Federal agencies provide new opportunities for dying languages
NSF and NEH award more than $4 million to preserve nearly 40 languages
The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) recently announced 27 awards totaling more than $4 million in the 10th round of a joint effort to document languages threatened with extinction.
These new awards, part of an NSF-NEH Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) program, support digital documentation work on nearly 40 endangered languages. They build research infrastructure, encourage long term collaboration with host countries and involve significant community engagement.
"Language is a source of invaluable cognitive, historical and environmental information," said NSF Director France Córdova. "Most of what is known about human communication and cognition is based on less than 10 percent of the world's 7,000 languages. We must do our best to document living endangered languages and their associated cultural and scientific information before they disappear."
New estimates from a three-year, NSF-supported study conclude that at least every three months somewhere in the world a language loses all its remaining speakers. The finding, based on newly compiled data, is an update from previous estimates that found at least one language goes extinct every two weeks.
Since the first round of awards DEL in 2005, the program has funded nearly 300 projects and more than 200 researchers who have captured high-quality data from languages in danger of extinction.
In this new round of awards, for example, DEL is funding the Advances in Linguistic, Ethnobotanical, and Botanical Sciences through Documentation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge project. Anthropologist Jonathan Amith of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and botanist John Kress of the Smithsonian Institution will examine the ways endangered languages encode information on how communities have historically interacted with their environments.
The study will provide clues about environmental changes over generations of speakers; it also will improve understanding about increases or decreases in biodiversity and sustainable practices adapted to particular environments.
Another project, Community Directed Audio-Visual Documentation of Ayöök, will create digital documentation of this Mixe-Zoquean language spoken in Mexico. Linguistic anthropologist Daniel Suslak of Indiana University and clinical psychologist Ben Levine, director of Speaking Place, will use an innovative technique called "facilitated-feedback filming" to stimulate groups of community members to recall long forgotten events, share ideas and engage in frank discussions.
The project will create a corpus of Ayöök language data. The interactive process will reawaken Ayöök traditional ecological knowledge that will be used by biochemists to expand maize genetics research at the Plant Sciences Department at the University of California, Davis.
"The NSF-NEH partnership to document endangered languages is making great strides," said NEH Chairman William Adams. "Together, the two agencies are supporting research and creating valuable language resources that serve linguists and indigenous communities around the globe to revitalize their languages. And through its priority on Native American languages, NEH ensures the unique cultural and linguistic heritage of our own country is sustained."
All of this year's DEL projects will produce sophisticated digital products that can be publicly accessed through major language repositories such as the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America, California Language Archive, the Endangered Language Archive at the School for African and Oriental Studies and the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures.
DEL projects continue to gain support across the National Science Foundation. Programs in Robust Intelligence, Linguistics, Cultural Anthropology, Polar Programs, International Science and Engineering, Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, Interdisciplinary Behavioral and Social Science Research, Science of Broadening Participation and the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program support the 2014 awards.
At the National Endowment for the Humanities, DEL projects are funded through the Division of Preservation and Access and the Division of Research, where there continues to be a priority on documentation of languages of the Americas.
A complete listing of this year's awards follows.
Institutional Grants (awarded by NSF or NEH, as indicated):
Fellowships (awarded by NEH, $50,400 each):
Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grants (awarded by NSF)
Conferences and Workshops (awarded by NSF)
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.
Useful NSF Web Sites: