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5. Support Activities

UNESCO Program “Safeguarding of Endangered Languages” (Intangible Cultural Heritage Section, UNESCO)

Arienne Dwyer, Matthias Brenzinger, and Akira Y. Yamamoto

Recent History

UNESCO’s involvement in endangered languages is very recent, but has its roots in initiatives of the last two decades. In the 1980s UNESCO began to make statements on the importance of languages in the maintenance of cultural diversity of the world. Under the leadership of the late Stephen Wurm, UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Section (ICHS) launched the Red Book of Languages in Danger of Disappearing Program. Though UNESCO undertook a new project “Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 1997, language was not included. Only in September 2001, at the International Jury for the Proclamation of Masterpieces (Elche, Spain), was it recommended that UNESCO establish an endangered languages program separate from the Masterpieces Project. In the same year, UNESCO’s 31st Session of the General Conference issued the “Action Plan of the Universal Declaration of the Cultural Diversity,” highlighting the importance of languages.

At the second International Conference on Endangered Languages (Nov 30 – December 2 2001 in Kyoto as part of the Endangered Languages of the Pacific Rim Project), it became clear that UNESCO and endangered-language advocates share the same goal: the maintenance and perpetuation of language diversity. At the conference, Madame Aikawa (then the Head of ICHS), Michael Krauss, Osahito Miyaoka, Osamu Sakiyama, and Akira Yamamoto agreed that it was high time to initiate a call for coordination and cooperation of indigenous-language advocates, linguists, and their respective organizations.

UNESCO’s Constitution states as its basic principle:

to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world without distinction of race, sex, language, religion, by the Charter of the United Nations (UNESCO Constitution Article 1).

Madama Aikawa states that “based on this principle, UNESCO has developed programs aimed at promoting languages as instruments of education and culture, and as significant means through which to participate in national life” (2001: 13).

The stated four-fold purpose of the earlier Red Book Program still holds for the currently-developing partnerships between language advocates and UNESCO in 2003

1. to continue gathering information on endangered languages (including their
2. status, the degree of urgency for undertaking research),
3. to strengthen research and the collection of materials relating to endangered languages, for which little or no such activities had been undertaken to date, and which belong to a specific category such as language isolates, languages of special interest for typological and historical-comparative linguistics, and are in imminent danger of extinction, 4. to undertake activities aiming to establish a world-wide project committee, and a network of regional centers as focal points for large areas on the basis of existing contacts, and
5. to encourage publication of materials and the results of studies on endangered languages.

2003 Documents

UNESCO has begun a new phase to safeguard endangered languages under the leadership of Dr. Rieks Smeets who assumed the headship of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Section in May 2003. Between November 2001 and March 2003, a group of linguists and language advocates worked in collaboration with UNESCO to formulate ways to assess language vitality, and produced a set of guidelines in a document entitled “Language Vitality and Endangerment.” A second document was also produced: a series of action-plan recommendations addressing the role of language communities, linguists, language advocates, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and UNESCO.

One crucial point we emphasize in these documents is for all stakeholders to work with the endangered language communities toward revitalization, maintenance, and perpetuation of their heritage languages. We believe that any work in endangered language communities must be reciprocal and collaborative.

UNESCO organized an International Expert Meeting on UNESCO Program “Safeguarding of the Endangered Languages” (March 10-12, 2003; see
paris_march2003.shtml#_ftn2). The goal of the meeting was to define and reinforce UNESCO’s role in safeguarding the world’s endangered languages, and participants included members of endangered language communities, linguists, and NGOs. Specifically, the meeting was (1) to formulate a clear definition of endangered languages and a set of criteria for assessing language endangerment (resulting in the document Language Vitality and Endangerment), (2) to review the state of languages in various regions of the world (to be published by UNESCO later this year), (3) to define the role of UNESCO, and (4) to propose to UNESCO’s Director-General concrete action plans regarding mechanisms and strategies to safeguard endangered languages, maintain and promote linguistic and cultural diversity of the world.

Language Vitality and Endangerment (approved March 12, 2003): a summary

To enhance the vitality of threatened languages, there is an imperative need for:
· language documentation
· new materials
· trained local linguists
· trained language teachers
· new policy initiatives
· raising public awareness
· support at all levels, from individual language specialists to NGOs, from local governments to international institutions such as UNESCO.

