Another one bites the dust (with apologies to Queen)

The situation with projects focussed on the documentation and support of endangered and minority languages is starting to look, well, endangered, if not downright moribund.

Apparently, Unesco shut down its project on endangered languages within the intangible cultural heritage area towards the end of last year. Volkswagen Foundation held its last DoBeS grants committee meeting in February, and the project will wind up in 2014 when the current round of grants come to an end. The Sorosoro project based in Paris seems to have ground to a halt last December (the last news update on their website is 14th December 2011).

And today comes the news that after six and a half years devoted to working enthusiastically to present linguistic diversity as part of the world’s cultural pluralism Linguamón-House of Languages will cease its activity in two days time, following the decision in December last year by the Government of Catalonia and the Barcelona City Council to shut it down. As a member of the Linguamon International Scientific Committee this comes as a great disappointment.

At the upcoming 3L Summer School in Lyon there is to be a 20th Anniversary Conference (“1992-2012: twenty years of research on language endangerment”) looking at what has happened to the field of endangered language studies since the landmark 1992 symposium at the Linguistic Society of America. Looks like the participants should start penning some funeral dirges if things keep going along as they have in the last few months!

Update: On a more optimistic note, Gabriela Pérez Báez reminds me that the Smithsonian Institution’s Recovering Voices project “is actively growing and building its infrastructure and extending its reach”. I can also mention that the University of Iceland (Háskóli Íslands, Reykjavík) has established the Vigdis International Centre for Multilingualism and Intercultural Understanding as a Category 2 centre under the auspices of UNESCO and with support from the Government of Iceland. Building works have begun, and the new centre will feature space and activities for the promotion of minority and endangered languages. The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project at SOAS was recently given a 10-year Review and under the leadership of Professor Anne Pauwels over the next six months we will be putting in place plans for the future of the project. Watch this space.


  1. Wamut says:

    Although it was only a national program, AIATSIS suspended its research grant program last year, which had historically funded a lot of language documentation, so we could potentially add that one to the list.

    On a tangential note, Leanne Hinton said something in a lecture that other day that stuck with me. She said something to the degree that in her experience, endangered language communities, given a choice, prefer teaching and learning programs over linguistic documentation or description. I think there’s truth in that. If documentation programs are in decline, then maybe the next wave will be a surge in funding for language education programs. Which billionaire is going to fund it, is the multi-million dollar question…

  2. Adam Schembri says:

    Aren’t linguistic documentation and description projects the foundation on which teaching and learning programs can be built?

  3. Peter Austin says:

    Adam — I think quite a few people would agree with you that without good baseline documentation it is simply not possible to develop good teaching and learning programmes. However, if documentation is to (even partly) serve the goals of language revitalisation and language learning then it will need to be a different kind of language documentation from that which has been practised so far where the focus has been, it seems to me, heavily biased towards collecting materials for language description and cross-linguistic typology. As I said during my introductory presentation at our grantee training course last week the relationship between documentation and language learning and teaching is woefully undertheorised.

  4. Wamut says:

    Adam, yes they are usually closely linked but there are exceptions such as the Master-Apprentice program developed in California by Leanne Hinton and co., who were recently in Australia delivering training workshops in the Master-Apprentice methodologies. The methodology doesn’t require much (or anything, theoretically) in the way of documentation.

  5. Adam Schembri says:

    Yes, I’ve seen the discussion about the Master-Apprentice program online: it looks great, but I hadn’t realised some people see this as a substitute for documentation. The relationship between documentation motivated by language typology and the need for creating resources for language teaching is a really under theorised area, I agree absolutely, Peter. There certainly needs to be more translational work, taking the documentation work by linguists and creating resources for teaching and learning, but how we can maximise our impact on this application of linguist’s basic descriptive work is a challenge, given that many of us have an interest in questions that arise from linguistic theory rather than from language teaching and learning. Based on my experience in the early 1990s of learning Australian Sign Language (Auslan) from skilled signers with teaching qualifications in the absence of proper language documentation, I can see that teaching and learning without language documentation can create all sorts of problems. When an evidence base for claims about language structure is lacking, teachers fall back on intuitions and observations about how aspects of the vocabulary and grammar are used, and these can sometimes be incorrect and/or may differ from one teacher to another. Without language documentation, there’s no resource to consult, and in the Auslan teaching community, this has led to all sorts of debates about teaching. Only now with the Auslan Corpus project are we in a position to investigate some of the various claims made about the language.

  6. Jane Simpson says:

    I’ve never seen why there should be such a divide between documentation and teaching. Language learners can work together with older speakers and linguists to create new resources for language teaching and simultaneously document aspects of the language. Problems arise when the focus is more exclusively on one or the other.

  7. colette grinevald says:

    yes, indeed, do come along and discuss with us the state of the “language endangerment” business in lyon in july, specifically for the weekend of 6-7 “twenty year look..”. there will be public presentations by people involved in the “business” for a long time, but (and this is just between us!) we will also provide some more private space for therapeutic primal scream therapy that i believe a lot of us could use, where we will let it all out in a safe collegial environment, away from public view. yes, it looks like things are falling apart, yes we are at a turning point, but… yes it may be an opportunity to stop and review, develop critical thinking, and maybe among other things redirect attention to the needs of communities. we are supposed to be “thinkers”, so let’s see what we understand of what happened, why it was a fad, why and how the fad is fading, and whether we can come out and think of working a different way… (says colette the eternal optimist, whose life practice has shown her right a lot of times, the mere existence and planned content of this 3L summer school being one, for instance). so do come if you can! follow info as it gets updated on the program for the weekend is soon to come…

  8. Susan Gehr says:

    What happens to the collections and archives of the language documentation projects when the projects close down?

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