Ongoing government project aims to preserve and document endangered languages

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Languages are at risk of extinction, and not just because of e-mail, text and Twitter shorthand. In fact, a recent National Science Foundation-supported study found that somewhere in the world a language loses all its remaining speakers every three months.

To combat that, the NSF and the National Endowment for the Humanities announced 27 awards totaling more than $4 million in the 10th round of a joint effort to document such threatened languages.

"Language is a source of invaluable cognitive, historical and environmental information," NSF Director France Córdova said in an Aug. 15 press release. "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."

The awards will digitally document nearly 40 endangered languages by building research infrastructure, encouraging collaboration with other countries, and fostering public involvement.

In one project, anthropologist Jonathan Amith of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and botanist John Kress of the Smithsonian Institution will examine how endangered languages encode information on how communities have historically interacted with their environments.

The study, which received about $650,000, aims to provide clues about environmental changes over generations of speakers and improve the understanding about changes in biodiversity and sustainable practices adapted to particular environments.

Another project, which received almost $260,000, seeks to document the Ayöök language spoken in Mexico. Linguistic anthropologist Daniel Suslak of Indiana University and clinical psychologist Ben Levine, director of Speaking Place, a Maine-based nonprofit that develops and manages projects on endangered languages, will create a collection of Ayöök data.

Other projects include a $122,000 study to make Pacific language materials discoverable, and a $400,000 study of tools for understanding linguistic stability and change.

"The NSF-NEH partnership to document endangered languages is making great strides," NEH Chairman William Adams said in the release. "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 projects will be publicly accessible though 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.

The joint program made its first round of awards in 2005. Since then, it has funded about 300 projects and more than 200 researchers.

For more:
- read the National Science Foundation's press release

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