In the end, it is the community people, not outsiders, who maintain or abandon their language: it is their choice if and how to revitalize, maintain, and fortify their language.

When speaker communities ask for support to reinforce their threatened languages, · language specialists should and must make their skills available to these communities, in planning, implementation, evaluation, and retooling. In short, language specialists should be involved at all points in their language vitalization process.

What can be done to safeguard endangered languages?
· · In order to meet the needs of the speaker community, we need to have a clear understanding of the language situation of the community.
· · Thus, nine major factors are proposed to assess the language situations.
· · These factors and their descriptions are offered as guidelines and none of these factors should be used alone.

A. Assessing Language Vitality and State of Endangerment
Factor 1: Intergenerational Language Transmission
· The language is being transmitted from one generation to the next.
· The more transmission occurs from one generation to the next, the stronger the language is.

Factor 2: Absolute Number of Speakers
· A small population is much more vulnerable than a larger one to decimation by disease, warfare, natural disaster, or by merger with a larger group.
· The more cohesive a community’s identity, the stronger the language.

Factor 3: Proportion of Speakers within the Total Population
· The number of speakers in relation to the total population of a group is a significant indicator of language vitality.
· The greater the number of people using the language, the stronger the language.

Factor 4: Loss of Existing Language Domains
· Where and with whom is the language used, and for what range of topic is it used?
· The more consistently and persistently the language is used, the stronger the language is. This means that the language is used in every aspect of life of the community.

Factor 5: Response to New Domains and Media
· As community living conditions change, does the language go with changes?
· The more actively the language is used in new domains, the stronger the language is.
The new domains include schools, new work environments, new media, including broadcast media and the Internet.

Factor 6: Materials for Language Education and Literary
· Is education conducted in the language with materials in oral, written and other media forms?
· The greater the varieties of materials existing in the language, and the more they are used for education, the stronger the language is.

B. Language Attitudes and Policies: the dominant group’s or the neighboring group’s attitudes toward languages affect the maintenance or abandonment of the language of the ethnolinguistic community.
Factor 7: Governmental and Institutional Language Attitudes and Policies, including Official Status & Use
· Governments and institutions have explicit policies and/or implicit attitudes toward the dominant and subordinate languages.
· The more positive the official attitudes and policies are toward the language of the community, the stronger the language is.

Factor 8: Community Members’ Attitudes toward Their Own Languages
· Members of a speech community may see their language as essential to their community and identity, and they promote it.
· The more positive their attitudes are and more pride they have of their language, the stronger the language is. The more value they attach to their traditions, the more likely the community’s language is maintained and promoted.

C. Urgency of Documentation
The type and quality of existing language materials help:
· members of the language community formulate specific tasks
· linguists to design research projects together with members of the language community · all those concerned (including UNESCO) formulate ways to support documentation efforts.

Factor 9: Amount and Quality of Documentation
· Is there an abundance of well-documented, transcribed, translated, and analyzed materials?
· The more historical and contemporary language materials there are, the stronger the language is. These include
1. comprehensive grammars and dictionaries
2. extensive texts
3. constant flow of language materials
4. abundant annotated high-quality audio and video recordings

Recommendations to Director-General: Action Plans

The importance of linguistic diversity is emphasized in the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2 November 2001) and in Points 5, 6 and 10 of the Action Plan accompanying this Declaration.

Point 5. Safeguarding the linguistic heritage of humanity and giving support to expression, creation and dissemination in the greatest possible number of languages;
Point 6. Encouraging linguistic diversity – while respecting the mother tongue – at all levels of education, wherever possible, and fostering the learning of several languages from the youngest age;
Point 10. Promoting linguistic diversity in cyberspace and encouraging universal access through the global network to all information in the public domain;

At the conclusion of Paris meeting, the following action points were submitted to the Director-General of UNESCO. The meeting participants requested the Director-General to:

1. Suggest to member states that they
a. Survey and profile those languages which are found to be endangered (bearing in mind the criteria in 3. above);
b. Actively promote the recognition of endangered languages of their countries; c. Encourage the documentation of endangered languages;
d. Create the conditions which facilitate the active use of and access to those languages, by, inter alia, assigning all relevant languages their rightful place in the educational system, media, and access to cyberspace, subject to the wishes of individual speech communities, respecting their commitments to linguistic human rights;
e. Foster speech communities’ pride in their own languages and cultures, as well as secure equal prestige for all languages of a state;
f. Explore the economic and social benefits of linguistic and cultural diversity, as a stimulus for sustainable development;
g. Also provide, where feasible and with assistance from the international community, funding for documentation, revitalization, and strengthening programmes for endangered languages as specified in 2.a–c below;



