital information about languages. ScriptSource is an invitation for every language to find its place in the digital world today.” - Chip Sanders, SIL International’s Director of Language Program Services
On its launch day, ScriptSource provides access to information on over 170 scripts used for the writing systems of thousands of languages. Font developers, linguists and others knowledgeable in the field of writing systems are invited to add to this content. Both well-documented scripts and those with little or no documentation are represented. ScriptSource notes scripts in need of software development and invites others to add content to fill the knowledge gap. With an easy to navigate interface, the site invites users to access a variety of content. In addition to technical linguistic descriptions, visitors to the site will also find historical and cultural information. New content is moderated by the ScriptSource editors.
On 23 August a new Memorandum of Understanding is signed by State Minister of Education Fuad Ibrahim Omer, on behalf of the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, and Dr. Alemayehu Hailu, Director of SIL Ethiopia. This agreement formalizes the commitment to continued partnership between the Government of Ethiopia and SIL Ethiopia.
Click here for details of the agreement.
In 2011 SIL at the University of North Dakota celebrates its 60th year of linguistics courses, a relationship which began with UND’s invitation. This independent program is affiliated with the University of North Dakota’s College of Arts and Sciences and Graduate School.
Click here for more about SIL's academic training partnership with the University of North Dakota and the program's focus on signed languages.
SIL is continually building new mutually beneficial partnerships with organizations and institutions around the world. In 2011, two new working partnerships for academic and professional cooperation were formalized with Universiti Malaysia Sabah and Papua New Guinea’s University of Goroka. These agreements are pathways to joint research, academic exchange and student development.
For more on SIL's partnerships, see the 2011 Annual Update.
Top: State Minister of Education Fuad Ibrahim Omer (left) and Dr. Alemayehu Hailu, Director of SIL Ethiopia (right)
Middle: A group of SIL-UND faculty members and students
Bottom: Signing of the University of Goroka agreement
SIL’s Non-Roman Script Initiative (NRSI) releases two new fonts, the latest in the department's efforts to produce computer implementations of complex scripts and quality fonts for literacy use.
Annapurna is a font for the Devanagari script, which is used to write more than 120 Indo-Aryan languages of South Asia. The font is named for a section of the Himalayas in North Central Nepal. SIL has a longstanding commitment to developing software and fonts for technology applications that benefit the world's language communities. NRSI's vision is that language communities are effectively using their preferred writing system on computers without technical barriers.
Phase three of the Andika literacy font project has a full set of over 4,800 characters, enabling its use for publishing literacy materials in the many languages around the world that use the Roman script. The easy-to-read, Unicode-compliant font is designed to accommodate the special needs of beginning readers.
Samples of Annapurna (top) and Andika (bottom).
2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of SIL’s service in language development in Africa. Since the first cooperative agreement with the University of Ghana, SIL has been invited to partner with government agencies, educational institutions and local communities across the continent.
During the past five decades, SIL personnel have contributed significantly to the research and documentation of African languages. Recent publications include A Grammar of Akoose and The Kifuliiru Language. In 2005 SIL linguist Dr. Ken Olson successfully proposed a new symbol for the International Phonetic Alphabet to represent the labiodental flap, a previously undocumented speech sound found in central and southeastern Africa. SIL has been honored by the governments of the Central African Republic and Burkina Faso for contributions to language development.
A teacher from the community leads a women’s literacy class in Senegal.
Since 1953, SIL has served in partnership with communities, NGOs and government agencies in the Philippines. In addition to linguistic research, SIL's work includes support for multilingual education and mother-tongue literacy. SIL Philippines operates research libraries in Manila and Davao City. Read more about the history of SIL's work in the Philippines: "Celebrating 60 years of partnership in the Philippines."
Visit the SIL Language & Culture Archives for publications related to the languages and cultures of the Philippines.
Learn more about the languages of the Philippines from Ethnologue: Languages of the World.