By facilitating language based development, SIL International serves the peoples of the world through research, translation and literacy.
This organisation was founded by William Cameron Townsend (1896-1982), a linguist from the USA who spent much of his early career living among indigenous, ethnic minority communities in Latin America in order to learn their languages and develop alphabets for them so they could be written down. Having done this, Townsend translated Western texts, including the bible, into the native languages. From the 1930s he began to hold summer schools in the United States, in which he lectured on linguistic methodology (hence the organisation’s original name: Summer Institute of Linguistics). He soon developed a following, and his students travelled the world, researching minority languages. SIL associates have now studied and written about more than 1,000 of the world’s estimated 6,000 languages. Associates sometimes live in remote areas, as volunteers and largely at their own expense, studying languages that are spoken by small, minority communities. These specialists then help the local communities to develop writing systems, which in China are usually adapted from Hanyu Pinyin. They further help language communities to develop bilingual education programs and to create indigenous literature, which may include materials for cultural preservation (such as folk stories and dictionaries), health information, or other materials, depending on the needs and interests of the community.In China, SIL has worked with the Yunnan Provincial Ethnic Affairs Commission and the Provincial Language Commission on a number of research projects and academic publications. It has also partnered with the Linguistics Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to publish four series of language-related scholarship. In Guizhou, SIL and Guizhou University jointly sponsor the Guizhou University Southwest Minorities’ Language and Culture Research Institute.An ongoing three-way partnership between SIL, the Yunnan Department of Education and the Yunnan Ethnic Affairs Commission is the Zero Barrier Bilingual Education Project. This project operates bilingual education projects in two Yunnan minority language communities: Dai (in Xishuangbanna Prefecture) and Bai (in Dali Prefecture). These are demonstration projects which focus on mother-tongue first bilingual education, with the aim of showing how minority children’s achievements in all academic areas can be greatly improved if they begin their education in their mother tongue and transition gradually to education through Mandarin Chinese.
SIL has also helped to build or repair more than 20 schools in poor minority communities throughout China, and has made contributions to relief efforts after major disasters.
Recently-published books by SIL authors include Naxi-Chinese-English Dictionary, Nuosu Yi-Chinese-English Dictionary, Sibe (Xibo) Grammar, and Zhuang Cultural and Linguistic Heritage. Recently published articles include research on many languages, such as: Miao, Zhuang, Monguor (Tu), Yi, Sui and Dong.
SIL is funded by private donors and supporters. SIL Associates are volunteers.