Foundation for Endangered Languages

Home | Manifesto | Membership details | Proceedings | Grant Applications | Newsletter | Links | Bibliography


2. Development of the Foundation

FEL X- Vital Voices

The Foundation for Endangered Languages: Tenth Conference; in association with the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, India. 25-27 October 2006. Endangered language & Multilingualism

The Foundation for Endangered Languages, in association with the Central Institute of Indian Languages, will hold its annual 2006 conference in India, a country that claims to be the home of more than a thousand languages and dialects. Although many of these languages enjoy political and economic patronage, and may even be thriving, many others with small number of speakers appear to be struggling for their survival. These strugglers include languages in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where communities are not only tiny, but also some of the most anciently independent tribes on the planet.

Like the earth's species, all our languages have inherent vitality and viability to survive and develop and respond to the needs of their communities. Even those put on the list of 'vanishing voices' are vital to the maintenance of the linguistic equilibrium. But our society, oriented to respect capital, generally rejects or ignores the potential viability of languages, if they seem to lack a critical mass of speakers. Yet the definition of 'critical' here depends crucially on the policy preconceptions of planners. In a multilingual country like India, where languages with many millions of speakers are common, a language community with less than 10,000 speakers may be considered too small to attract any funding support. On the other hand in Papua New Guinea, where all the languages have less than 10,000 speakers, it may be the languages with less than 100 speakers which are disregarded.

What is at stake here is the future of these naturally existing small language communities, which represent 'vital' though 'vanishing voices'. These languages are vital to our understanding of the nature and complexity of human thought processes encoded through the human language and the human brain. We need to recognise that most of the world's language heterogeneity (96% of it) is under the stewardship of a very small number of people (4% of the world's population). And in fact, it is these vital voices to whose historical, cultural and ecological knowledge we may yet belatedly turn, to enrich our own ways of life, our medicine and our understanding of the world. Imagine the loss if Sanskrit had died before transmitting the vital knowledge of the concept of 'zero' to the world, let alone the unmatched intricacy and rigour of Paninian grammar.

A crucial question we shall address at this conference is how ill-conceived and short-sighted language planning policies may ultimately contribute to environmental imbalance and instability, dangers that are often very little understood. When the effort is made to 'revitalize' languages, such as Lakota and Mohawk in the North America, Hawai'ian and Maori in the Pacific, Jaqaru and Mapudungun in South America, it does not mean that these languages lacked vitality. It simply means that their vitality potential has been given legitimate succour and support to develop and meet the new demands on them, including the demands of bi/multilingualism caused by globalization, urbanization and language contact.

'Vital Voices' refers to the growing awareness that the survival and development of endangered languages are necessary for humanity's future, even if they may not look viable against statistics produced by policies guided by globalized economy.

Some Issues for the Conference

Many issues are implicit here, and we hope to discuss them in terms of actual language situations presented by our participants.

  • Are minority languages threatened, or strengthened, through bilingualism or multilingualism with other languages?
  • Does a language's vitality benefit if it is not closely related, or structurally similar, to its neighbours?
  • Can languages differ, and do they, in their degree of vitality potential?
  • Is 'documentation' sufficient, or even useful, as a response to the needs of vital but vanishing voices?
  • Is a core of fluent speakers essential for the survival of a statistically small language group?
  • Is bilingual language planning important for families based on cross-cultural/linguistic marriages?
  • How significant are 'social networks' for insulating the 'vital voices' from the forces of globalization and dominant languages without closing the door on bi/multilingualism?
  • Is recognition by language planners essential for a 'small' language/dialect to develop its vitality?
  • Are there factors beside the prospect of competitive economic benefits that can encourage a community (and indeed the language planners)?
  • Does the context of a consciously multilingual society make it easier or harder to support the smallest languages?
  • Are there ways that modern - often cheap - technology can benefit the use and prospects of the smallest languages?
  • Is code-switching as common in small minority communities and tribes as in the elites? What factors trigger code-switching? Is it damaging or positive for the survival of less widely used languages?
  • Can bilingual or multilingual education find a place for the smallest languages? Is western-style formal education compatible with traditional language use? Are there other models for transmission?
  • Does multilingual competence allow the value of minority-language cultures to be more widely appreciated?
  • Are the prospects of minority languages affected by the metropolitan languages through which they may be known to a wider world?
  • Is language survival helped or hindered by a flexible policy on language identification?

The Conference Venue

The Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, (CIIL) was set up by the Government of India in July 1969. It is a large institute with seven regional centers spread all over India, and is engaged in research and training in Indian languages other than English and Hindi. It helps to evolve and implement India's language policy and coordinate the development of Indian languages. Mysore is a city in the Southern Indian state of Karnataka. The former capital of the princely state of Mysore, ruled by the Wodeyar dynasty since the 14th century, it is now the administrative seat of Mysore District, the second largest in Karnataka, 135 km from Bangalore, the state capital. The city is known for its palaces and many other attractions. One of these is the Brindavan Gardens laid out beside the Krishnarajasagar dam (19km), particularly beautiful at night. There are also the Royal Palace, the Chamundi Hills, Srirangapatnam Temple, Ranganthittu Bird Sanctuary, Oriental Research Institute, and Museums of Folklore, and of Art and Archeology. The conference dates (25-27 October) will allow participants, if they wish, to witness Diwali (the festival of lights) on 23 October before coming to Mysore.


Inter-city: Mysore has inter-city and sub-urban public bus transportation. The system operates from the 'City Bus Stand' connecting to most major sections of the city. Traditional means of transport available in other Indian cities like auto-rickshaws and taxis are also available. Tongas (horse drawn carriages) are rare nowadays. Rail: Mysore is the railway junction for the district, and rail lines connect Mysore city to Bangalore to the northeast via Mandya, and to the rail junction at Hassan to the northwest, to Chamarajanagar via Nanjangud to the south east. Air: The nearest accessible airport is at Bangalore.