The Summer Institute of Linguistics, Incorporated, was founded in 1934 in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas, by William Cameron Townsend (1896–1982) in order to apply linguistics to the problems of understanding unwritten languages and translating the Bible into those languages. The purposes of SIL include training linguists; studying languages, especially unwritten ones; publishing language data and helps for linguistic researchers; preparing literature and promoting literacy in the languages studied; training speakers of the languages studied to write and promote literacy in those languages; promoting community development; and translating Scripture. SIL grew rapidly from forty-two members, when it was incorporated in 1942, to more than 2,000 members by the mid-1960s. For expansion to continue, SIL's training of linguists had to expand from a summer-school program to a year-round operation. A new location for SIL headquarters, then located in Huntington Beach, California, was thought to be necessary for this expansion. In 1967 SIL selected the Dallas area for the location of its headquarters and training facility. SIL formed a committee of Dallas business people and professionals to acquire and develop the facility. In 1971 the committee became a nonprofit corporation known as the International Linguistics Center. (SIL's Dallas facility is also now called the International Linguistics Center and is distinct from the ILC Corporation). Among the notable Texans involved in the development of the Dallas center were Edna Jane Travis, William Seay, James Keay, Rudy Renfer, Trammell Crow, Nelson Bunker Hunt, P. W. Gifford, and Clark Breeding. The board of the International Linguistics Center is made up of local people. In 1968 Mrs. Jesse Jay gave and sold portions of land totaling 100 acres to SIL, which moved its headquarters to this site on the southwest edge of Dallas in 1972. Courses were first taught there in the fall semester of that year.
SIL became affiliated with the University of Texas at Arlington in 1972. The affiliation gives UTA's foreign languages and linguistics department use of the SIL teaching staff and language resources, and provides academic accreditation for courses taught at the Linguistics Center. The affiliation involves only linguistics as a science and not SIL's Bible-translation goals. SIL has cooperative educational and research agreements with about twenty-one universities and governments, including UT Arlington, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Niamey (Niger), the University of Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), the Cenderawasih University (Indonesia), and Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (Togo), among others. The International Museum of Cultures, opened in 1981 at SIL, is a small but growing exhibition hall of living cultures. The museum has a board made up of local people. In the early 1980s the SIL organization worked in thirty countries with more than 5,000 workers. The one-thousandth language project was entered in late 1984, and by May 1985 the New Testament had been translated into 221 languages. In 1985 holdings of the SIL library in Dallas included 15,000 volumes mostly of linguistics and anthropology and more than 9,000 microfiches of archives. SIL publishes much of its own research data, often in conjunction with universities. By 1982 SIL members had published more than 6,000 monographs and articles internationally. Approximately 86 percent of SIL's income is from contributions, less than 1 percent is from grants, and the rest comes from other sources. SIL is affiliated with and administered in connection with Wycliffe Bible Translators. All SIL members are also members of WBT. SIL has been recognized internationally for various aspects of its work. Notable examples include a UNESCO award, the 1979 International Reading Association Literacy Award for literacy work in Papua, New Guinea, and the 1973 Award for International Understanding presented by the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation.