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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

  • 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.

    Learn more
  • 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.

    Learn more
  • 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
  • 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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Articles


Videos


Festival Programs


Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, sustainability projects, educational outreach, and more.

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