SIL International Annual Update 2016 Review Language for Life

Learning and Living with Dignity

Going to school for the first time at the age of six was a traumatic experience for me.

Prior to beginning school, I had good command of my own mother tongue (Ghomálá’, a language of Cameroon). But upon entering school, suddenly French became the only means of learning and negotiating all daily activities. Worse still, speaking the mother tongue was forbidden at school. That was a real shock for us as children. In the classroom we felt dull and vulnerable, unlike the lively children we were outside of school where we knew how to navigate life by using our language.

Because of my experience, I’ve pondered over the years how education can truly become an enjoyable empowerment for children rather than just a painful ordeal. For many minority language speakers like myself, much depends on the choice of languages used in the process of education. It is my hope and belief that someday all children will have access to education in a way that is enjoyable and exciting, one that doesn’t cause them to lose their cultural identity in order to gain learning.

Children are not the only ones who risk loss of identity and dignity in exchange for learning and growth. Minority language speakers of every age often feel forced into choosing between embracing their ethnolinguistic identity or leaving it behind to access better living conditions. This is unfortunate and unnecessary. Examples from around the world convincingly prove that sustainable development happens when the linguistic and cultural heritage of peoples is treated as an enabler rather than an obstacle to development.

This 2016 Update highlights ethnolinguistic communities who are making progress toward their development goals, not by giving up their language but by using it. We in SIL are honored to serve alongside language communities and all of you who support their cause. Together we can promote ideas and practices that enable minority language groups to use their languages in ways that allow them to learn and live with dignity as people made in God’s image.

Dr. Michel Kenmogne

Executive Director

4,882 SIL Staff

84 countries of origin of staff

100 countries served by SIL

1,600+ languages currently served by SIL

39,875 (online) archived resources

96 dictionaries in 35 countries on

Who we are as people is inseparable from the languages we speak

Language and the Sustainable Development Goals

The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by United Nations member nations present a global vision for the future, intended for all peoples. Ethnolinguistic minority communities are among those most deeply impacted by the challenges addressed. Their involvement, which is critical to reaching these Goals, best happens as each community uses their familiar language to facilitate understanding and develop culturally appropriate strategies.

The SDGs, at their core, are a view of what people want the world to look like in 15 years; they are a picture of a preferred future. —Matt Wisbey, LEAD Asia

Partnering for Multilingual Classroom Success

For a writing system (orthography) to actually be used, the potential users must support it. An acceptable orthography usually has had significant input from the language community from the beginning.

Partnering with Save the Children, SIL designed and conducted orthography development training to support multilingual education implementation for nineteen Philippine languages. Based on insights from their own evaluations, each team wrote specific plans for involving community leaders, educators, and parents in further orthography development processes. In this way, they hope to build the consensus and community ownership necessary for successful multilingual education in their community.

Communities Caring for the Environment

International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC), an SIL partner, is integrating environmental and agricultural sustainability topics into school curricula in Cambodia’s northeastern provinces. By building upon the home culture and experiences of the communities, trained teams from the communities use local languages to dialogue with village people about environmental topics such as agriculture and forest protection. Many of these communities find the national language difficult to understand; using the vernacular increases community participation and action. One community revived an elders’ council to keep officials accountable to the community on the issue of forest protection.

Language and Individual Wellbeing

Language is a frequently overlooked factor in poverty-relief initiatives. Yet it is significant for the many communities who speak a lesser-known, minority language. Income improvement and hunger relief is achieved when life-changing information is communicated in a language people understand well.

From the learning circle, I learned how to raise poultry and prevent diseases. Now I have 10 ducks with 9 baby ducks and 12 chickens. All of them are healthy and alive. —from a participant in one of several adult learning circles in Bangladesh.

A Changing Picture for Women

Historically, the socioeconomic situation of the Kol community of Bangladesh has been challenging, especially for women. However, since 2009 when SIL began partnering with the community in a multilingual education project, the picture is changing. Kolpona Kol is one example. Kolpona’s family was so poor she couldn’t complete her studies. But after marrying young and starting her family, Kolpona attended an SIL-organized training session in 2011. She went on to train as an MLE school teacher and started work at Notunpara School. Now, with both she and her husband earning money, Kolpona has saved her salary, built a new brick house and started farming as a sharecropper. Their two children are attending school, and Kolpona recently completed her secondary education. Kolpona now works with SIL Bangladesh providing training opportunities for others.

Recovering from Trauma

Earlier this year, a Western Tamang man pulled out his cellphone and showed SIL Nepal Director Daniel Watters a photo of a pile of rocks—all that was left of his family’s home after the devastating 2015 Nepal earthquake. When individuals and families experience natural disaster, war or other traumatic events, the effects are far-reaching and include hidden stresses beyond the obvious devastation. In May 2016, SIL and a local partner facilitated a Trauma Healing Workshop for communities impacted by the 7.8 earthquake that killed thousands and destroyed over 600,000 homes. Trauma healing workshops, conducted in the local language, provide an opportunity for processing and healing.

As part of the workshop, the participants symbolically burn (release) the traumatic events in their lives.

Language and Education

Sustainable Development Goal #4 calls for equal access to quality education. Language is a key to this access. When taught first in their local language, students gain critical literacy and numeracy skills, which can then be readily transferred to official languages of education. This foundation in the local language provides the essential tools for their lifelong learning.

Celebrating Successful Literacy

Patani Malay-speaking students in southern Thailand have traditionally struggled to succeed in the Thai monolingual school system. The Patani Malay-Thai Bi/Multilingual Education Project uses the power of their mother tongue to counter chronic underachievement in school, bringing social and linguistic equality at the same time. Students taking part in the MLE project do better than students at monolingual schools. On International Literacy Day 2016, Mahidol University’s Regional Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia received UNESCO’s King Sejong Prize for their work in administering the Patani Malay Project, with consultant help from SIL staff.

Patani Malay classroom

Apps for Reading

Anabel, a speaker of Me’phaa, a language of Mexico, worked with SIL staff to put the text, pictures and audio of a children’s story into SIL’s Reading App Builder. The resulting interactive mobile phone app reads the story out loud, highlighting each word as it is spoken so a beginning reader can easily follow along. Reading apps generated with the Reading App Builder can be passed between smartphones via Bluetooth or uploaded to the internet so others can download them. It can also build apps from the Bloom library to become talking books.

Registered users of SIL’s Bloom software have more than doubled in 2016. Bloom makes it easy to create simple books and translate them into multiple languages. More than 1,000 shellbooks are now available on Multiple Bloom training events have been held around the world in partnership with SIL LEAD.

Language and Community Vitality

Language is the social glue that holds societies together. Yet many ethnolinguistic peoples find their community and unique identity threatened by the speed of change around them and the challenge of participating in development opportunities available only through other languages. When communities can participate in their own development through the use of their language, culture and worldview, their voice is strengthened and they are better able to adapt to a globalizing world while preserving their unique identity.

Celebrating Culture, Developing Community

The Lezgi-speaking people of the Caucasus Mountains developed a new website with the assistance of SIL and other specialists. Created to celebrate and share Lezgi language and culture, this website features Lezgi dictionaries, a Lezgi primer for children, and pages about their art and literature. The website has helped stimulate other local efforts, such as a local newspaper, a Lezgi radio station, a cultural journal and additional websites. New music ensembles, dance troupes, and a collective of mother-tongue poets have formed. The website has been a catalyst for healthy community development, enabling the Lezgi to peacefully express their language, cultural heritage and distinct way of life in the Caucasus Region. With renewed confidence, they are openly embracing their unique identity while also engaging in the wider information-connected world.

Internet Access through Font Tools

SIL’s Graphite is a free and open rendering engine for complex scripts, such as those used by many lesser-known languages. This “smart font” system recently added features to detect and automatically avoid potential “collisions” of characters and diacritics (e.g., accent marks) in complex scripts. SIL font engineers are now talking with other developers to see whether Graphite’s powerful features can be made available in OpenType, the widely used font format on which the rendering systems of Google, Microsoft and Adobe are based. Such tools help open up internet access to speakers of minority languages.

A sample of Saraiki and Urdu scripts containing collisions (characters and diacritics overlapping or touching each other)
The same sample after Graphite has resolved the collisions

Language and Dignity

Issues of inequality are daily challenges to the wellbeing and dignity of minority language speakers and signers. But as ethnolinguistic communities are given opportunity to use their languages in arenas they choose, their unique identity is affirmed. This often unleashes creative, community-based solutions and fuller participation in development opportunities.

If you are not literate [in your own language], you cannot associate among people. Now I am free, I can stand, I can address people. —Neba Christina Bih, after learning to read Bafut, her Cameroonian language

Learning to Read, Reading to Learn

A recent report prepared by SIL staff in Africa documents the changes that mother-tongue development and literacy make in lives and communities in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana and Burkina Faso. As adults and children learn to read in their own local language, they can then “read to learn.” Through language development, minority language speakers in Africa are accessing resources, improving their families’ lives and strengthening their communities.

Transfer of literacy skills: After mastering literacy in their own tongue, young people in the Konso language of Ethiopia were able to access formal education conducted in Amharic, the national language.

Economic confidence: A Kenyan woman said she was finally making a profit in her small business after learning to read and write in her mother tongue, Tharaka. She was then able to pay school fees for her four children.

Community status: The Bafut people of Cameroon feel that having their language now in written form enables them to stand with equal dignity among other language groups in their region.

Parental involvement: Adult mother-tongue literacy in Kenya enabled parents to understand what their children had written in their exercise books and the marks given by their teachers. The parents’ own positive learning experience encouraged them to be more committed to the learning of their children.

Creating Sign Language Dictionaries with SooSL

Developed by SIL, this free software enables Deaf communities to document and share their signed language in ways similar to spoken language dictionaries. SooSL is easy to learn, requiring only a minimal knowledge of linguistics. It has the ability to include example videos, and can be used with both Windows and Mac OS.

Sign languages using SooSL: Kenyan SL, Japanese SL, Myanmar SL, Plains Indians SL, Colombia SL, and American SL.

2016 Publications and Software


Ethnologue: Languages of the World

M. Paul Lewis, PhD, Gary F. Simons, PhD, Charles D. Fennig, Editors

Ethnologue® is a comprehensive reference work cataloging all 7,097 known living languages. In addition to, a variety of products, such as country reports and maps, are available for purchase. The Ethnologue® is also published in three print volumes organized geographically; each includes an introduction, maps and indexes.

Sudanese Colloquial Arabic for Beginners, Fourth Edition

Andrew M. Persson and Janet R. Persson

This book was designed to enable someone with no previous knowledge of Arabic to learn to speak Sudanese Colloquial Arabic, also known as Khartoum Arabic. Since not everyone acquires a language the same way, this book offers a combination of language learning approaches.

Sustaining Language Use: Perspectives on Community-Based Language Development

M. Paul Lewis, PhD, Gary F. Simons, PhD

This volume, both a textbook and a handbook, results from ten years of reflection on SIL's 80 years of field work in local language communities. Readers will learn how to work towards ongoing maintenance of their language at a sustainable level. The book is aimed at field workers involved with a community to address issues arising from language and culture contact.


Now also available in Kindle and Nook: African Friends and Money Matters; Ensnared By AIDS: Cultural Contexts of HIV and AIDS in Nepal; and The Heart of the Matter: Seeking the Center in Maya-Mam Language and Culture.


Reading App Builder

The Reading App Builder is free software that helps build customized apps to display books on Android smartphones and tablets. The resulting interactive app reads out loud, highlighting each word. Apps can be passed between smartphones via Bluetooth or uploaded to the internet. This software can also create talking books from Bloom library shellbooks.

The Dictionary App Builder is free for language communities to publish dictionary apps for Android smartphones and tablets. This software creates a customized app from the various data files entered that can then be installed on an Android device, sent by Bluetooth, shared on memory cards and published on the internet.

To access more information on topics mentioned in this Update:

SIL International is a faith-based nonprofit organization committed to serving language communities as they build their capacity for sustainable language development. SIL’s service is founded on the principle that communities should be able to pursue their social, cultural, political, economic and spiritual goals without sacrificing their ethnolinguistic identity. SIL has been an official NGO partner with UNESCO since 1993 and has had special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) since 1997.

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Photographers: Sasin Tipchai, Rodney Ballard, Sylvie Bouchard, Xinia Skoropinski, Alberto Masnovo, Sangita Florence, Daniel Watters, Mahidol PMT Project, Aaron Hemphill, Mark Ambrose, Maksud, Sinada, Ian Cheffy, Eunice Kau. Graphic fonts: SIL Vai, Tai Heritage, Damascus, Andika

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