What is SIL International?

SIL International is a non-profit, faith-based organization that focuses on language development through capacity building and training. SIL supports language communities by providing training on orthography design, literacy and translation. It also helps with the development of audio and visual materials which aids literacy. This results in small language groups feeling valued and empowered to keep their languages alive in a multilingual environment (SIL International 2013). A renowned work of SIL is the Ethnologue, a database providing maps and information on the 6, 909 living languages of the world (www.ethnologue.com).

Formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics, SIL International began in 1934 in Arkansas, USA. Young linguists who had been doing fieldwork in Mexico returned to the US during the summer to offer a Bible translation course to new Bible translators. The training included the skills to analyze unwritten languages and develop writing systems and literature. Initially, this group was called Camp Wycliffe after the first translator of the entire English Bible. Later, the academic aspect of the group was officially recognised as an Institute within the Oklahoma University at Norman (Robbins 1992). The following is a short biography of SIL’s founder, William Cameron Townsend.

When young Cameron Townsend tried to sell Spanish Bibles in Guatemala in 1917-18, he discovered that the majority of the people he met did not understand Spanish. Neither did they have a written form of their own beautiful language, the Cakchiquel. Townsend abandoned his attempts to sell Bibles and began living among the Cakchiquels. He learned their complex language, created an alphabet for it, analyzed the grammar and translated the New Testament in the remarkably short span of ten years.”

Because SIL members traditionally invest an average of 15 years of living and working with a chosen language community to complete a New Testament, SIL leadership realized that it would be the year 2150 before all the remaining Bibleless languages in the world would even begin a translation project. So, in addition to the original methods, SIL has been using innovative approaches to reduce the time required in hopes that all languages would have a started engagement with Bible translation by the year 2038.

Since SIL is a non-profit organization, it receives volunteers, funding and technical support through partnerships. JAARS is an SIL partner whose originator is also Cameron Townsend. Formerly called the Jungle Aviation And Radio Service, JAARS exists to provide technical support to those involved in the Bible translation work (Missions At The Airport 2012). JAARS is responsible for providing equipment, high quality training and service to SIL members on the field. Some of JAARS’ activities include the development of language software, management of a virus-free database, and the purchase, service and shipping of planes, helicopters and cars. A software developer, aircraft, marine or sound engineer who becomes a missionary can serve SIL through JAARS (JAARS 1998-2003).

Another SIL partner is the Seed Company, whose focus is to provide training and funds for activities which accelerate the pace of Bible translation and its impact on new languages. See the article Developing National Leadership through Partnerships as an example of this accelerated model (The Seed Company 2013).

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