Languages matter . . . building foundational knowledge benefits language vitality

For 85 years, SIL has worked alongside ethnolinguistic communities as they build capacity for the sustainable development of their own languages.

SIL is committed to collecting foundational knowledge on language and linguistics in order to provide communities with the necessary informational resources to pursue their language development goals. Ongoing research is one of many ways SIL provides foundational knowledge about languages around the world.

Recently, a study into the pattern of language decline, conducted by SIL International’s Chief Research Officer, Dr. Gary Simons, shows that languages around the world are disappearing at an alarming rate. Drawing on his experience as Executive Editor of Ethnologue, Dr. Simons examined global data of more than 7,500 languages across 25-year increments. This investigation found that language death has accelerated, with the world currently losing nine languages each year on average. By the end of the century, Simons projects that the rate of loss will rise to 17 languages annually.

Unique patterns of thought, expression, knowledge, and memory come further under threat as the diversity of world languages continues to decline. Dr. Simons remarked, “You can’t think as widely and as broadly and as creatively when everybody just talks and thinks the same.”

SIL collects and publishes invaluable information documenting both vital and endangered languages in Ethnologue, a comprehensive reference database of languages. Widely considered the most authoritative resource on world languages available, the Ethnologue is used as a primary source of language information for strategic planning by development agencies, businesses, governments, and faith-based organizations worldwide. The Ethnologue currently averages half a million page views per month.

Additionally, SIL’s Language & Culture Archives hosts more than 70,000 catalogued entries of informative materials that have been compiled as the result of SIL’s services to ethnolinguistic communities. These archives benefit language communities’ pursuit of their language development goals by preserving important information for present and future generations. This collection helps establish standards of procedure that enable sustainable archiving and sharing of knowledge throughout SIL and within language communities.

As language communities look to formulate development strategies, A Guide for Planning the Future of Our Language is a helpful tool for SIL consultants and communities to determine their goals together. The Guide’s assessment process helps communities understand contributing factors and available resources so they can create language projects that are well-developed, well-resourced, well-managed and accountable.

SIL is pleased that 2019 has been declared as International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) by the United Nations.  For us, every year is a year of languages. That’s because researching, revitalizing and promoting use of lesser-known languages is at the heart of who we are and what we have been doing for the past 85 years. This article is one in a series that explains SIL’s work as it relates to key themes of IYIL.