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Athabasca University

Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) During the Colonial Era

Of the many mission-based organizations to engage in the development of print culture in Papua New Guinea, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) has likely had the greatest effect. Since its establishment, it has published 2500 titles dealing with Papua New Guinea.

Originally formed in the United States in 1934 by Cameron Townsend, the SIL (and its associated agency, the Wycliffe Bible Translators) is a Christian change agency whose stated goals are to permeate a culture without destroying it.

SIL members are trained linguists and cultural anthropologists, many of them of international stature. The results of their work are impressive. Taylor's 1985 article demonstrates that, as a Christian change agency, SIL is far less destructive than other missionary organizations he has studied. Lynch (13) has indicated that, of the mission organizations in PNG, the SIL has been the most successful in producing the largest number of non-religious literacy texts. He writes that, in 1977, of the 18 languages that had 10 or more publications, 9 were from the Eastern Highlands Province where SIL is based (12). Lynch's figures were synthesized from a 1975 survey conducted by SIL in co-operation with UPNG's Educational Research Unit (ERU).

The author of the SIL report on the survey, Joice Franklin, states that, although the government's Adult Education Department "has been experimenting with literacy programmes in some areas....literacy programmes for unschooled adults and teenagers have largely been the responsibility of missions and SIL" (7). In 1975, Franklin could report that SIL was producing literacy materials in over 40 languages, half of which were encountering such materials for the first time. By 1988 when the decolonizing frenzy had cooled down, SIL was still active but at a calmer pace, producing 81 literacy titles that year in 29 languages (Annual Report 1988, 23).

The attitude of SIL towards indigenous culture is clearly stated in its aims and born out in a fairly rigorous method. According to Bruce Hooley, Director of SIL during the high period of political decolonization in PNG, the organization has five aims: 1) linguistic study; 2) anthropological study; 3) promoting vernacular literacy wherever possible; 4) translating scriptures and other materials; 5) encouraging social/economic development in target groups (Hooley 1968, 64). When a target group is identified, SIL sends in a team of two people who it is assumed will have long-term contact with that group over many years. Their study is supported and supervised by a "Linguistic Committee of five Departments (Anthropology, Grammar, Phonetics, Literacy, and Translation)" (Hooley 1968, 65). Each team is meant to become fluent in the target language within a few months; produce an analysis of the phonology; propose an orthography and grammatical analysis. At the same time they are to observe and describe the culture, build up a file of dictionary entries and prepare for literacy and translation.

As soon as the team understands the language well enough, it prepares literacy materials, primers, and readers. The team actively promotes vernacular literacy classes and begins to train indigenous teachers. The fundamental principle behind this highly organized and extremely effective sector of colonial sub-culture is that language and culture are considered indivisible.

Although it is desirable for indigenous peoples here and elsewhere to speak, read and write the national language of their country, long experience has shown that the most effective means of communication with any people is through their native tongue. (Hooley 1968, 67)

Once the structures were in place for SIL workers to promote literacy in local communities, SIL embarked on a much more ambitious programme. Materials for literacy were produced at an increasing pace after 1965 and took another surge forward after 1973 (SIL Bibliography 1956-75). In the mid 1970s, SIL conducted a series of vernacular literacy seminars for staff and students at UPNG and at several teacher colleges (East 140; R.K. Johnson 1975a). Beginning in 1983, SIL began to hold "National Literacy" courses at SIL headquarters at Ukarumpa.

SIL's worldwide success is in large part due to its apparent a-political stance. Its translation and linguistic activities are only minimally evangelical, while the results of its scientific studies are made freely available to local authorities, or any other interested parties. In PNG, the Administration recognized the superior capabilities of SIL in the realm of language study and teaching. In the 1960s, it requested sets of language learning lessons from SIL. The Department of Information and Extension Services (DIES) then published them as part of the Administration's effort at adult education. Later, a comprehensive course of programmed learning tapes were developed to teach Tok Pisin.

The Institute conducted numerous language surveys for the Administration. SIL members collected up so many myths, legends, and other items of folklore for linguistic analysis that they began publishing collections of them for the use of anthropologists and folklorists in the late 1960s. Finally, Institute workers collected, preserved and analyzed the musical forms and styles they encountered; they then wrote many articles based on this research and published a catalogue of musical instruments as well (Hooley 1968, 68-70). By downplaying its evangelical goals, providing valued services for the Administration, and participating in the academic life of the decolonizing process, SIL served as a bridge between the two major colonial agencies. It had credibility in both spheres.

i. Franklin was alluding to the fact that the number of places available to children in the public education system could in no way match the number of children wishing places. In a 1977 article, Bishop Ashton noted that only one-third of the Standard 6 class could go on to high school. A further 40% of the Standard 8 students had to leave the system because of lack of places. Ashton estimated that only 18 out of every 100 children who started school could obtain places in a National High School, yet the whole system was geared toward that level (Ashton 139).

Updated October 13 2016 by Library Services