SIL International

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SIL International
Formation 1934; 88 years ago (1934)
Type Scientific institute
Purpose Research in linguistics, promote literacy, language preservation
Headquarters Dallas, Texas, United States
Key people
William Cameron Townsend (founder)
John Watters (president)
Website (English)
Formerly called
Summer Institute of Linguistics

SIL International (formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) is a U.S.-based, worldwide, Christian non-profit organization, whose main purpose is to study, develop and document languages, especially those that are lesser-known, in order to expand linguistic knowledge, promote literacy, translate the Christian Bible into local languages, and aid minority language development.

The organization was founded by Presbyterian minister William Cameron Townsend, an American missionary to Guatemala where he worked among the Kaqchikel Maya people. In 1933 Townsend turned to Mexico with the purpose of translating the Bible into indigenous languages there, as he had done for Kaqchikel. Townsend established a working relation with the Mexican ministry of education under the progressive government of Lázaro Cárdenas and founded SIL to educate linguist-missionaries to work in Mexico. Through the following decades the SIL linguists worked with providing literacy education to indigenous people of Mexico, while simultaneously working with the SIL's sister organization the Wycliffe Bible Translators, also founded by Townsend to translate the Bible into the languages where they were working. SIL gradually extended its work to other regions of the world where indigenous languages were spoken, including Papua New Guinea, Southeast Asia and Africa. While initially SIL's staff only received basic training in linguistics and anthropology, gradually the organization came to be professionalized and today many have advanced degrees.

SIL has more than 6,000 members from over 50 countries. Based on their language documentation work, SIL publishes a database, Ethnologue, of its research into the world's languages. SIL also develops and publishes software programs for language documentation, such as FieldWorks Language Explorer (FLEx) and Lexique Pro. SIL also holds formal consultative status with the United Nations, and has been recognized by UNESCO for their contributions in Asia.[1] Also, SIL is a member of the Forum of Bible Agencies International.

SIL has been criticized by anthropologists and indigenous rights activists for having negative influences on communities where they work, by changing local cultural patterns and by creating conflicts within indigenous communities. Starting in the 1980s, several countries stopped their official collaboration with SIL. SIL did not consider these accusations valid.

Its headquarters are located in Dallas, Texas.


William Cameron Townsend, a Presbyterian minister, founded the organization in 1934. In the early 1930s Townsend worked as a Disciples of Christ missionary among the Kaqchikel Maya people in Guatemala. In 1933 he turned to Mexico with the purpose of translating the Bible into indigenous languages there, as he had done for Kaqchikel. Townsend established a working relationship with the Mexican Secretariat of Public Education under the government of President Lázaro Cárdenas (in office 1934-1940) and founded SIL to educate linguist-missionaries to work in Mexico. Because the Mexican government did not allow missionary work through its educational system, Townsend founded Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1942 as a separate organization from SIL. Wycliffe Bible Translators focused on Bible translation and missionary activities whereas SIL focused on linguistic documentation and literacy education.[2]

Having initiated the collaboration with the Mexican education authorities, Townsend started SIL International as a small summer training session in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas in 1934 to missionaries in basic linguistic, anthropological and translation principles. Through the following decades the SIL linguists worked with providing literacy education to indigenous people of Mexico, while simultaneously working with the Wycliffe Bible Translators on Bible translation. One of the students at the first summer institute in its second year 1935, Kenneth Lee Pike (1912–2000), would become the foremost figure in the history of SIL. He served as SIL's president from 1942 to 1979, then as president emeritus until his death in 2000.

In 1979 SIL's agreement with the Mexican government was officially terminated[by whom?] after critiques from anthropologists regarding the combination of education and missionary activities in indigenous communities, though SIL continued to be active in that country.[3] At a conference of the Inter-American Indian Institute in Mérida, Yucatán, in November 1980, delegates denounced the Summer Institute of Linguistics, charging that it was using a scientific name to conceal its Protestant agenda and an alleged capitalist view that was alien to indigenous traditions.[4] This led to the agreement with the Ecuadorean government being terminated in 1980,[5] although a token presence remained. In the early 1990s, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) demanded the expulsion of SIL from the country.[6] SIL was also expelled from Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Panama, and restricted in Colombia and Peru.[7] As of 2016 SIL operates in many[quantify] of those countries.[8]

From the 1950s to 1987 the University of Oklahoma in Norman hosted SIL training. The agreement between the university and SIL was terminated[by whom?] in 1987 after a controversy about SIL's involvement in missionary activities and its relationship with Latin American governments.[citation needed]. As of 2016 SIL training is offered in many locations around the world.

