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SIL International Celebrates 70 Years of Service

DALLAS, TX (June 4, 2004) SIL International is celebrating its founding 70 summers ago in 1934. SIL began as a summer linguistic training program on an Arkansas farm with two students. As the organization has grown over the past 70 years, SIL has carried out—or is currently involved in—linguistic investigation in over 1,800 languages, spoken by over 1.2 billion people in more than 70 countries.

SIL International is a faith-based organization that studies, documents, and assists in developing the world's lesser-known languages. Its staff shares a Christian commitment to service, academic excellence, and professional engagement through literacy, linguistics, translation, and other disciplines. SIL makes its services available to all without regard to religious belief, political ideology, gender, race, or ethnic background.


The organization developed from one man’s concern for people in lesser-known language groups who were excluded from development. Originally from the U.S. state of California, William Cameron Townsend moved to Guatemala to live cross-culturally in a Mayan village. There he learned a Cakchiquel language, founded educational and development work, and promoted Bible translation. After years in Guatemala, he expanded his vision to many similarly disadvantaged peoples of the world.


SIL works with governments, nongovernmental agencies, indigenous organizations, and academic institutions worldwide and with churches and local communities. UNESCO has granted formal consultative status to SIL, which helps maintain global links, policy dialogue, and information exchange.


SIL focuses primarily on unwritten languages. People who speak these languages often live in geographic, social, and economic isolation. Studying these languages helps people practically and contributes to broader knowledge of linguistics, anthropology, and ethnomusicology. SIL publishes its academic research and widely distributes it to libraries, universities, governments, and international agencies.

Through language survey, SIL facilitates language development to prevent the extinction of languages and cultures. SIL's premier publication, Ethnologue:Languages of the World, is a comprehensive catalog of the world's nearly 7,000 living languages.

Language Technology

SIL researches and develops computer software to aid language workers and minority peoples. SIL's Non-Roman Script Initiative is a team within SIL that provides guidance, information, research, and development to facilitate using non-Roman scripts in linguistic study, translation, literacy, and publishing.


SIL focuses on grassroots, community-based programs for lesser-known language communities. It helps train local people to assume responsibility for sustainable literacy programs in their own communities and languages.

SIL also helps local, regional, and national agencies that develop formal and informal vernacular education. These cooperative efforts enable new advances in educational development in multilingual and multicultural societies.


SIL works in partnership with local language speakers to adapt or translate literature. Translation may include publications about nutrition, farming, health—including HIV/AIDS information—and some or all of the Bible.


SIL offers training for language work in partnership with educational institutions and other organizations at more than twenty locations around the world. Courses are taught by faculty from the partner institutions and by SIL staff. Classes offered include phonetics, phonology, grammar, language learning, linguistic field methods, cultural anthropology, sociolinguistics, literacy, translation, and language program planning. Professors have broad field experience and high academic standards.

Community Service

SIL integrates language and literacy skills with other forms of community development. These include practical training to coincide with written materials on health care, agriculture, sanitation, and other topics requested by local communities.


Resources for SIL’s work are provided primarily by affiliated organizations in various parts of the world. Grants from private corporations and foundations as well as funding from various government agencies have assisted SIL in its literacy and other related projects. In addition, most SIL workers develop individual funding resources for particular projects and personal support.