Fifty years of language development in Africa

(March 2012) This year 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. SIL is a faith-based nonprofit organization committed to serving language communities worldwide as they build capacity for sustainable language development, primarily through research, translation, training and materials development.

timeline of SIL's first 50 years in AfricaBy the 1960s, SIL had been serving alongside ethnolinguistic communities in Latin America for several decades when the organization began receiving requests to send personnel to support language development in Africa. At that time, Dr. John Bendor-Samuel visited a number of African countries and interacted with leaders concerned with language development. Bendor-Samuel’s travels coincided with a time of great change and opportunity. He observed:

The first visits, 1960 and 1961, came at a very exciting time for Africa. A large number of African countries had gained their independence. There was an air of excitement, of euphoria, of hope…The languages were part of the overall sense—“Oh, this is part of our heritage, this is the culture of Africa!” In Ghana, they appointed a Minister of Cultural Affairs for the first time. New universities were developing, and new departments, new Institutes of African Studies and so on.

In late 1961, SIL entered into the first of several cooperative agreements with universities and government ministries to support language development in West Africa. Today, SIL is one of a variety of NGOs, governments and local organizations that are serving alongside communities across the continent, supporting the efforts of communities to meet their development goals in such practical areas as mother tongue literacy and multilingual education.

During the past five decades, SIL personnel have contributed significantly to the research and documentation of 823 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.

In Ghana, where SIL’s first African partnership was formed, several events have been planned to mark this important milestone. Dr. Paul Opoku-Mensah, Executive Director of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT), a partner of SIL, views this anniversary year as a time of both celebration and reflection. GILLBT will gather scholars, civil society leaders, community representatives and development organizations to discuss language development issues and plan for the future. GILLBT works to bring about community transformation in Ghana through the power of the mother tongue.

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