What Does “SIL” Translate To?

SIL International has translated, innovated, and collaborated to produce “language solutions” for more than 855 million people worldwide

DALLAS, TX – The SIL International story began in the jungles of Guatemala when 21-year-old William Cameron Townsend was distributing Spanish translation Bibles among the Kaqchikel Indians. In the midst of his missionary work telling the Kaqchikel about the Jesus of the Bible, one astute Indian confounded the Bible college-educated Townsend with this question.

“If your God is so smart, why can’t he speak my language?”

His lack of response was so disconcerting that he soon joined Central American Missions to participate in translating the Bible into the Kaqchikel language. That experience so captivated Townsend that he eventually became one of the leaders in the Bible translation movement. It was Townsend who said,

“Understanding Scripture in a language other than the heart language in which we think and experience emotion is “like trying to eat soup with a fork. You can get a little taste, but you cannot get nourished.”

Among his prolific works, Townsend founded the Summer Institute of Linguistics in 1934 at Camp Wycliffe in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas. The institute has grown far beyond its original scope to become what is now known as SIL International.

According to its website, “SIL advocates, builds capacity, and works with local communities, governments, and development agencies to apply language expertise that advances meaningful development, education, and engagement with Scripture.”

SIL has translated, innovated, and collaborated with other like-minded organizations to produce “language solutions” for more than 855 million people around the world. Over 4,000 SIL staff members currently work in more than 1,300 communities in 104 different countries.

SIL’s expertise in linguistic analysis, Scripture access, engagement, and literacy training contributed to the betterment of more than 1,600 language programs in 2019. About 85% of those programs are either managed by SIL or operated in collaboration with other partners.

In 2019, SIL published the 21st edition of the Ethnologue: Languages of the World, the world’s most comprehensive resource cataloging knowledge and details of the 7,117 known spoken languages. The three-volume resource also includes language statistics and data that translation agencies use to recognize trends and review their strategies for most effectively reaching the unreached language groups.

During the past year, SIL added more than 5,400 items to its Language and Cultural Archives, bringing the total of available archived items for use in education, literacy, and language efforts to nearly 81,000. With the addition of 130 more languages, the total number of languages now archived exceeds 4,200.

Additionally, an entire sector of SIL technical personnel are dedicated to keeping language translation needs advancing along with the pace of technology. The world has reached a point where linguistics must be translatable and available across the increasing numbers of computers and mobile devices.

The question is, “Who is going to develop the fonts, keyboards, and programs for the tens of thousands of translated languages?”

The answer is “SIL International and its partners.”

There is so much more that can be learned by visiting the websites of SIL International and Ethnologue. We encourage readers to take advantage of these opportunities to become more aware of this glorious work being pursued in Jesus’ name.


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