What we do

SIL field linguists work together with members of language communities in a variety of ways, depending on the local situation and on the goals of the language community. While SIL field linguists may be directly engaged in many of the language development tasks in a project, they also work to build capacity in language communities so that they can meet their own language development needs and goals.

A task that occurs early in any language development project is research, though research is also an ongoing activity which continues throughout the life of a project. Research is a broad topic and includes such activities as language assessment, collecting language data and analyzing it, and writing up the results for publication.

Only a few of the 7000+ languages in the world are well documented. One thing that many language communities want to do is document their language and culture for future generations. This is especially true in cases where the younger generation is losing the language due to pressure to use other languages. Language and Culture Documentation may involve written forms, but also includes audio and video recordings, which are then archived. Documentation requires a knowledge of linguistics, anthropology and media technology. It can also be useful for other linguists who want to study the language at a later date (especially if they are looking at several languages and can't visit them all).

Many languages are still unwritten, so language development needs to include orthography development, which is the job of finding a good writing system for a language (not like English!). To do that, linguists consider the phonetics and phonology of a language, as well as the views of the people who speak that language, the writing systems for neighboring languages, which fonts are available, and any government policy on writing systems, among other things! The aim is to find a writing system that is easy to read and write for speakers of the language and which satisfies all the key players involved. See here for further information.

Many language communities desire a dictionary. There are many kinds of dictionaries - bilingual dictionaries, monolingual dictionaries, glossaries, etc. - so part of the process is to identify the needs of the language community. Lexicographers collect words and enter information about them in specialized software. Syntax, semantics and anthropology are especially important when compiling dictionaries.

Field linguists often write a grammar of the language they work with. These grammars are not generally like the list of rules mandating good style like one finds in an elementary English class. Rather, they describe the sometimes complex patterns a language has for constructing words and sentences. In its broadest sense, grammar also includes describing the ways that sounds combine, so this focuses on phonology, morphology and syntax.

Many language communities desire that materials from other languages be translated into them, and translation is another aspect of language development. Dictionaries and grammars can be very useful tools in the process of translation.

These various language development activities interact with each other. Compiling a dictionary or translating health bulletins depend on having a writing system. Knowing the grammar of how words are put together tells you where words begin and end. (How else do you tell where the spaces go?!) Including word categories in a dictionary requires an understanding of grammar, since not every language has the same set of word categories. In the past, SIL field linguists tended to do a little of everything. More and more, however, people are specializing in one of these areas.