NEH and NSF Join Together to Preserve Languages

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) 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.

NEH Chairman William Adams said of the coordinated support by NSF and NEH,  “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.”

Documenting traditional Ayöök cooking methods. Photo: Daniel Suslak

Documenting traditional Ayöök cooking methods. Photo: Daniel Suslak

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.

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