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People use language in patterned ways. We use more formal ways of speaking when talking to someone important. We use more casual forms when speaking with friends or family. However, in language assessment we are more interested in the patterned ways people use more than one language when there is bilingualism, or multilingualism.
Switzerland is a classic example of a phenomena called diglossia. Swiss-German is used in the home and all non-formal situations, but High German is used for education, reading, and writing. A balanced state of useage like this is called stable diglossia. Neither language is losing precedence to the other. However, in many communities worldwide one language is becoming more dominant and the heritage language, the language that has been used for generations in the home, is losing usefulness.
Assessing the use of language is important for many reasons. The examination of language use patterns strengthens our understanding of human communication and the primary purposes for each language. The inventory, or repertoire, of languages along with knowledge about the frequency of contact in social contexts, enables the researcher to identify the quality of interpersonal and intergroup relationships that individuals or entire communities have with one another.
Without actually living with a speech community, there is rarely enough time to observe behavioral patterns as they spontaneously occur. Moreover, the presence of a researcher can be intrusive and actually obstruct naturally occurring acts of communication. Therefore, an alternate, indirect method is to obtain “reconstructed observations” – that is, to ask people to recollect their own and others language use patterns. For example, these questions may be asked in order to obtain a general impression of language use patterns:
How many languages does a person understand? (list).
What is each language used for? (context, purpose).
Where are the languages used? (location).
With whom? (relationships).
How often? (frequency).
When language developers attempt to revive an endangered language they want to increase the number of functions or uses of the endangered language.