2. Establish a financial and administrative mechanism
a. to support projects which document endangered languages, notably:
i. recording, collecting and publishing new materials;
ii. safeguarding existing archives;
iii. updating the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing; b. to initialize projects which strengthen and revitalize endangered languages, notably language training programmes which ensure intergenerational transmission;
c. to produce and disseminate i. training manuals for community-based documentation, teaching, and curriculum development;
ii. creative work in endangered languages;

3. Enhance UNESCO’s role as a centre for resources on language diversity and endangerment by a. Increasing public awareness of language endangerment in the world, through such means as the media, the arts and public events;
b. Establishing an international network
i. linking organizations and communities,
ii. providing information about and access to archives, research, teaching and training projects and materials, sources of funding, and reference materials, referring to best practices;
c. Supporting regional centres that design, implement, and evaluate locally-appropriate programmes and resources through
i. the building of local capacities for work on endangered languages;
ii. education, including teacher training and trans-generational learning;
iii. the facilitation of the exchange of information and experiences between different indigenous groups and organizations;
d. Coordinating among policy makers, experts and NGOs in order to explore the correlation between globalization and language extinction and look for systematic solutions on a global scale.

What Do All These Tell Us About Our Tasks?

The world faces new challenges in keeping its languages alive and well.
It is time for the peoples of the world
· to pool their resources
· to build on the strengths of their linguistic and cultural diversity

This entails pooling the resources at all levels:
· individual language specialists
· local speaker community
· NGOs
· Governmental and institutional organizations, and, of course, UNESCO

Other Awareness Raising Activities of UNESCO

1. Discovery Communications (DCI) has to date produced nine two-minute vignettes of speakers of endangered languages. DCI will air up to 50 vignettes on DCI’s international networks. Each vignette offers a snapshot of language both as a means of communication and expression of culture and identity. [See

2. A project called Voices of the World 2005 plans to make a 24-hour movie representing 2,800 individual languages that exemplify the world’s diversity and transmitting a message of goodwill via speech, music, and moving images.” Also planned is to generate an audiovisual data bank, the “language exploratorium” of comparative language materials, images, music - recordings and information. The advisory panel includes David Crystal and David Maybury-Lewis.

Where Do We Go From Here?

That UNESCO organized and hosted the 2003 Expert Meeting is a significant milestone for endangered-language advocacy: it has sanctioned international attention to the problem of maintaining language diversity. With this sort of support, we can expect to see more attention in the media in the coming years.

UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Section, under Dr. Smeets’ able direction, is in the process of defining its role in safeguarding endangered languages. While it is not yet clear what that role will entail, UNESCO is most likely to have a role in information dissemination. While many Expert Meeting participants (language advocates, both inside and outside of endangered-language communities) may have also wished for strong fiscal and administrative support, these broader functions do not generally fall within UNESCO’s mandate. In the coming biennium, these are limited to the following two support mechanisms: The Director-General has allocated at least $400,000 as a startup fund for general initiatives of the Endangered Language Program for 2004-2005. Dr. Smeets is now also preparing to form an advisory group whose members will represent the UNESCO’s six regions of the world.

The value of UNESCO’s ability to disseminate information about language endangerment should not be underestimated. At the same time, the scope of the UNESCO Endangered Language Program is largely dependent on the active involvement of linguists and language advocates, that is, on our own long-term active involvement.

Stay tuned as we will find out how the action plans materialize.

Information on the 10th Annual Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Conference which was hosted by the Ho-Chunk Nation in Baraboo, Wisconsin on June 25-28, 2003, can now be found at

Rausing Endangered Language Documentation Programme — First Year Outcome and Invitation for Second Year: Initial Deadline — 8 August 2003

Over £1m was awarded in the first year to document 27 urgently endangered languages

In the first round of ELDP grants, approximately 150 applications were received, of which 21 have been offered funding. This enables an early start to be made on documenting 27 urgently endangered languages across six continents

The 21 grant offers are listed below.