SIL's as of 2016 current president, Dr. John Watters, took office in 2008 after serving as executive director from 2000 to 2007.


SIL's principal contribution to linguistics has been the data that has been gathered and analysed from over 1,000 minority and endangered languages,[9] many of which had not been previously studied academically. SIL endeavors to share both the data and the results of analysis in order to contribute to the overall knowledge of language. This has resulted in publications on languages such as Hixkaryana and Pirahã which have challenged the universality of some linguistic theories. SIL's work has resulted in over 20,000 technical publications, all of which are listed in the SIL Bibliography.[10] Most of these are a reflection of linguistic fieldwork.[11]

SIL's focus has not been on the development of new linguistic theories, but tagmemics, though no longer promoted by SIL, was developed by Kenneth Pike, who also coined the words emic and etic, more widely used today in anthropology.[12]

Another focus of SIL is literacy work, particularly in indigenous languages. SIL assists local, regional and national agencies that are developing formal and informal education in vernacular languages. These cooperative efforts enable new advances in the complex field of educational development in multilingual and multicultural societies.[13]

SIL provides instructors and instructional materials for linguistics programs at several major institutions of higher learning around the world. In the United States, these include Biola University, Moody Bible Institute, Houghton College, University of North Dakota, the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics and Dallas Theological Seminary. Other universities with SIL programmes include Trinity Western University in Canada, Charles Darwin University in Australia, and Universidad Ricardo Palma in Lima, Peru.

SIL also presents the fruits of some of its research through the International Museum of Cultures.[14] Located in Dallas, it was developed by linguists and anthropologists associated with SIL International for the purpose of celebrating peoples of diverse cultures in an effort to promote greater appreciation and understanding of cultural differences.

Methodological contributions

Ethnologue and ISO 639-3 codes

The Ethnologue, a guide to the world's languages, is published by SIL. The 16th edition of the Ethnologue was published in 2009 and uses the ISO 639-3 standard, which assigns 3-letter codes to languages; these were derived in part from the 3-letter codes that were used in the Ethnologue's 15th edition. SIL is the registration authority for the ISO 639-3 standard. The 15th edition, which was published in 2005, includes 7299 codes. A 16th edition was released in the middle of 2009, and a 17th in 2013.


SIL has long been a pioneer in the field of software for linguistic research. Several pieces of software are available.[15] Adapt It is a tool for translating text from one language into a related language after performing limited linguistic analysis.[16] In the field of lexicon collection, ShoeBox and the newer ToolBox (Field Linguist’s Toolbox)[17] have largely been replaced by FieldWorks Language Explorer (FLEx Windows and Linux)[18] for linguists, and WeSay (also Windows and Linux)[19] for non-professionals. Graphite is a smart-font technology and rendering system.[20]


The 1947 Summer Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America passed a resolution that the work of SIL "should be strongly commended by our Society and welcomed as one of the most promising developments in applied linguistics in this country."[21]

SIL holds formal consultative status with UNESCO and United Nations, and has been publicly recognized by UNESCO for their work in many parts of Asia.[22] SIL also holds non-governmental organization status in many countries.[citation needed]

SIL's work has received appreciation and recognition in a number of international settings. In 1973, SIL was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding. This foundation honors outstanding individuals and organizations working in Asia who manifest greatness of spirit in service to the peoples of Asia.[23] UNESCO Literacy Prizes have been awarded to SIL's work in a number of countries: Australia (1969), Cameroon (1986), Papua New Guinea (1979), Philippines (1991).[24]


The organization's focus on language description, language development and Bible translation, and the missionary activities carried out by many of its field workers, have been criticized by linguists and anthropologists who argue that SIL is in essence a missionary organization, and that by aiming to change indigenous cultures, they exacerbate the problems that cause language endangerment and death.[25][26][27]

