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Through language, we pass down traditional knowledge and skills—the foundation for who we are and our shared futures. Languages are expressions of collective identity. They record and reveal how people understand and interact with each other and the world around them, and they serve as a tool for community and individual creative expression.

Nearly eighty percent of the world’s languages are Indigenous, and/or minoritized. Social, economic, and political forces—like urbanization, oppression, war, genocide, climate change, and mass production of culture—pressure these languages and cultures to assimilate. In an effort to reverse this shift, thousands of communities, governments, and NGOs worldwide have committed to language reclamation and maintenance efforts. These efforts include advocacy work, enacting supportive policies, creating new approaches to first- and second-language acquisition, and strengthening family and community lifestyles that nourish language use.

Our work promotes language use in new and traditional contexts and strengthens engagement in cultural heritage. We conduct research to better support innovative community projects and understand how socio-historical events impact language communities today. To do this work, we are motivated by these actions and questions:

  • How are skills that lead to language vitality effectively transferred?
  • How do language communities adapt to a changing world?
  • How can the Smithsonian connect language practitioners and share knowledge?
  • How do we create an environment that fosters additive bilingualism in the United States and supports Indigenous and minoritized language communities?

With the Language Vitality Initiative, the Center supports vitality of Indigenous and minoritized languages and their communities. We recognize that reclamation is a long-term and often painful process that encompasses community strengthening and wellness rooted in traditional ways of knowing and learning. We are dedicated to collaborating with language communities in ways that respect their ethical principles and cultural norms and that support their language and cultural goals.


What We Do

A group of young adults smile and pose for the camera.
Students of the 2016 Sino-Tibetan Language and Linguistics Summer Institute pose with instructors rGyathar, Youjing Lin, and Nate Sims (right to left in khata scarves) after completing their field methods class.
Photo by Pemba Lhamo, courtesy of Nankai University
Train
Adults sit around adult and child playing a language card game.
Tús Maith, an effort to support families raising their children with Irish language, host a language skills playgroup in Ballyferriter, Ireland.
Photo courtesy of Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne
Innovate
Two young adults face the camera and talk in front of a gate and a decorated large house.
Amelia Dunn and Taalib Auguste host a short video feature in Creole French about Mardi Gras 2021.
Photo courtesy of LACréole Show
Network
Young man speaks at microphone to an audience.
Lower Sorbian language practitioner Grigor Kliem discusses findings from SMiLE research at a Sorbian community meeting at Bautzen/Budyšin in 2019.
Photo courtesy of Władysław Rybiński
Advocate

Projects

  • Advocate
    Mother Tongue Conversation with the Director: I Had a Dream (Bir Rüya Gördüm)
    February 2022

    The 2022 Mother Tongue Film Festival Director Conversation focuses on Burcu Esenç’s journey following the legacy of her grandfather Tevfik Esenç — the last person to speak the Ubykh language. His granddaughter's film focuses on reconnections made during the filming, the life of Tevifik Esenç, and the wider history of the Ubykh language.

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  • Advocate
    Mother Tongue Education Roundtable: Ways of Learning and Reclamation
    February 2022

    Carly Tex, director of the Advocates for Indigenous California Languages Survival (AICLES), leads a discussion on how language reclamation goes beyond language learning and daily use to reclaim relationships with ancestors, the land, and community with Ron Corn, Jr. and Quirina Geary.

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  • Train, Innovate
    Sakha Video Workshop
    February 2022

    In collaboration with the University of Chicago, the Center announces the second workshop in the Sakha Media School in northeastern Russia.

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  • students discussing books at a classroom table.
    Train
    New Website for the Sino-Tibetan Language and Linguistics Summer Institute
    February 2022

    In partnership with Nankai University, we launched a new web page to release materials developed across the past five years of training workshops and provides essential educational opportunities for Tibetan community language practitioners in China.

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  • Person speaking at a microphone in front of the U.S. Capitol building.
    Network, Advocate, Train
    Language and Archive Mentorship Program
    November 2021

    Members of existing Indigenous or minoritized language efforts are invited to participate in a virtual mentorship program to hone their skills in navigating digital libraries and archives while contributing to language work.

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  • Two young women and a young man sit with video cameras and tripods filming two women wearing traditional Armenia dress on the right.
    Train
    Video Production Handbook Redesign
    November 2021

    The Video Production Handbook is a free, downloadable guide to best practices in audio and video documentation, available in English, Mandarin Chinese, and Tibetan updated, translated, and redesigned by LVI.

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  • Participants Verónica Muñoz Ledo Yáñez, Carol Genetti, Carlos Nash, and Kennedy Bosire set up for a presentation at CoLang 2010.
    Train, Network
    CoLang Website Launch
    November 2021

    The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage partnered with the Institute for Collaborative Research, or CoLang, to establish a website for the biennial gathering that provides community language activists and linguists an opportunity to learn about language documentation, descriptive linguistics, and language revitalization.

    Learn more
  • Train, Innovate
    Presentation on Incorporating Language into Cultural Heritage Research
    September 2021

    Mary Linn discusses the importance of language in cultural representation and conversations, highlighting ways in which research for museum collections, exhibits, and programming can be repurposed as language materials for future generations.

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  • Recording the song of the Black Tiger General.
    Innovate, Train
    The Himalayan Languages of Sichuan Workshop
    May 2021

    LVI partnered to develop a workshop to provide a platform for information and resource sharing for speakers of minoritized languages in Sichuan, to build their social networks, and to improve their fundraising skills to support linguistic documentation.

    Learn more
  • Mother Tongue Film Festival 2021 Graphic - The Healing Power of Storytelling.
    Advocate
    Discussion on Language Revitalization at Mother Tongue Film Festival 2021
    April 2021

    A virtual panel discussion at the 2021 Mother Tongue Film Festival addressed the pressures on language from current and historical dislocation and forced relocations. Curator Mary Linn moderated, with participants Ruben Reyes, director of Garifuna in Peril; Ni Nyoman Clara Listya Dewi, co-director of Luh Ayu Manik Mas; and Kari Chew (Chickasaw), the project lead for Growing the Fire Within.

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  • woven red cloth with pattern
    Network
    Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas Website
    August 2020

    LVI supported the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas (SSILA), an educational nonprofit, in redeveloping a website to include bilingual and accessible content.

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Festival Programs


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