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Literacy in the 90's
The Role of SIL

This informative booklet, now published here on the Web, was originally printed in the 1990s. As a historical document, it reflects SIL's work in literacy during that decade.


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A Helping Hand: SIL

Chipaya students in Bolivia learning to read
Chipaya students in Bolivia learning to read

SIL is a philanthropic, non-governmental organization committed to linguistic research, language development, literacy, and other projects of practical, social, and spiritual value to the lesser known cultural communities of the world. From its humble beginnings in 1935 in Mexico, the work of SIL has grown and spread to more than 45 countries and well over 1,000 languages.

A distinctive feature of the Institute is its focus on unwritten (undeveloped) languages [special note]. The fact that a language is unwritten is a near certain indicator of an underprivileged status for those who speak that language - especially in the areas of literacy and education. The global rate of illiteracy among those speaking an unwritten or recently written language is estimated to be above 60 percent.

Those speaking unwritten languages frequently dwell on the fringes of national life living in geographic, social, and economic isolation. Consequently, SIL's focus on unwritten languages coincides with service to some of the poorest and most disadvantaged peoples living today.

In Indonesia, a Barik student takes his turn at the board
In Indonesia, a Barik student takes his turn at the board

In many societies the poorest of the poor are the women. Historically, SIL has had a strong focus on women's literacy wherever it has worked. Many of its field workers and literacy specialists are women. Almost every field team includes a female member, providing for a strong identification with the female population. In many cases, separate classes have been organized for women so that cultural and social values do not inhibit classroom activities.

By virtue of its extensive experience in language development, the scope of its work in so many languages, and the fact of very high rates of illiteracy in many of these languages, SIL recognizes that it bears a heavy responsibility to contribute significantly to the fight against illiteracy.

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