SIL International Home

A Brief History of SIL International

Serving the world's ethnolinguistic minority language groups for more than 75 years

William Cameron Townsend

William Cameron Townsend, founder of SIL

The principal founder of SIL International was William Cameron Townsend (1896–1982). He began cross-cultural work with the Mayan Cakchiquel people of Guatemala in 1919. Even without formal linguistic training, he made a significant contribution to linguistic, educational and translation work among this group. By 1929 Townsend’s vision had broadened to include many other peoples also needing language development. His basic approach involved living in a village among the people, learning their language, conducting linguistic analysis, developing an alphabet, beginning an education program and translating portions of Scripture.

SIL International (then known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) came into being in 1934 as a summer training program on a farm in Arkansas, USA, with two students attending. The course was repeated in 1935 with five students. After the course was over, four of the five students went with Townsend and his wife when they began field work among the ethnolinguistic people groups of Mexico. The enrollment of these summer classes grew each subsequent year.

Kenneth L. Pike

Kenneth L. Pike, first president of SIL

Among these students was Kenneth L. Pike (1912-2000) who began work on the Mixtec language in a remote village in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. This work launched Pike into the study of phonology and tonal systems, and eventually led to his life-long work in linguistics and the study of language in the context of human behavior. Dr. Pike served as President of SIL until 1979. He is internationally known, not only for his personal work on dozens of lesser-known languages, but also for stimulating thousands of other researchers.


In 1941 one of the attendees of the training sessions in Arkansas was a professor of French at the University of Oklahoma who was studying a Native American language in Oklahoma. She was so impressed with the usefulness of SIL’s techniques for learning and analyzing unwritten languages that she invited Pike to demonstrate them at the University. As a result, SIL was invited to hold its sessions at the University of Oklahoma, an arrangement that continued until 1987. Other North American universities that have hosted SIL’s courses include the University of North Dakota (1951–), the University of Washington (1958–1985), the University of Texas at Arlington (1973–1999), Trinity Western University (1985–), and the University of Oregon (1986–2006).

SIL began offering courses outside North America with the establishment of its own schools in the United Kingdom (1953), Australia (1955) and Germany (1961). Educational partnerships were also formed with universities in Africa (1961), Latin America (1963) and Asia (1966). Through the years SIL has trained over 15,000 students in various aspects of linguistics, literacy and other cross-cultural work.

In addition to university-level instruction, SIL continues to conduct numerous non-formal workshops on the local level to equip members of ethnolinguistic communities to carry on their own language development work.

Language Research

SIL linguists began language research in several countries in the Americas during the 1940s and 1950s. Their basic program, like that of Townsend’s, revolved around learning to speak the local language, studying phonological and grammatical structures, understanding the cultural context, assisting with language development such as alphabets, educational materials, diglot dictionaries and translating requested materials including portions of the Bible. Usually SIL linguists worked under the sponsorship of national government agencies, and their research was made available to those agencies, other national institutions and the wider academic world.

SIL developed similar language-based programs in other parts of the world, beginning in the Philippines in 1953, spreading from there to other parts of the Pacific and Asia, to Africa in 1962 and to parts of Europe in 1974. SIL is now involved in language development in over 50 countries.

SIL works alongside ethnolinguistic peoples whose voices are often not heard, by facilitating language development through research, training and advocacy. SIL is committed to ongoing training to further develop competency within those communities. SIL provides consultant help to develop the capacity of community educators and national program designers to create effective multilingual education programs.

Progress in Language Development

In 1934 when SIL was formed, linguists estimated that there were about 1,000 unwritten languages in the world. As language researchers continued their investigation, many more languages were documented. Now it is known that there are nearly 7,000 languages spoken today. The conclusions of this ongoing research have been published in an SIL reference work called the Ethnologue: Languages of the World. A new edition of this catalog of languages is published every four years. The sixteenth edition, published in 2009, lists 6,909 languages.

In its 75-year history, SIL has worked with over 2,550 languages. Currently there are about 2,000 SIL language development programs in progress. The SIL Bibliography contains over 35,000 references to books, journal articles, book chapters, dissertations and other academic papers about languages and cultures authored or edited by SIL International staff or published by SIL. In addition to a body of literature in many lesser-known languages, numerous portions of Scripture have been translated.