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SIL Africa: Building on Language Diversity in Communities

April 2, 2024

by Guest Contributor

By Dr. Mokeira Mary Gisairo

SIL Africa Learning & Development, a nonprofit rooted in the vision of seeing people thrive through the use of valued community languages, has been at the forefront of language development, Bible translation, and literacy initiatives since its inception.

William Cameron Townsend, an American Christian missionary-linguist, embarked on a journey that would forever alter the landscape of Bible translation and linguistic studies. Townsend’s mission began when he took Bibles written in Spanish to Mexico, only to discover that the local population couldn’t comprehend the language. Driven by a deep sense of purpose, Townsend endeavored to translate the scriptures into a language accessible to the community.

Local Language as Mission

Townsend (photo to the left) envisioned a mission dedicated to fostering indigenous-led, self-sustaining, Bible-centered Christian congregations because he believed that such an endeavor could catalyze societal transformation, rooted in the conviction that well-translated and understood Christian scriptures possessed the power to effect positive change in both individuals and society.

In 1934, Townsend’s vision materialized with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, now known as SIL International. This pioneering institution was founded with the purpose of providing short-term linguistic education to equip individuals for language translation and cultural engagement. Concurrently, Wycliffe Bible Translators emerged as a vital fundraising arm, facilitating the expansion of linguistic and Christian outreach efforts into Asia while deepening the Christian presence in the region.

Townsend’s legacy extends beyond linguistic translation; it embodies a profound commitment to empowering communities through access to scripture in their native languages. His visionary approach laid the foundation for SIL International’s enduring mission to bridge linguistic divides, foster cultural understanding, and enrich lives through the transformative power of language. SIL Africa’s mission has evolved from providing technical support for phonation to a comprehensive approach that encompasses linguistic interventions, appropriate learning materials, and research on best practices in language and learning.

Expanding Possibilities

“SIL Africa’s core belief is that using local languages for education and development opens up numerous opportunities for positive change,” said Manasseh Wekundah, Director, SIL Africa, Learning & Development. The organization recognizes the transformative power of language in marginalized communities, leading to economic improvement, social benefits, and personal satisfaction.

Through a focus on technical and linguistic interventions, SIL Africa works towards creating language solutions that genuinely impact the lives of African communities. SIL Africa offers a range of services, from language development and Bible translation to literacy programs and software development for translation tools.

Learning and Development Initiatives

One of SIL Africa’s notable departments is the Learning & Development unit, which started as an advocacy unit pushing for appropriate language use in different contexts. The unit, which has funding from USAID in Ghana and Kenya, supports foundational learning for children and adult education across Africa, empowering individuals to make informed decisions in various aspects of their lives.

SIL Africa is dedicated to promoting foundational learning for children and supporting adult education initiatives across various African nations, including Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Namibia. Through partnerships with organizations like the Finish Bible Society, SIL Africa emphasizes literacy programs aimed at empowering women to make informed decisions, particularly in areas such as nutrition and healthcare. The organization’s efforts have enabled individuals who dropped out of school due to pregnancy to regain confidence and resume their education.

Moreover, SIL Africa recognizes the pivotal role of parental involvement in education; when parents acquire literacy skills, they are better equipped to support their children’s learning journey. By aligning adult and children’s programs, SIL Africa ensures a holistic approach to education. Additionally, the organization prioritizes relatable language in educational settings, recognizing that children are more engaged and retention rates are higher when taught in a language they understand and appreciate. (Adult language learners pictured below. Credit: SIL Africa)

“Our work at SIL Africa includes developing models for transitioning children from their mother tongue to official languages, understanding the importance of fluency in both,” said Manasseh Wekundah. “The organization emphasizes that literacy skills acquired in one language are transferable to others, facilitating broader language acquisition and proficiency among learners.” Through these initiatives, SIL Africa strives to create inclusive educational environments that cater to the linguistic and cultural diversity of African communities, ultimately fostering lifelong learning and independence.

Impact Assessment and Technology Integration

SIL Africa incorporates technology into its language solutions, such as the Scripture App Builder, to make scriptures accessible on mobile phones. Mr. Wekundah recounted that the organization also engages in technology assessments to ensure compatibility with varying levels of technological infrastructure. Through tools like Bloom, Keyman, and wordlists, SIL Africa enhances language accessibility for communities across the continent. (Photo below shows a book produced through the Bloom tool.)

SIL Africa places a strong emphasis on measuring the impact of its language solutions on individuals within the African communities it serves. Understanding the attitudes and perceptions of community members is key to gauging the effectiveness of these solutions. Additionally, the organization is dedicated to supporting languages that may not garner widespread attention but are nonetheless crucial for community cohesion and development.