Major Documentation Projects

Professor G Corbett, University of Surrey
Dictionary of Archi (Daghestanian) with sound files and cultural
£ 107,915

Professor M Dryer, University at Buffalo
Field Research in Sanduan Province, Papua New Guinea
£ 76,152

Professor N England, OKMA
Documentation of Two Mayan Languages of Guatemala: Uspanteko, Sakapulteko
£ 127,341

Professor N England, Univ. Texas, Austin
Iquito Language Documentation Project
£ 67,038

Dr M Florey, Monash University
Documentation of four moribund Moluccan languages: eastern Indonesia and the Dutch Diaspora
£ 63,037

Dr V Grondona, E. Michigan University
Documentation of Chorote, Nivaclé and Kadiwéu: three of the least known and most endangered languages of the Chaco
£ 100,225

Professor F Merlan, Australian Nat. Univ.
Jawoyn Cultural Texts, Dictionary and Grammar (southern Arnhem Land).
£ 57,686

Dr D Moore, Museu Paraense Emilio
Documentation of Urgently Endangered Tupian Languages Goeldi/ MCT
£ 57,840

Dr T Salminen, University of Helsinki
Tundra Nenets Grammar ...

Individual Postgraduate Fellowships

Dr I W Arka, Australian Nat. Univ.
Documenting Rongga, a marginalized small language of south-central Flores, Indonesia
£ 104,818

Mr A Guillaume Takana and Reyesano:
documentation of two almost extinct languages of Bolivia (South America) ...

Ms B Hellwig, SOAS, Univ London
Documentation of Goemai, a West Chadic language of Central Nigeria
£ 60,784

Dr C Hyslop, La Trobe University
Documentation of the grammar, lexicon and oral tradition of the Vurës language of west Vanuatu
£ 51,399

Dr K Olawsky,La Trobe University
Language and Culture of the Urarina People of Peru: preparation of grammar and dictionary for an endangered language.
£ 64,362

Mr E Ribeiro, Universidade Federal de Goiás
The Ofayé language: Documentation, Analysis and Preservation
£ 33,312

Dr A Taff, University of Washington
Aleut conversation corpus
£ 91,847

Pilot Project Grants

Dr P Baker, University of Westminster
Vedda Language Project
£ 4,150

Dr A van Engelenhoven, Leiden University
The Maku’a Pilot Project: documenting an enigmatic moribund language in East Timor.
£ 3,950

Individual Graduate Studentship

Ms M Corris, University of Sydney
Barupu grammar and lexicography
£ 13,547

Field Trip Grants

Dr S Facundes, Universidade Federal do Pará
Description of Apurina (Arawak)
£ 9,747

Dr P Sercombe, Northumbria University
A Dictionary of Eastern Penan
£ 4,250

2003 Timetable

16th May, 2003 Revised guidelines and forms available on the web page.

8th August, 2003 Deadline for submission of Preliminary Applications

19th September, 2003 Invitations to submit Detailed Applications dispatched

14th November, 2003 Deadline for submission of Detailed Applications

27th February, 2004 Announcement of Funding Awards

The timetable will be repeated annually. All further details and forms can be found at

Alice Cozzi Heritage Language Foundation: Awards for 2003 02 Jul 2003

The awardees listed below will receive partial funding for specific aspects of their projects.

"Ngadlu Nharangga warra wanggadja (We are speaking Narungga)" to print and distribute a student dictionary to local schools (Australia).
"Anishinaabemowin language table": to hold weekly immersion gatherings (Marquette, Michigan).
"Umonhon 101": to record and distribute Omaha language materials (Macy, Nebraska). "Ojibwe dictionay": to purchase and distribute dictionaries to local schools (Minneapolis, MN).
"Thangmi-Nepali-English dictionary": to edit and print dictionary (central-eastern Nepal).
"Shipibo storybook": to print and distribute booklet (Pucallpa Peru).
"Mugu Education Project": to print two books (Kathmandu, Nepal).
"Tewa-Nambe Pueblo Language Project": to create teaching materials (Albuquerque, NM).
"Shela": to print and distribute a Tamajaq (eastern Tewellemet) novel (Tahoua, Niger).
"Hmong literacy class": to maintain weekly literacy classes amid budget cuts (Oshkosh, WI).
"Portuguese Language School Jorge de Sena": to purchase language books (Turlock, CA).
"Jackson Elementary School Spanish Club": to purchase Spanish literacy materials (York, PA).

A. M. Moretti, Executive Director
J. G. Ojemann, Financial Director