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In the Field

Organization of American States Honors NEH Effort to Document Disappearing Languages

April 6, 2012 | By NEH Staff

The Fifth Inter-American Meeting of Ministers of Culture and Highest Appropriate Authorities, held at the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS) in November, prominently featured the joint NEH-NSF program, Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL). DEL was the only United States example selected for inclusion in the OAS portfolio, Culture, Common Denominator for Development:18 Successful Practices.

The portfolio is part of larger OAS project, “Culture in Development: An Inter-American Information Network,” which seeks to promote capacity building in the Americas through cooperation and the exchange of information about effective programs, policies, and projects. Included in the portfolio are examples from eighteen countries, selected according to criteria that included such factors as strengthening of intercultural dialogue, protection of cultural diversity, promotion of social inclusion, interagency coordination, documented results, and attention to indigenous communities.

Since the first meeting of cultural ministers and highest appropriate authorities of culture in 2002, the representatives of the OAS member states have emphasized the important connections between culture and social, human, and economic development in the region. Heads of States at the Summit of the Americas in 2009 also included in their Declaration of Commitment the significant role of culture in development:

"We acknowledge the positive contribution of culture in building social cohesion and in creating stronger, more inclusive communities, and we will continue to promote inter-cultural dialogue and respect for cultural diversity in order to encourage mutual understanding, which helps reduce conflict, discrimination and the barriers to economic opportunity and social participation."

The OAS Secretariat invited NEH to make a presentation about the program at the ministerial meeting to illustrate the kinds of projects and programs included in the portfolio. Dr. Helen Agüera, Senior Program Officer in NEH’s Division of Preservation and Access, introduced the Documenting Endangered Languages. She explained that the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation, in establishing the program, acknowledged that endangered languages represent a vast repository of human knowledge about the natural world and cultural traditions and constitute an irreplaceable treasure, not only for the communities who speak them, but also for scientists and scholars.

Dr. Agüera reported that since its establishment in 2004 the program awarded 195 grants and 64 fellowships totaling over $30.2 million for projects focusing on 194 languages from 44 countries and that 112 of these languages are spoken in 17 OAS member states. Using examples of funded projects, she described how U.S. linguists and their counterparts in other countries work with native speakers, as colleagues and collaborators, to document many types of language use and then to produce accessible archives of collected materials as well as dictionaries, grammars, and collections of texts for use by scholars in research and by communities of speakers in the maintenance of their languages. The presentation and particularly the information about project Web sites with free access to archived materials generated considerable interest among the representatives of the OAS member states.

For more information see: Documenting Endangered Languages Guidlines.

Bridging Cultures is an agency-wide initiative, engages the power of the humanities to promote understanding and mutual respect for people with diverse histories, cultures, and perspectives within the United States and abroad.