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SIL International (formerly 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. SIL provides a database, Ethnologue, of its research into the world's languages. SIL has more than 6,000 members from over 50 countries.
SIL International started as a small summer training session in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas in 1934 to train missionaries of what later became Wycliffe Bible Translators in basic linguistic, anthropological and translation principles. The founder was William Cameron Townsend (1896–1982), a former Disciples of Christ missionary to Guatemala. Its headquarters are located in the southern section of Dallas, Texas.
From the 1950s to 1987, SIL training was hosted by the University of Oklahoma in Norman. The agreement between the university and SIL was terminated in 1987 after a controversy about SIL being involved in missionary activities and its relationship with Latin American governments. SIL training is now offered in many locations around the world.
One of the students at the first summer institute in its second year 1935 was Kenneth Lee Pike (1912–2000), who was to 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. He worked at the University of Michigan for many years. SIL's current president is Dr. John Watters, who took the office in 2008, after serving as executive director from 2000 to 2007.
Besides the headquarters in Dallas, SIL has offices and locally incorporated affiliated organizations in several countries:
SIL's principal contribution to linguistics has been the data that has been gathered and analysed from over 1,000 minority and endangered languages, 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. Most of these are a reflection of linguistic fieldwork.
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.
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.
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 its research through the International Museum of Culture. 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.
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. SIL also holds non-governmental organization status in many countries.
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. Other notable examples include a UNESCO award and the 1979 International Reading Association Literacy Award for the literacy work in Papua New Guinea.
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. (The ISO 639-3 code set was derived in part from the 3-letter codes that were used in the Ethnologue's 15th edition.) SIL is the registrar for the ISO 639-3 standard.
SIL's website states that it "limits its focus of service to language development work [and] does not engage in proselytism, establish churches or publish Scriptures." The organization has been criticized, however, by linguists including Patience Epps, who accuses SIL of functioning as a missionary organization and exacerbating the problems causing language endangerment and death in Brazil..
SIL has also been criticized by indigenous groups in South America. 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.
In 1979, SIL's agreement with the Mexican government was officially terminated, but it continued to be active in that country. The same happened in 1980 in Ecuador, although a token presence remained. In the early 1990s, the newly-formed organisation of indigenous people of Ecuador CONAIE once more demanded the expulsion of SIL from the country. According to Cleary and Steigenga, SIL was expelled from Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Panama, and restricted in Colombia and Peru. However, SIL currently operates in many of those countries.
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