Research on the Conservation of Endangered Languages

Project Leader
YAMADA Masahiro (Associate Professor, NINJAL)
Project Period
April 2022 -


Background and Purpose

In 2009, UNESCO has reported that there are eight endangered languages in Japan (Ainu, Hachijo, and six Ryukyuan languages). We believe that not only these eight languages, but their sub-variations (dialects), along with most of Japan’s mainland dialects are in the same situation. One of the purposes of this project is the documentation of these local languages by compiling grammatical descriptions, dictionaries, discourse texts, and other resources.

A (nearly) dead language can be revived provided there is enough documentation. Moreover, we can move closer to revealing the nature of human language by understanding as many specific languages as possible. Documentation of endangered languages is an urgent task given that their native speakers are mostly elderly people.

However, documentation on its own might not make the actual language community members believe that their language is being conserved. When the people we meet through fieldwork say they want their language to be conserved, they actually mean “revitalization” of their language. Revitalization of an endangered language can be achieved by restarting and maintaining inter-generational language transmission.

In fact, language documentation is essential to language revitalization. For instance, we can easily imagine that dictionaries, grammatical explanations, textbooks, or movies of natural conversations are useful for people who are not fluent but wish to be able to speak their local language. These materials are the products of language documentation.

Language documentation is a collaborative work with members of the language community, and to help conserve their language it is thus natural that we should partner with them to offer support.

Endangered Languages

Objectives and Methods

We pursue the conservation of Japonic languages via the following three subprojects: (1) collecting grammatical descriptions, vocabularies, and discourse texts; (2) digitizing old documentation; and (3) archiving and sharing these language data.

  1. Collecting grammatical descriptions, vocabularies, and discourse texts
    Some 70 collaborative researchers collect grammatical descriptions, vocabularies, and discourse texts in their fields throughout the country. In most cases this is done through consultation with native speakers of the target local language.
  2. Digitizing old documentation
    There exists an enormous amount of unpublished recordings of natural discourse in handwritten transcripts, which was undertaken by the Agency of Cultural Affairs between 1977 and 1985. Some parts have been published as 20 volumes of audiobooks. We will continue the digitization of the remainder.
  3. Archiving and sharing these language data
    The language data to be accumulated in the above subprojects will be properly archived and published in an easy access form. For example, the language data obtained through fieldwork will be published as printed/online dictionaries, grammar sketches or reference grammars, and movies with subtitles.
Endangered Languages

Project Members

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