Linguists indigenous mission
Arizona Daily Star

By Shelley Shelton

arizona daily star
Tucson, Arizona | Published:


Just off the main drag in Catalina, in far northern Pima County, a group of linguists has quietly worked for almost three decades at a craft that combines their love and knowledge of language with a humanitarian and spiritual journey.
Members of the Mexico branch of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, headquartered at 16131 N. Vernon Drive in Catalina, devote their lives to traveling the Mexican countryside, identifying indigenous languages and working to formulate an alphabet and dictionary for those languages.
Their ultimate goal is to provide each group of indigenous people with a translation of the Bible or the New Testament in their native tongue.
The group's origins date to the 1920s, when Cameron Townsend discovered selling Spanish-language Bibles in Guatemala was difficult because so few people spoke Spanish, said Judy Oas, executive secretary to the Mexico branch director.
Townsend began studying the native dialect of the Guate-malans so he could translate the Bible. Mexican officials invited him to go to Mexico when his work in Guatemala was finished, Oas said.
Townsend founded his first summer language course in Arkansas in the mid-1930s, and in the early 1940s his growing organization formed another group, called Wycliffe Bible Translators, to recruit more members and raise money for living expenses and health insurance.
Since then, linguists have identified about 280 minority languages in Mexico, with about 100 of them translated.
It takes an average of 20 to 25 years of work on each language from the time the linguists immerse themselves in the local culture to when the Bible translation is complete, said Albert Bickford, a linguistic consultant who has worked with the group since 1978.
For much of the existence of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, workers used visas they renewed each year to stay on-site in Mexico, working with local people. The institute runs three facilities in Mexico, the biggest of which is in Oaxaca, where linguists go to process the information they gather.
The Catalina facility was built in the late 1970s, after the Mexican government began limiting foreigners' long-term visas.
The Wycliffe members looked for places near the Mexican border to build a sort of home-away-from-village where they could continue working when their visas expired in Mexico, but they settled on Catalina about 90 miles north of the border because the rural surroundings were similar to the setting in many of the villages where they worked.
If members brought villagers from Mexico to help them, those villagers were more likely to feel at home, said Carol Zylstra, a translator who also has been with the group since 1978.
Required training varies depending on what a volunteer plans to do for the organization, but translators need to have a bachelor's degree in any subject and two additional semesters or summer sessions in linguistics and anthropology, Bickford said.
The main emphasis is to let volunteers into the field to get real-life experience before they come back and work on master's degrees, he said.
Though Wycliffe recruits members and provides some financial support in the form of keeping the linguistics centers open, individual volunteers must solicit their own financial support, which often comes from their local churches.
In 1990, the Mexican government began to ease its visa restrictions, and most of the linguists again began to spend most of their time in Mexico.
Now the Catalina center serves mainly as a research hub for the workers, as well as the headquarters for sending the Bibles out to be printed.