It has also been alleged that the Summer Institute of Linguistics cooperated with the American government during the Cold War, supporting counterinsurgency efforts in different Latin American countries, as well as the work of U.S. corporations working to displace indigenous populations from exploitable land resources.[28][29] In their book "Thy Will Be Done" Colby and Dennett claim that SIL collaborated with Nelson Rockefeller in conducting surveys, transporting CIA agents and indirectly assisting in the genocide of tribes in the Amazon basin.[30] In the 1981 book "Is God an American" a group of anthropologists described the work of SIL in Latin America and Africa, arguing that it was contributing to ethnocide of indigenous groups by supporting government policies of cultural assimilation.[26][31]

SIL did not consider these accusations valid, rejecting their involvement in ethnocide, because they claimed that efforts to change cultural patterns is not equivalent to destroying cultures, and because all their work is based on voluntary participation of indigenous peoples.[32][33][34] SIL also argues that it is in fact actively protecting endangered languages by promoting them within the speech community and providing mother-tongue literacy training.[35][34]

Regional offices

Besides the headquarters in Dallas, SIL has offices and locally incorporated affiliated organizations in the following countries:[8]




  • China: cooperation with a number of research organizations and government agencies.[37]
  • Philippines: Manila
  • India: The partner organisation of SIL in India was the Indian Institute of Cross Cultural Communication — IICCC, Nashik. The Institute trains Christians in the areas of linguistics and anthropological research besides translation.


See also


  1. Appeal: SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) International
  2. Hartch, Todd (2006). Missionaries of the State: The Summer Institute of Lingusitics, State Formation, and Indigenous Mexico, 1935–1985. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Clarke 2001, p. 182.
  4. Bonner 1999, p. 20.
  5. Yashar 2005, p. 118.
  6. Yashar 2005, p. 146.
  7. Cleary & Steigenga 2004, p. 36.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Worldwide, SIL International<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  9. Endangered Language Groups, SIL<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  10. "Bibliography", Ethnologue, SIL<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  11. "Fieldwork", Linguistics, SIL<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  12. Headland et. al. 1990.
  13. About, SIL International<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  14. The International Museum of Cultures, SIL<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  15. "Software". SIL International.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Adapt It". SIL Software Catalog. SIL International.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Toolbox Information". SIL Software Catalog. SIL International.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Bush, Ann. "Download". SIL FieldWorks. SIL International.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. tarmstrong (16 November 2012). "WeSay on Linux". WeSay. SIL International.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Graphite". SIL. 2 June 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Proceedings", Language, The Linguistic Society of America, 24 (3): 4, 1947<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  22. Appeal: SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) International, Unesco BKK<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  23. "Summer Institute of Linguistics", Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for International Understanding, 1973<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  24. Literacy Prize winners 1967–2001 (PDF), UNESCO<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  25. Epps, Patience (2005), "Language endangerment in Amazonia: The role of missionaries", in Wolgemuth, Jan; Dirksmeyer, Tyko (eds.), Bedrohte Vielfalt: Aspects of Language Death, Berlin: Weissensee: Berliner Beiträge zur Linguistik<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Hvalkof & Aaby 1981.
  27. Errington 2008, pp. 153-162.
  28. Stoll 1982.
  29. Hart 1973.
  30. Colby & Dennett 1995.
  31. Smith, Richard Chase (1981), The Summer Institute of Linguistics: Ethnocide disguised as a blessing<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>. In Hvalkof & Aaby 1981b, pp. 121–32.
  32. Bodley, J (2008), Victims of Progress, Rowman Altamira, pp. 258–60, In the SIL view ethnocide was not a valid concept, and it would lead to pessimism if one equated ethnocide with culture change imposed by the inevitable progress of civilization<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  33. Olson 2009.
  34. 34.0 34.1 Dobrin 2009.
  35. Cahill, Michael (2004), From endangered to less endangered: Case studies from Brazil and Papua New Guinea, Electronic Working Papers, SIL, 2004-004, retrieved August 5, 2013<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  36. "Suriname", Americas, SIL<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  37. Chinese partnerships, SIL East Asia Group<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.


