Buffet, Gates, & the future of linguistic diversity

d_z_o dzo at BISHARAT.NET
Fri Jun 30 21:35:39 UTC 2006

With the news of Warren Buffet's donation of most of an estimated $44
billion to the Gates Foundation (GF), and remembering that the GF has
funded some programs for endangered languages, one wonders whether any
of this new mass of capital can be directed for use for language
revitalization and linguistic diversity.  Is not just a question of
whether some more money can be allocated for specific projects, but
rather whether resources can be found to develop and implement
long-term programs for the development of minority languages.  There
are a number of important but relatively small programs to assist in
documentation of endangered languages, and there are sometimes
programs in individual countries to promote teaching of and
development of literature in certain languages, but there does not
seem to be any overarching strategy involving a range of actors (or
"stakeholders") involved in or concerned with language preservation
and development.  

At this time, when we read so often about about the current and
expected rates of language extinction, when many countries and
communities lack the resources to plan and manage for their own
linguistic diversity, when many children especially of minority groups
do not have access to formal education of any sort let alone in their
maternal language, and when older people in minority language
communities pass away taking with them knowledge that cannot be
replaced (the proverbial "when an elder dies, a library burns"), while
at the same time we have the resources, both monetary and
technological, to record, manipulate, produce, and instruct in any
language, there is an urgent need to develop bold, coherent and long
term strategies. 

Basically we seem to be faced with a window of opportunity of limited
duration, and an imperative to act promptly. The GF even with this
added capital, is not the only organization that can assist in this
area, so it shouldn't be singled out.  There are other organizations
that can and should contribute as well – philanthropic, national,
intergovernmental, etc.  However, given the amount of resources now at
the GF's disposal, and its implied link via its founder to information
technology (which has a great potential to help work language
development and revitalization), it certainly is a logical starting
place. And since this story is big in the news at this moment, maybe
it deserves some focused discussion in order to produce a strong
policy proposal?

Don Osborn

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