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Language Survey

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Of the more than 6,900 reported languages in the world today, a little less than half still need to be studied by language surveyors. Put simply, language survey is hands-on language research.

This step is foundational to translation work and shows where the need is most critical. Surveyors travel to towns and villages, listening to and recording different languages and their dialects.

By working in small groups, surveyors are able to tap into each of the talents needed to accomplish the task. Teams also provide the diverse perspective needed to understand unfamiliar languages and cultures.

By studying the information gathered by language surveyors, governments, missions, churches and non-governmental organizations can make good decisions as to where to allocate resources for translation and literacy work.

Girl holding an alligatorIn many areas people speak more than one language. "In fact, a multilingual environment is part of the daily experience of the vast majority of people in the developing world," wrote linguist Clinton D. W. Robinson. In some cases, a people group may be adequately bilingual in a language that already has a Bible translation. If this is the case, translation may not be necessary.

Interested in working in language survey?

You can do language survey for two years or more in many countries around the world.



Real Survey Reports: SIL Electronic Survey Reports (SILESR) are published by SIL International. These reports highlight sociolinguistic surveys carried out by SIL field members and others. They are usually preliminary work papers and not presented as polished research. They are based on field notes and are in some cases the work of young sociolinguists with minimal training.


Survey_ca-CM-120-10.jpgIt is a long way from Grand Forks to the "rooftop of the world." It is, in fact, exactly half way around the world from the plains of North Dakota to the rugged peaks of Asia. Surprisingly enough, after three years of ministry, this part of the world has become very much like home to me. It is hard to say at this point what has contributed more to this sense of belonging, the people whom I have come to love, or the work and the chance to serve in a meaningful way with all my heart.

Since 1998, I have been involved in sociolinguistic survey in Asia. This has been a challenging yet fulfilling occupation. Asia is home to several dozen indigenous language groups, spread across a large and difficult geographical area.

I see my work as a gift from God.

It was not that long ago that as a student I prayed earnestly for God’s leading to serve Him in a ministry of my own. Now He has provided.

Sociolinguistic survey, in a nutshell, is research into the language and culture of a community. Why, you may ask, is this important? Let me describe a scenario for you. Imagine that there are speakers of a dozen languages scattered throughout a geographical area the size of North Dakota, averaging an altitude of one mile above sea level and encompassing five different climate zones. Now imagine that you have the task of determining what the needs of these people are. You want to serve them. There is only one problem. You don’t know anything about them or who they are. You don’t even know exactly how to find the places where these people live. It takes days to get into the area, and access is limited to a short period in summer when valleys are open and weather permits travel. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone were to spend a few years gathering information on all of these peoples and languages for you? Even better, wouldn’t it be great if someone were to write all of this information down and clearly define the needs of these people groups so that you could serve them in exactly the way they need? This is what we, as a sociolinguistic survey team, do. It is our job to bring the needs of hard-to-reach people groups to the world.

Survey is not just about traveling and meeting lots of new people. It’s about seeing what God is doing in some of the most remote places of the world. Best of all, it is about serving Him with the skills He has given me. The skills required to be a sociolinguistic surveyor are varied. The job has several aspects to it.


The first step in the survey task is to find out as much as possible about the peoples and areas we wish to research. A lot of our time as a survey team is spent in libraries and in interaction with scholars who have knowledge of the peoples and areas we wish to research. We have a tremendous opportunity to serve the academic world at this stage in our work. At present, we are actually working together with the national Academy of Sciences in our region. They too are interested in the language groups we wish to survey. In the preparation stage of survey we plan how we will go about our field research.

Tool Development

Sociolinguistic survey requires the use of special tools. Some of the most important tools we use are questionnaires. On an average survey we bring a list of approximately 200-300 questions to ask people in the places we visit. These questions cover a large variety of topics from education to health. These questions help us gain a perspective on what life is like in these places. We also develop special tools to learn more about the languages which are spoken in the communities we visit. We are interested in identifying the dialects of a language, and in describing each of these dialects and how they differ from one another. In areas where more than one language is spoken, we are also interested in knowing at what level people can use the languages they speak. We develop special tools to measure language proficiency.

Field Research

With our plans in hand and our tools developed, we can finally conduct field research. This is the traveling part of the job. Each of the language groups needs to be visited. Research trips are generally several weeks long.

Analysis and Reporting

People need to know what we have found out from our surveys. The final stage of survey is to take all of the data we have gathered from our field research and put it into a format which is accessible to those who need it. We share our information in several ways. The main way is in the publishing of reports. We do, however, also share our information in the form of newspaper articles, television interviews and various other media presentations. Every year we try to attend academic conferences where we can interact with others in our field of work who could benefit from what we have learned.

I am often asked to describe what kind of person is best-suited for survey. My answer has always been that while survey is not for everyone, it is certainly something many types of people would be good at. Survey attracts people with all kinds of personalities and interests. The tasks involved in survey are varied in nature. There are many different areas of the world in which survey still needs to be done so geographically-speaking an individual can choose a climate and a geo-political context which is suitable for him or her. What is definitely needed is a heart for the minority peoples of the world, a love of travel and a commitment to work in a team setting. Survey changes the surveyor as much as it seeks to change the world. It is an opportunity to grow while ministering.

As a ministry, survey is a big task. More than a third of the world’s almost 7,000 languages need to be surveyed. We, as a global community, do not have enough information about a large portion of the language groups on our planet to know how to serve them. We continue to hope and pray that God will provide more surveyors to help complete the task.

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