United States Supports Research To Document Endangered Languages

By Louise Fenner
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Throughout the world, thousands of languages are at risk of disappearing, but researchers are documenting and recording these linguistic links to history.

Examples abound: Only one-fourth of the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana speak their native language. In Nigeria, Defaka is spoken by just 200 people. And there are fewer than a dozen native speakers of N/uu, one of several African languages that use distinctive clicks for some consonants.

A program sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) - Documenting Endangered Languages - has awarded $9.4 million over the past two years to researchers and native speakers seeking to document and create digital records of languages threatened with extinction.  About half of the grants support work on American Indian languages.

More than half of the world's 7,000 existing languages “are headed for oblivion in this century,” according to an NEH/NSF press release.  One reason is globalization: People increasingly find it necessary to do business in the most widely spoken languages, such as Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian and Hindi.  The Internet and print and television media also speed the rate of language loss.  Ten languages account for nearly 80 percent of Internet users, with English and Chinese alone accounting for 42 percent, according to internetstats.com, a search engine that provides Internet, business, financial and advertising statistics.

By creating audio and video recordings, transcriptions, dictionaries and grammatical guides, linguists can work with speakers of a language to create a permanent digital archive.  These materials can be put on the Internet “and suddenly it opens up the language to the entire world,” said Doug Whalen, an NSF program director.

Linguists are working with the N/uu speakers, who live on the southern edge of the Kalahari Desert, to create a dictionary and grammar that will support research into the language and history of the people and help the N/uu teach their children to write the language. Linguist Amanda Miller of Cornell University uses a portable ultrasound machine to produce images of the way the tongue moves when a N/uu speaker makes clicks and other complicated sounds.

“When I go to southern Africa, I have people [from other ethnic groups] say, ‘When will you come back and work on my language?’” said Bonny Sands of Northern Arizona University, one of three principal investigators for the project.  “People understand how important language is.”

Africa has the highest concentration of disappearing languages, according to UNESCO. Akinbiyi Akinlabi of Rutgers University received a grant to document Defaka, which has only 200 speakers, and Nkoroo, a related language that has 5,000 speakers.  “No language should be allowed to die out without being scientifically documented,” he said.  “A language tells us about the culture of a people, their way of life, their history.”

In both Sands’ and Akinlabi’s projects, as well as most others funded under Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL), graduate students, native speakers and other investigators from the country that hosts a language play vital roles in the research.

“The quality of the data is much higher if native speakers are involved in decision-making and data collection,” said Arienne Dwyer of the University of Kansas, who employs two dozen people in China for a project to prepare a grammar of Monguor, an unwritten endangered Mongolic language of northern Tibet.

Dwyer stressed that the DEL projects focus on documentation. “It’s not our business to decide whether a language survives or disappears,” she said. “We can only present ourselves as resource people.”

Helen Aguera, acting deputy director for preservation at NEH, said the program can “help create the resources that the community will be able to adapt and use for their own efforts at revitalization.”  For example, a scholarly grammar book or dictionary can be simplified into a “learner’s dictionary” for use in teaching.

Veronica Grondona of Eastern Michigan University is documenting Wichi, a language that has about 25,000 speakers in northern Argentina and Bolivia but is considered endangered because children are not learning it in sufficient numbers and because of the population’s intense contact with Spanish speakers.

She said she was working in the community on two other indigenous languages “and the Wichi speakers came to us and said, ‘We want you to document our language and help us preserve our language.’”

Grondona always meets with the chiefs of the community to determine what they want, such as interviewing as many elders as possible or producing teaching materials.

“In many cases you end up doing work that may help in the maintenance of the language because the speakers ask you to do that,” she said.

NEH and NSF are evaluating applications for 2007 DEL grants, whose recipients will be announced next spring.

A special report on endangered languages and lists of DEL grantees for 2005 and 2006 are available on the NSF Web site.

For more information on U.S. policies, see Population and Diversity.