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Townsend was born in California in 1896. When he was 21 and studying at Occidental College, he felt the need for getting involved in spiritual work among Central American people. Choosing as his touchstone the greatest document of Western culture, the Bible (the basis of his own spiritual orientation), Townsend went to Central America to make available this historic volume to the people there. As he mingled with the large Indian population, he saw the need for work along scientific and practical lines in addition to the spiritual. Accordingly he and his wife Elvira settled among the Cakchiquel Indians of Guatemala. They applied themselves vigorously to the task of learning this unwritten language. In 1926 Townsend made a structural analysis of the Cakchiquel verb system and became one of the first men in the world to succeed in analyzing a complicated vernacular language system in reference to its own structure. Before him, most who had attempted to analyze American Indian languages had, because of their European background, tried to force their analyses into the Latin mold. Townsend's work was commended by the late Professor Edward Sapir, one of the world's great linguists, who taught that every language should be described in terms of its own structure. Some of Townsend's work on the Cakchiquel verb system was published under the title "Comparaciones Morfológicas entre Cakchiquel y Náhuatl" inInvestigaciones Lingüísticas (1937, no.4).
As Townsend learned of the existence of other languages of the Mayan family, he began to contemplate intensive studies to compare grammar structures and phonological systems of those tongues for the purpose of reconstructing their antecedent common language. Later this affected his direction of the work of SIL.
As he progressed with the scientific side of the work, however, he began to develop the cultural and practical implications of his dream. He devised an alphabet for the Cakchiquel language adapted as far as possible to the alphabet of Spanish, the national language. He developed a special technique for teaching people to read, called the Psychophonemic Method, and made primers embodying his technique. This was an innovation designed to teach people to read using only a small proportion of the alphabet in the early lessons and gradually introducing other letters.
In order to publish these primer materials Townsend started a small printing establishment. To teach reading he instituted literacy campaigns for adults as well as for children in cooperation with local educators. He founded several schools for Indian children, was instrumental in setting up a small medical clinic and a coffee cooperative, helped construct small dams for irrigation, and introduced improved seed and farming methods.
As for the spiritual phase of the work, Townsend and gifted Cakchiquel co-translators laboriously translated the New Testament into the Cakchiquel language. As small study groups developed, they found in the pages of the translated New Testament a counterbalance to the encroaching industrial world with its inevitable secularism.
It was during the second decade of this kind of work, in 1931, that the outstanding Mexican educator,Professor Moisés Sáenz, providentially learned of Townsend's three-phased program while traveling in Guatemala. He visited the schools Townsend had founded, talked with the children and parents, saw with favor the positive impact upon the culture, and invited Townsend to Mexico to do the same kind of work there.