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SIL International: An emic view

From: Language
Volume 85, Number 3, September 2009
pp. 646-646-658 | 10.1353/lan.0.0156

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

1. Introduction.

Recent concern among linguists about endangered languages has increased interest in fieldwork to document these languages. This in turn has brought a new generation of linguists into contact with the largest linguistic fieldwork organization in the world, SIL International, and its primary partner organization Wycliffe Bible Translators.1

SIL can be an enigma. Historian Todd Hartch (2006:xvii) puts it this way in his published dissertation from Yale University:

Clearly, the SIL is a strange organization. As a U.S.-based fundamentalist missions organization that works closely with radical and nationalist foreign governments, starts no churches, and focuses on the arcane science of linguistics, it simply has no peers.

SIL comprises evangelical2 Christians (including a minority who are fundamentalist), yet surprising to some much of its work is scholarly. Having one foot in the Christian camp and the other in the scholarly camp has brought us criticism from both the missionary and the academic communities. Some missionaries believe we are not doing enough to evangelize, while some in the academy have concerns about our Christian composition and assumptions.

Because SIL does not readily fit into any preconceived categories, its goals have at times been misrepresented. Some have even attempted to discredit and marginalize the organization, resorting to logical fallacies. For example, based on his experience with a single indigenous group in Colombia, Arcand (1981:79) hastily generalizes, 'I consider myself in a privileged position to call a liar any SIL missionary claiming to respect indigenous cultures'. He also engages in an ad hominem attack: 'It is not known how many of these missionaries are considered backward, ugly farmers by other Americans' (1981:77). Robinson (1981:42) implies that SIL is involved in covert intelligence tasks by the irrelevant association that its former headquarters were in Southern California, where the far-right branch of the Republican Party happened to be strong. He also provides a non sequitur in discussing the cooperation between HCJB Radio, Mission Aviation Fellowship, and SIL in Ecuador (1981:49): '[J]ust why all this? So that God's work may be done? Is it farfetched to imagine a direct link with United States foreign policy and imperial strategy? Could the U.S. intelligence community be directly involved?'.

By contrast, SIL has received impressive accolades from prestigious places. On May 6, 1988, United Nations Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar praised SIL in a letter to then-SIL President Kenneth Gregerson:

Your mission as ambassadors of literacy deserves high praise. By transcribing into writing mother tongues that were previously unwritten, especially among tribespeople distant from urban centers, you are facilitating the preservation of ethnic cultures and building bridges for those cultures to the rest of humanity.

In 2006, Papua New Guinea awarded SIL the Independence Anniversary Medal of Appreciation. In the same year, the Peruvian National Congress passed a motion to salute and congratulate SIL-Peru on its sixtieth anniversary.

Who is telling the truth? We cannot categorically dismiss SIL's critics, because there are some reasonable questions about SIL's organizational structure and how it operates. There is plenty of discussion within the organization on these points (Svelmoe, this collection), and there are individual cases where SIL workers have not followed organizational policy. And, to accept the Pérez de Cuéllar quote uncritically is to commit the 'appeal to authority' fallacy.

My aim in this paper is to explain the goals of SIL and to respond to a common misrepresentation of SIL's goals. I hope that the new generation of linguists will find that they can in good conscience collaborate with SIL in the urgent task of preserving endangered languages.

2. SIL—A Hybrid Organization.

SIL's premier linguist Kenneth Pike told a story that speaks to the hybrid nature of SIL's goals:

In 1980 while Evelyn and I were lecturing in China, we were honored at a dinner at Beijing Foreign Studies University. I was seated next to a Chinese gentleman who had just returned from lecturing at Berkeley. When he learned who I was he said, 'Ah yes, I heard about you while I was in the USA. But I also heard you are a missionary. So...

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