Translators need a good understanding of how target language works, and local speakers need skills and resources to use their language in new ways (like reading the Bible). Language specialists can help analyze and document language structures, and develop resources like orthographies (writing systems), practical grammars (descriptions of how to form grammatical sentences), dictionaries, and literacy materials.
Language development is about developing skills and resources to use a language in new ways. This could mean compiling dictionaries or producing reading materials. It may include designing or standardizing a writing system. Many of the languages Wycliffe works with have never been written down—they have only been spoken. In order to translate the Bible, trained linguists may start out by analyzing and documenting a language's phonetics (sounds) and phonology (sound patterns), as well as its morphology (word composition), syntax (sentence composition), and more.
Pieces of a Language
The human vocal tract can make several hundred distinct sounds that are used for communication in various languages. American English speakers recognize a little over forty of these sounds. There are only twenty-six letters in our alphabet, so many of those sounds are represented by combinations of letters (such as "th"). Context also plays an important role. For example, in English the "c" in "cat" is pronounced differently than the first "c" in "circle."
Some languages also use different tones to convey meaning. Stress and emphasis also have potential to change a word's meaning. One example in English is the word "convict," which can either be a noun or a verb, depending on where you place the emphasis. All these variations make it difficult for outsiders to learn the rules of a new language. And if there weren't books and materials already available in that language, it would be even harder. The linguist's job is to discover all those nuances!
Establishing a Writing System
After analyzing the language, linguists can help a community determine how they want to write their language. Writing systems not only represent sounds, but they also represent the identity of a social group. Does the language community want an alphabet or script that is similar to other languages in the area so that it will be easier to learn how to read and write in those languages as well? Or do they prefer a system that by its very look clearly distinguishes them from surrounding languages? Sometimes the practical question of whether they have typewriters or computers will determine what symbols are easily available for them to use. Orthography development can be aided by knowledge of psycholinguistics and reading theory so that the written forms that will be chosen will be easy for people to learn to read and write.
Communication is enhanced when standard ways of writing and spelling, and standard terms for specialized vocabulary, are agreed upon and used within a speech community. In some cases, a standard simply develops. In other cases, the community identifies an agency, committee, or "language academy" and gives it the responsibility to standardize language usage. As communities make decisions about alphabet symbols and spelling rules, these norms can be taught in schools and codified in grammar, spelling books, and dictionaries.