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Nearly two-thirds of the world's 875 million illiterate people are women. In ethnolinguistic communities, boys are often encouraged to interact with others in languages of wider communication. Girls, however, are typically expected to stay close to home where the local language is often the only language used. Research shows that girls and women who are educated in languages familiar to them stay in school longer and achieve better results than those who do not get mother-tongue instruction.
Naomi lives on the tiny island of Tangoa in Vanuatu. At age six she has many years of schooling ahead of her. Tangoa is typical of ethnolinguistic minority communities, where statistics reveal that many students will complete grade six without literacy skills adequate to equip them for life.
Naomi's situation will be different. Although she is only in grade one, she can read and even write short stories. The difference is that Naomi has begun education in her mother tongue, Tangoa. Well-trained local teachers are giving Naomi and her classmates the opportunity to learn the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy in the language spoken in their homes. Class time is set aside to give students the opportunity to express themselves creatively in their mother tongue. Next year Naomi will transfer her literacy skills to English and yet another world will open up to her.
Margarita knows the impact of losing her mother tongue and her cultural identity. Growing up in a small Andean town in central Peru, she first learned to speak the Quechua of her parents and grandparents. But when she started attending school, her family insisted she speak only Spanish, even at home. With difficulty, she learned enough Spanish to complete five years of school before she had to quit to care for her siblings and the family's sheep. Undaunted, Margarita studied at night to finish her primary education and beyond, ultimately earning a university degree in psychology. Using that knowledge and her skills, Margarita founded a volunteer organization that provides social, psychological and educational help to hundreds of displaced and sometimes abused Quechua women and children—using the language they understand best.
Fah (left) is on the cover of the Advocacy Kit for Promoting Multilingual Education: Including the Excluded, a collaborative publication of five booklets by UNESCO Bangkok and SIL.