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American Foundations: Indifference to Language

The United States has the world's most generous tradition of distributing private wealth for the public good. Successful individuals often vest much of their wealth in foundations, which have a legal mandate to fund charitable projects of one sort or another. American foundations are major drivers in combatting diseases and funding innovative social projects around the world. However, language is rarely on their screens, and may be seen as a hindrance. Getting through doors guarded by program officers who do not see language as part of an organization’s mission is almost impossible. Endangered languages do get bits of funding for sentimental reasons, but overall, excluded languages are treated as unimportant esoterica.

For big donors, language has yet to make a mark as an area of concern. Language barely makes a dent in the grants of the Ford Foundation, for example, with $145,000 spent in 2014 and 2015 on research and development for the emerging Sheng language of Kenya, a $190,000 grant for the Hawaiian language, and $150,000 for a multilingual voter registration platform for Nigeria – not half a million dollars, from an $800,000,000 portfolio. The Gates Foundation, "impatient optimists working to reduce inequity" who "believe that the path out of poverty begins when the next generation can access ... a great education" has even less interest in language despite its well-documented effect on educational outcomes; other than support for English, they have since 2013 granted $100,000 to develop local-language health materials in Burkina Faso, $175,000 for professional development for American teachers of foreign languages, and $100,000 to support language learning for the Makah Nation near their Seattle headquarters, with another $386,000 spent on non-English in prior decades, and no way for prospective grantees to get in the door and make the case for supporting digital language diversity as a path toward the foundations goals of overcoming inequity. For the Hewlett Foundation, language funding equates to English.

In an analysis of the grants database of the Foundation Directory, Jaumont and Klempay (2015) find that 88% of the roughly 4 billion granted by American philanthropies in Africa over a decade from 2003 went to Anglophone countries, almost entirely for programs conducted in English. Lack of concern for local languages can be further observed in eleemosynary institutions in Europe and elsewhere. Understandably, big donors want projects that can make an immediate, visible impact, whereas language projects have intangible results that might not be evident for decades (if there is ever a way to measure the effect that increased knowledge has on a society, beyond saying that X number of people have used Y resource that contains Z elements). Less benevolently, few philanthropies are amenable to the case that minority languages are worth even a moment of their consideration, and neither practitioners nor potential beneficiaries are in a position to demand otherwise.

The question of how to gain philanthropic support for projects that advance equity by advancing languages, particularly from US foundations, is one for which no answers are evident. No foundation currently expresses linguistic equity as a value, nor languages as a program area beyond limited support for endangered languages, and they do not entertain proposals that seek to convince them otherwise.


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•A = Active language, aligned and searchable
•c = Data 🔢 elicited through the Comparative African Word List
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•w = Data from 🔠🕸 WordNet teams

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