Languages matter: software innovation provides greater digital access and tools

Photo by Aaron Hemphill
A young boy learns to read in his language, Me'phaa, using SIL's Reading App Builder.

With more than four billion* people around the world using the Internet, SIL International is striving to make sure non-dominant language communities are not left behind. Because the unique alphabets used by many of these languages can be difficult to display with standard software, SIL is working to support the writing systems of under-resourced languages as one way to include them in today’s growing global digital arena.  

There is no question whether unsupported language communities will find a way to use their languages in a digital context, explains SIL Director of Language Technology, Paul Nelson. “They’re already doing it. The question is, can they do it in a way that their language is really written or are they hacking together some [improvised] way.”

SIL’s Writing Systems Technology team regularly creates fonts and other digital language resources to continue providing technical support for all aspects of language development around the world. A library of SIL fonts and language-support software is available for free public download on SIL’s Language Technology products page, including software for keyboarding and data entry, text encoding, linguistic analysis, rendering and publishing. These include:               

  • Keyman - an SIL-developed collection of more than 1,000 virtual language keyboards. They are free to download and supported in Windows, iPhone, iPad, Android devices and web browsers.
  • Graphite - a software package, including a flexible rendering engine, that creates and displays complex scripts often unsupported by standard software. It includes both letter shapes and additional instructions on how to combine and position letters in complex ways.

As efforts to document, record and archive languages worldwide expand, SIL provides a multitude of software options to meet important language development needs, such as:

  • Fieldworks Language Explorer (FLEx) - Tracks language patterns and behaviors; also helps create complete dictionaries. A related piece of SIL software, Language Forge, interacts with FLEx as an online tool to allow community-sourcing of lexical information for dictionary creation.
  • SayMore - Streamlines digital recording, organizing and archiving of stories and other material. The program tracks the origin, speaker and permissions of recorded language entries.
  • Bloom - Accelerates the creation and sharing of books in local languages. The latest version includes video recording features for Deaf community use, as well as audio recording features and color-rendering tools to support users with blindness or other visual impairments.

As more and more users come online each year, SIL continues to provide digital access tools and resources so all languages may be displayed as they were meant to be rendered.

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.

*according to the 2018 Digital Report released by We Are Social