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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (April 2009)


Introducing the National Museum of Language
By Greg Nedved

The National Museum of Language (NML) in College Park, Maryland, officially opened to the public in May 2008. Featuring a main exhibit entitled “Writing Language: Passing It On,” the museum has already had several hundred visitors from all over the world and from all walks of life—quite an accomplishment for an institution with only three rooms that is open only 10 times a month. NML is one of only a handful of museums in the world dedicated to all aspects of language and linguistics. The goal is not just to explore languages, but the importance of languages in societies and even everyday interactions.

A National Forum
If there is to be a genuine effort to educate all those who have an interest in or who need to have a better understanding of some aspect of language, that effort must be made as authoritatively as possible, and with a high level of visibility to attract a wide audience. The responsibility for such an initiative can no longer rest with the academic community alone, especially when it comes to reaching out to this country’s youth to get them excited and actively involved in language learning. Language is simply too important to be left to a single constituency. This is where a national language museum comes into play.

NML is designed to bring together diverse language and linguistic circles—academic, governmental, social, business, scientific, literary, technological—and to provide a forum through which they can communicate effectively, focusing attention on language as it relates to all aspects of life, human development, and human history. The museum is intended to serve as a visible, authoritative, credible, and accessible national forum for languages and linguistics. By fostering the study of the nature of language, its development, and its role and importance in society, and by exploring linguistic problems and ways of overcoming them, the museum will serve as an educational resource to contribute to better understanding and communication among the peoples of the world.

History and Development
The history of NML goes back over 30 years. Its initial inspiration was a 1971 exhibit in Greenbelt, Maryland, entitled “Language, Its Infinite Variety,” which linguists from the National Security Agency (NSA) organized for over 1,000 students from area high schools. In 1985, several creators of the 1971 exhibit met throughout the year to develop a concept and to study the feasibility of creating a national language museum. They prepared an outline of sample exhibits and discussed the possibility of approaching the Smithsonian Institution for sponsorship. The group later disbanded when members realized they would be unable to prepare the exhibits adequately. It would not be until 1997 that another organizing committee would be formed to create an independent national language museum based on the original 1980s concept. The committee officially established NML in December 1997.

As anyone who has ever been involved in creating a professional organization can attest, the first few years are critical. This was also true for NML, which made steady progress, although it was not always obvious. The museum needed office space, bank accounts, tax exemption, bylaws, officers (board of directors and associates), volunteers, affiliations, a newsletter, a logo, and an annual meeting. Thanks to a lot of dedication and hard work, NML had everything it needed by 2000. The first years of the new millennium saw further progress as representatives from NML began attending language meetings nationwide. The museum started to sponsor its own programs, for example, traveling exhibits and lecture series. The museum collected and received donations of language items of interest for display, and a library was eventually established. The museum also began recruiting interns to help with its ever-growing programs. Another big step came in November 2005, when NML’s website went live. In short, NML was turning into a real museum.

Dream Realized
The years 2007 and 2008 were momentous for the museum, because it was during this time that it took that final step: opening to the public. In doing so, NML was fortunate to have outside assistance. For example, the Alphabet Museum in North Carolina provided guidance and did design work. A University of Maryland professor did exhibit planning and provided student volunteers. A professional museum consultant gave layout and organizational advice. Two exhibits—alphabetic and logographic—were merged together under the theme of “Writing Language: Passing It On.” An exhibit room, an activities room (for children of all ages!), and a reception room were readied for the public.

NML opened amidst much fanfare on May 3, 2008, an event that was covered by Kuwaiti TV of all places! Since then, there has been a steady arrival of student groups (all levels), academics, curiosity seekers, language lovers, and government representatives, both foreign and domestic. The museum has since revised and updated its exhibits, added docents, and now offers virtual presentations on its website as a supplement to current exhibits. A big boost came when NML was covered by The Washington Post in October 2008.

1The museum continues to expand its offerings and education programs. In October 2008, it ran a contest to design the world’s first international flag of language. Intended to get young people interested in languages, the contest was also NML’s contribution to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) 2008 International Year of Languages. (NML hopes that the winning entry will be displayed at a UNESCO facility in the near future. Already selected but not yet announced, the winning entry was fine-tuned to satisfy the judges, who are experts in both languages and vexillology.) The museum has also been sponsoring the Marian M. Jenkins Memorial Speaker Series for many months, with presentations on Cherokee, Arabic, English, Chinese, Yiddish, Amharic, and language preservation, to name just a few.

As the museum approaches its first anniversary, it is already planning its next exhibit: “Living Language.” It is also seeking a larger facility. Much has happened to the museum in recent months and, with the word out now about its existence, goals, and activities, its future is truly bright. NML will continue to educate and inform, serving as a necessary national forum for language and linguistics in all of its aspects.

Want to Learn More?
The museum is open Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10:00am - 4:00pm, and from 1:00 - 4:00pm the first and third Sundays of each month. Admission is free. For more information about the museum and its exhibits, visit Amelia Murdoch, the museum’s president, can also be reached at

1. Orndorff, Amy. “Take Our Word: It’s Worth a Look.” The Washington Post (October 3, 2008), WE05.


Greg Nedved is a Chinese translator living in Baltimore, Maryland. He is an associate and docent of the National Museum of Language in College Park, Maryland, and also serves as the editor of the museum’s newsletter. He helped design the museum’s Asian exhibit and is currently coordinating its effort to design the world’s first international flag of language. He is a member of ATA’s Chinese Language Division. Contact: