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.
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 FLEx|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.
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.
The organization was founded by William Cameron Townsend, a Presbyterian minister and Disciples of Christ missionary to Guatemala where he worked among the Kaqchikel Maya people in the early 1930s. 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. Because the Mexican government did not allow missionary work through their educational system, Townsend founded Wycliffe Bible Translators as a separate organization from SIL. The former focused on Bible translation and missionary activities whereas SIL focused on linguistic documentation and literacy education.
Having initiated the collaboration with the Mexican ministry of education, 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 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.
In 1979, SIL's agreement with the Mexican government was officially terminated after critiques from anthropologists regarding the combination of education and missionary activities in indigenous communities, though SIL continued to be active in that country.  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. This lead to the agreement with the Ecuadorean government being terminated in 1980, 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. SIL was also expelled from Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Panama, and restricted in Colombia and Peru. SIL currently operates in many of those countries.
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.
SIL's current president is Dr. John Watters, who took the 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, 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 of its research through the International Museum of Cultures. 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.
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. Adapt It is a tool for translating text from one language into a related language after performing limited linguistic analysis. In the field of lexicon collection, ShoeBox and the newer ToolBox (Field Linguist’s Toolbox) have largely been replaced by FieldWorks Language Explorer (FLEx Windows and Linux) for linguists, and WeSay (also Windows and Linux) for non-professionals. Graphite is a smart-font technology and rendering system.
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."
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. 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).
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.
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. One book, "Thy Will Be Done" by Colby and Dennett claim that the SIL collaborated with Nelson Rockefeller in conducting surveys, transporting CIA agents and indirectly assisting in the genocide of tribes in the Amazon basin. 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.
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. SIL also argue that in fact are actively making endangered languages less endangered by promoting them within the speech community and providing mother-tongue literacy training.
Besides the headquarters in Dallas, SIL has offices and locally incorporated affiliated organizations in several countries: