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Between the speakers of any language there is variation in the way that they use their language. This variation is demonstrated by linguistic differences in terms of sound (phonetics) and structure (grammar). There might be only slight variations between forms of a language – such as minor pronunciations of words or a slight changes of grammatical structure that do not inhibit intergroup communication. Sometimes there are differences between the speech of men and women, different social classes, and differences between age groups. People will identify some of these features as marking the "best" or most "beautiful" form of the language, other features will be considered nonstandard or undesireable. Some of these differences may impede intelligibility and intergroup communication.
The study of language variation guides language development activities. For example, when developing a writing system it is desireable for it to be useful and acceptable to the largest number of speakers of the language. Therefore, it is important to identify the most unifying features of the language.
SIL assessment specialists use quantitative and qualitative research methods for studying language variation. Two important quantitative methods for studying language variation are lexicostatistics and intelligibility tests. The lexicostatistical method involves eliciting commonly used words from people in two or more different locations. The words are compared to identify phonetic similarities and a percentage of similarity is computed. Intelligibility (how well a speech variety is understood) is of two types: inherent and acquired. Inherent intelligibility is an understanding that is unlearned and that is attributed to the (inherent) linguistic similarities (such as sound systems and grammatical structures) that are shared by the two speech varieties. The greater the inherent similarities shared between two varieties, the more likely that the speakers of each will be able to understand the same literature. Acquired intelligibility, on the other hand, is a level of comprehension of a speech variety achieved through learning.
To measure intelligibility SIL assessment specialists use the recorded text test (RTT). The RTT method involves recording a short autobiographical story. Comprehension questions are dubbed into the recording. The new recording is played for people in another community. The number of correct answers to the comprehension questions gives a measure of comprehension of the speech of the other community.
SIL assessment specialists highly value participatory methods of working with members of the language communities. Qualitative methods of data collection, in a participatory context, include observations, questionnaire, and interviews. Working collaboratively with the community gains quality information and builds capacity and awareness in the local community.