  • Bonner, Arthur (1999), We Will Not Be Stopped: Evangelical Persecution, Catholicism, and Zapatismo in Chiapas, Mexico, Universal Publishers, ISBN 1-58112-864-9<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Brend, Ruth Margaret, and Kenneth Lee Pike (eds.): The Summer Institute of Linguistics: Its Works and Contributions (Walter De Gruyter 1977), ISBN 90-279-3355-3.
  • Clarke, Colin (2001), Class, Ethnicity, and Community in Southern Mexico: Oaxaca's Peasantries (PDF), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-823387-6<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Cleary, Edward L; Steigenga, Timothy J (2004), Resurgent Voice in Latin America: Indigenous Peoples, Political Mobilization, and Religious Change, Rutgers University Press, ISBN 0-8135-3461-5<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Cobbs, Elizabeth A. "Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil – book reviews" (Christian Century, November 1, 1995)
  • Colby, Gerard; Dennett, Charlotte (1995), Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil, Harper Collins, ISBN 0-06-016764-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> This book contains allegations of Rockefeller's use of American missionaries, and in particular, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, who cooperated in conducting surveys, transporting CIA agents and indirectly assisting in the genocide of tribes in the Amazon basin.
  • Dobrin, Lise M. (2009), "SIL International and the disciplinary culture of linguistics: Introduction", Language, 85 (3): 618–619, doi:10.1353/lan.0.0132.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Erard, Michael (July 19, 2005), "How Linguists and Missionaries Share a Bible of 6,912 Languages", The New York Times<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Errington, Joseph (2008), Linguistics in a Colonial World: A Story of Language, Meaning, and Power, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 978-1-4051-0569-9CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Gow, Peter: An Amazonian Myth and Its History (Oxford University Press 2001), ISBN 0-19-924195-3 / ISBN 0-19-924196-1.
  • Hart, Laurie K. (1973), "The Story of the Wycliffe Translators: Pacifying the Last Frontiers", NACLA's Latin America & Empire Report, VII.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> This article describes SIL's collaboration with US oil corporations and military governments in South America in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Headland, Thomas; Pike, Kenneth; Harris, Marvin, eds. (1990), Emics and etics: The insider/outsider debate, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Hvalkof, Søren; Aaby, Peter, eds. (1981), Is God an American? An Anthropological Perspective on the Missionary Work of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Copenhagen/London: (A Survival International Document, International Workgroup for Indigenous Affairs, ISBN 87-980717-2-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lewis, Norman: The Missionaries (London, Secker and Warburg 1988; McGraw-Hill Companies 1989), ISBN 0-07-037613-1.
  • Mantilla, Castro, and Maria Dolores: El Trabajo del ILV en Bolivia, 1954–1980, Informe Final (The Work of SIL in Bolivia, 1954–1980, Final Report; La Paz, Ministerio de Desarollo Humano 1996). This report in Spanish contains a detailed chart of SIL activities in Latin American countries.
  • Olson, Kenneth S. (2009), "SIL International: An emic view", Language, 85 (3): 646–658, doi:10.1353/lan.0.0156.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Orlandi, Eni Pucinelli: Sprache, Glaube, Macht: "Ethik und Sprachenpolitik / Language, Faith, Power: Ethics and Language Policy", in: Brigitte Schlieben-Lange (ed.): Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik 116, Katechese, Sprache, Schrift (University of Siegen / J.B. Metzler 1999) The author presents a discourse analysis of the practices of SIL.
  • Perkins, John: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (Plume Publishers 2006), ISBN 0-452-28708-1. Contains references to alleged SIL missionary activities and displacement of indigenous peoples in South America.
  • Pettifer, Richard; Bradley, Julian (1991), Missionaries, BBC Publications, ISBN 0-563-20702-7<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Stoll, David (1982), Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? The Wycliffe Bible Translators in Latin America. A US Evangelical Mission in the Third World, London: Zed Press, ISBN 0-86232-111-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Criticism of alleged SIL missionary activities.
  • Willibrand, W. A: Oklahoma Indians and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (1953).
  • Yashar, Deborah J (2005), Contesting Citizenship In Latin America. The Rise of Indigenous Movements and the Postliberal Challenge, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-82746-9<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.

External links