Federal funding for linguistic research is important--not just for linguists, but for anyone interested in helping people to better understand and communicate with each other.

The following are but a few examples of the benefits of federally-funded linguistic research:

Helping us understand American Sign Language

For the first half of the 20th century, sign languages were misunderstood in America as ‘broken’ or inferior in comparison to spoken languages, and were often ignored or suppressed in language education for deaf students. William Stokoe, a professor of linguistics at Gallaudet, was crucial in changing this perception.

Starting in 1960, Stokoe received funding from the National Science Foundation to study American Sign Language; he found that ASL is indeed a ‘full-fledged’ language that follows rules of grammar and articulation in the same way that spoken languages do. NSF funding also allowed Stokoe to co-author the first dictionary of ASL in 1965. Though this research was controversial at the time, it has revolutionized deaf education in the United States and improved the social and civil status of deaf people around the world.

Teaching computers to understand sentences

One of the most complex fields in linguistics is syntax—understanding the rules of grammar that make up language. The average sentence (such as this one) is more complex than you might imagine, and a major project in syntax is to create frameworks that allow us to specify a structure for every English sentence. Such frameworks (from the 1970s) have supported the creation of treebanks, large databases of sentences with their syntactic structure mapped out.

These treebanks are a gold standard in computational linguistics for helping computers automatically recognize, parse, and create English grammatical structures—and have been made possible through federal research funding. For example, one popular treebank over 7 million words in size (the Penn Treebank Project) has been supported by DARPA and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Technological innovations in automatic translation, search engines, and other cutting-edge technology continue to be supported by research conducted with treebanks.

Understanding how communities respond to natural disasters

The aftermath of major disasters, such as the Nepal earthquakes in the spring of 2015, is a chaotic time; understanding how individuals react and rebuild in these situations can help us better prepare for disasters and minimize the damage they cause afterwards. Kristine Hildebrandt, a linguist and professor at SIU-Edwardsville, is conducting research to help us better understand these issues.

Dr. Hildebrandt is the leader of a project named “Narrating Disaster: Calibrating Causality and Responses to the 2015 Earthquakes in Nepal.” Funded by a linguistics NSF RAPID award, which provides funding for “rapid response research” in the wake of unexpected events, Hildebrandt and colleagues are spending several months in Nepal to interview earthquake survivors about their personal experiences and how their communities are responding and rebuilding after this devastating event. The construction and documentation of "survivor narratives" provides insight into the grammatical and discourse features of emotive language.

Hildebrandt, who is also acclaimed for her work to save the endangered languages of Nepal, will lead a team of local and international researchers to collect data in 11 different Nepalese languages. Hildebrandt’s team will also provide aid with healthcare and construction for the remote communities they will be visiting.

To learn more about the value of research in the social sciences and the humanities, see the Consortium of Social Science Associations and the National Humanties Alliance.

The LSA is interested in collecting other stories which highlight the value of linguistics research. Please contact LSA Executive Director Alyson Reed with any suggestions.