Funding for Amazonian Language Research

November 27, 2007

A colleague of mine who works in Peru recently asked me about funding opportunities for linguistically-oriented research. Since this is a question I get with some regularity, I have been inspired to write a post that consolidates this information in one place. In putting together this list, I specifically have in mind research on Amazonian languages, and I am excluding fairly nation-specific funding sources like NSF (US) and CNPq (Brazil), and the like. As a special bonus, I am including comments and (possibly scurrilous) rumors about the various options that aspiring applicants may wish to consider.

Btw, if readers know of any sources that I haven’t mentioned here, let me know, and I’ll add them.

Endangered Language Fund http://www.endangeredlanguagefund.org

ELF seems to have been generous in funding proposals for work on Amazonian languages, as far as I have been able to determine through the Amazonianist grapevine. Another nice point is that the proposal requirements themselves aren’t too onerous. As one would expect, language revitalization and indigenous linguistic training components are looked upon favorably, which is not the case for all funding sources.

The major disadvantage of ELF grants is their small size: most are in the $1000 – $2000 range. Between travel, equipment, and consultant costs, that just doesn’t go very far in the Amazon Basin. I think that for most projects, an ELF grant is best seen as a funding supplement for a revitalization/pedagogical component. Of course, if one is already living relatively near your planned field site and are capable of living on the cheap, an ELF grant could be stretched out to finance a reasonably long project.

Foundation for Endangered Languages http://www.ogmios.org

I have never known anyone who has received an FEL grant, and it looks like most of their money goes to projects outside the Americas, but I imagine that’s mainly reflective of who applies more than anything else.

Grants are quite small; most are under $1000.

Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Documentation Project http://www.hrelp.org

For most international researchers, ELDP is probably the single best source for funding research on Amazonian languages. ELDP offers a number of different funding options, from short field trips, to dissertation funding, to multi-year projects.

ELDP has very high standards for proposals, and tend to have very strong opinions about technology and methodology. Personally, I think that this is, for the most part, a good thing, but I’ve also heard that some applicants have found the ELDP application process to be too onerous, and have looked for funding elsewhere instead. In any event, be sure to carefully examine sample proposals and their recommendations on technology and methodology before completing any proposal.

Wenner-Gren Foundation http://www.wennergren.org

Wenner Gren is a funding source for anthropological research, but it remains true to the Boasian four-field approach, which includes linguistics. As might be expected, Wenner Gren appears to look most favorably on language-oriented research projects that also incorporate a significant social or ethnographic research component, meaning that this is an especially good funding source for linguistic anthropologists. Nevertheless, I know of a few projects that have been funded that are pretty much straightforward descriptive linguistics.

Funding is available at both pre-PhD and post-PhD levels, and they have a nice collaborative research program.

One warning however: Wenner Gren seems to have a rather antediluvian attitude towards endangered language documentation, as evidenced by this comment:

Linguists should also be aware that the Foundation does not fund salvage work on endangered languages (e.g., preparation of dictionaries and/or grammars).

(Salvage work?! There are so many misconceptions underlying this characterization of endangered language documentation that I am left speechless. It’s a good thing Boas or Sapir didn’t apply for funding from Wenner-Gren!)

Volkswagen Foundation http://www.volkswagenstiftung.de/foerderung/auslandsorientiert/bedrohte-sprachen.html

VW has funded a large number of projects in Greater Amazonia, with a focus on Eastern Brazil and Bolivia. Funding is substantial, and research is supported by the DoBeS project (www.mpi.nl/DOBES), based at the Max Planck Instute at Nijmegen (www.mpi.nl). These projects are generally substantial and technologically documentation sophisticated projects, and I suspect that applicants should do significant homework before applying, as in the ELDP case.

Note that proposals to the Volkswagen Foundation require substantive collaboration with a German scholar or German academic institution. The rumor mill has it that a year or so ago that the VW Foundation effectively yanked funding from a project or two that had fairly nominal German participation, leaving a number of Latin American collaborators high and dry. Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems best to be careful.

Research Centre for Linguistic Typology http://www.latrobe.edu.au/rclt/

RCLT provides funding for dissertation and postdoctoral research under the guidance of the center’s co-directors, R.M.W. Dixon and Alexandra Aihkenvald. One of their major areas of interest is Amazonian languages, and in recent years, they have focused quite a bit on Peruvian Amazonia in particular. Funding includes a fairly hefty multi-year stipend, but I’ve met a few people who have found the travel and equipment funding a bit thin for work in the Amazon basin, which can get fairly expensive because of transportation costs. Doctoral students and post-docs are expected to spend a significant part of their time at RCLT, which is located at La Trobe University, in Melboune, Australia.

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