To assess impact, SIL Africa adopts a systematic approach. “When starting a project, we begin with establishing baselines, as exemplified by ongoing initiatives such as the Pokot Uganda project in Amudat, which involves comprehensive language mapping. The organization then develops early-grade reading and mathematics assessments in collaboration with relevant partners. Before implementation, thorough media reviews are conducted to ensure alignment with community needs and expectations,” said Mr. Wekundah.

The assessment process culminates in an end evaluation to measure the tangible impact of SIL Africa’s interventions. This includes tracking improvements in reading and mathematics abilities and providing valuable insights into the effectiveness of language solutions. By utilizing this comprehensive assessment framework, SIL Africa continues to refine its strategies and effectively support African communities in their educational and developmental endeavors.

Collaboration and Local Expertise

Recognizing the importance of collaboration, SIL Africa actively engages with local linguists, language experts, and government stakeholders to ensure the accuracy and effectiveness of its language solutions. This collaborative approach contributes to the organization’s ability to address diverse linguistic challenges.

In The Gambia, SIL Africa conducts comprehensive language mapping initiatives to better understand the linguistic landscape of educational settings. Despite the diverse array of national and native languages spoken by students, SIL Africa recognizes the prevalence of children proficient in national languages that may differ from their ethnic backgrounds. Through meticulous research and analysis, SIL Africa identifies the most widely spoken languages in the 617 schools assessed. This groundbreaking project, supported by funding from the World Bank, sheds light on the linguistic dynamics within Gambian schools, providing valuable insights for educational policymakers and stakeholders.

SIL Africa plays a pivotal role in advising government stakeholders on language policy through its dedicated advocacy arms. Recognizing the critical link between language policy and educational outcomes, SIL Africa advocates for the adoption of inclusive language policies to support effective learning environments. (Students in Uganda use local language materials.)

Moreover, SIL Africa extends its impact globally through its international language services, which encompass the development of software tools such as Bloom for language translation and support. Additionally, SIL Africa collaborates with programs like Ethnologue to conduct research on language dynamics and monitor changes occurring in various linguistic landscapes. Through these efforts, SIL Africa remains committed to promoting linguistic diversity and ensuring equitable access to education and resources across diverse communities.

Challenges and Solutions

SIL Africa acknowledges the challenges faced in developing language solutions for African communities. Issues such as teacher shortages, nomadic communities, and varying levels of infrastructure are met with ongoing facilitation and tailored solutions. SIL Africa emphasizes the importance of understanding and addressing these challenges to ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of its language initiatives.

SIL Africa’s commitment to empowering African communities through language solutions reflects a holistic approach that encompasses diverse linguistic, cultural, and technological aspects. By fostering collaboration, utilizing technology, and addressing challenges head-on, SIL Africa continues to make a significant impact on the lives of individuals within the communities it serves. The organization’s work exemplifies the transformative potential of language in creating positive change and expanding possibilities for a better life in Africa.

Photo: Aaron Burden/Unsplash

In partnership with CCIH, SIL Africa has successfully undertaken previous projects aimed at enhancing community health awareness. Notably, these efforts involved the translation of essential family planning materials into languages including Gikuyu, Swahili, Kisa, and Tharaka. The overarching goal was to sensitize communities to the significance of family planning, covering topics such as its importance, various methods available, their advantages and disadvantages, and the potential impact on financial stability. Through these initiatives, SIL Africa continues to bridge linguistic barriers and promote vital health education across diverse communities in Africa.

Vision for Lasting Impact

Looking ahead, SIL Africa envisions expanding its scope beyond traditional areas like Bible translation to meet the evolving needs of the language landscape. With a growing demand for commercial translation services, SIL Africa is poised to leverage its expertise and skillset to address this need. Despite past encounters with substandard translation practices, SIL Africa remains steadfast in its commitment to upholding quality standards. The organization recognizes the importance of adapting to the realities of multilingualism in today’s globalized world, where communities are increasingly diverse and interconnected.

Additionally, SIL Africa is intensifying its focus on transition learning and literacy, particularly concerning learners transitioning between languages. While evidence supporting effective transition learning practices is limited, SIL Africa is dedicated to exploring innovative approaches to address this gap and enhance educational outcomes.

In its quest to make a tangible impact, SIL Africa emphasizes collaboration with partners like CCIH to deliver comprehensive language solutions that address critical community needs. By fostering greater collaboration and innovation, SIL Africa aims to continue making a meaningful difference in the lives of individuals and communities across Africa.

SIL Africa is a co-host along with the Christian Health Association of Kenya for the 2024 CCIH Regional Meeting in Limuru, Kenya.

About the Author: Dr. Mokeira Mary Gisairo is a Kenyan physician interested in communications and social marketing. In addition to this article, she conducted research and produced health awareness campaigns for CCIH.

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