September 22, 2006 By Government Technology
Speaking in Tongues
By Chad Vander Veen
If one has followed the news over the past few years, it might seem logical to conclude that only two spoken languages exist in the United States -- English and Spanish. So it may come as a surprise to learn more than 160 languages are spoken today in the United States, according to Ethnologue.
Globally some 7,000 languages are spoken, many of which are known only to tiny tribal communities or those living in small regions within a country. The small Caucasus region -- between the Caspian and Black seas -- is home to nearly 60 languages. Similarly dozens of obscure tribal languages are spoken in the Horn of Africa.
For Christian missionaries who believe in spreading their faith, language barriers have always been an obstacle. Over the last two decades, however, a unique GIS application that literally maps all known languages has been developed. Known as the World Language Mapping System (WLMS), the GIS application is regarded as the most comprehensive ever created. Originally designed to share religious beliefs, the WLMS is now helping spread news and music, and even some hope, freedom and democracy.
Lost in Translation
For more than three-quarters of a century, Wycliffe Bible Translators have walked the Earth gathering linguistic data to translate the Bible into every known language. The task is a monumental one. With more than 600 translations to date, Wycliffe's research served as the inspiration for creating the WLMS.
Bill Dickson is vice president of research and development at Global Mapping International (GMI) -- half of the partnership that built the WLMS. Dickson said with 7,000 languages in existence, Wycliffe fought an uphill battle.
"If they were going to carry out their mission, they needed to know what all the languages of the world were and where they were spoken," Dickson said. "From their beginnings ... they've been sending survey teams out to essentially walk the ground and find out where languages are spoken."
GMI was founded in 1983 to develop a global computer mapping system that could provide useful information to churches and missionaries worldwide. Shortly thereafter, GMI partnered with SIL International, a Christian linguistics research institute known chiefly for its annual publication of Ethnologue -- a comprehensive catalog of the world's languages, where they are spoken, and by how many people.
"We started talking with them in the mid-1980s," Dickson said. "We believed doing GIS work would be useful for all kinds of people doing missionary work. SIL has all of the survey data, and had various kinds of localized language maps -- thousands of maps of local areas drawn by survey teams. From roughly 1986 to 1997, we were working with them to compile thousands and thousands of paper maps to put together a coherent digital database of the world. That's been available to the Christian missionary enterprise through the GIS datasets we do, partially since 1995, and with a complete view of the world since 1997."
For several years there was little interest in the WLMS outside of missionary circles. But, like most other things, that was changed by 9/11. Dickson said GMI began getting requests from various government agencies that suddenly needed to work in all kinds of places that weren't previously of interest. So in 2004, GMI released the WLMS to anyone who needed it.
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