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As We Destroy the Environment, We Also Lose Languages

As We Destroy the Environment, We Also Lose Languages

As we cut down forests and lose biodiversity, there’s something else that we’re also losing: languages.

Since the 1970s, linguistic diversity has been declining as fast as biodiversity — at about a 30 percent decline. That’s according to a new report a by researchers Jonathan Loh at the Zoological Society of London and David Harmon at the George Wright Society, which highlights the link between the world of nature and the world of culture.

“There are extraordinary parallels between linguistic diversity and biodiversity,” Jonathan Loh, a researcher at the Zoological Society of London, told the Guardian. “Both are products of evolution and have evolved in remarkably similar ways, and both are facing an extinction crisis.”

It’s not the first time biodiversity and languages have been linked. A study by Conservation International in 2012 showed that 70 percent of the world’s languages are found in biodiversity hotspots. Which means that as those hotspots are threatened, so are the languages. The parallels between the loss in biodiversity and language are striking. For example, one in four of the world’s remaining languages are threatened, the exact same ratio as mammals that are endangered.

How many languages are we talking about? Today there are 7,000 languages spoken worldwide. Half of those have fewer than 10,000 speakers, making them spoken by only 0.1 percent of the global population. The rest of us have a much smaller diversity in the languages that we speak. 95 percent of the world’s population speaks one of just 400 languages, and 40 percent of us converse in just one of eight languages: Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian and Japanese.

That loss in diversity of language is leading to a kind of cultural homogenization. “We are losing the richness of human diversity, becoming more and more similar. The languages we speak define how we think and understand the world,” Mandana Seyfeddinipur, director of the endangered languages archive at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, told the Guardian.

As we become more globalized, and our consumption and use of natural resources increases, we lose both languages and our environment. According to the report, ”Ultimately both biodiversity and linguistic diversity are diminishing as a result of human population growth, increasing consumption and economic globalisation which are eroding the differences between one part of the world and another.”

That has an effect on conservation, because as we lose languages, we lose local know-how of how to function within a certain environment. Take New Guinea for example, a hotbed of biodiversity and culture. There are 1,000 languages spoken, and it has one of the greatest varieties of life in the world. As deforestation continues, all of those are threatened, and as cultures and languages are destroyed in the process, we lose the knowledge that has been developed over tens of thousands of years. How to use traditional plants for medicine, how to live a symbiotic relationship with the natural world, these are all things that we lose in the process.

To work on conserving nature, we also need to work on conserving culture.

“As we lose rare indigenous languages we lose the cultures and all the knowledge that they contain. The knowledge of indigenous people is phenomenal. Conservationists should make use of it,” says Loh.

When Conservation International released its study two years ago, the sentiment was similar. Dr. Russell A. Mittermeier, President of Conservation International, wrote, ”… at its most basic level this finding further reinforces an ethos that we have at CI: ‘People need nature to thrive.’ It also shows that we can have real win-win approaches in which efforts to conserve nature and ensure the integrity of human cultures can go hand in hand.”

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65 comments

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5:35AM PDT on Jun 26, 2014

Yes, but what are the benefits?
While I understand the points being made here, i can't help but feel it is an over simplified look at an issue, with some illogical conclusions being drawn. Look at Africa. Lots of different tribes and languages, yet there is a common language in Swahili. This allows for trade and commerce, yet people speak their own languages for other communication. English, like it or not, is the common trade language in most every corner of the world. Some countries see it as an invasive, while other countries see it as a way of protecting their own language(s) from being altered, and a way of keeping their language as a sort of secret handshake.

Vast amounts of information are available in these, well, not eight, but several of these world languages. Information perhaps not available in smaller languages is now available to more people. People once divided by language are now united by it.

Languages have been dying off for a long time. As tribes are indirectly killed off, and minorities are marginalised and pushed out of their lands (looking at you, PRC), of course their languages will die off. It is not necessarily caused by environmental destruction or overpopulation though. Much of it is very political, and there is a long history of smaller languages being beaten out of people. I dare say that has caused the death, or speeded up decay of many a language.

3:36PM PDT on Jun 20, 2014

This is so sad.

5:15AM PDT on Jun 20, 2014

The loss of the people and their language is beyond tragic. It damages all of us.

8:18PM PDT on Jun 19, 2014

It is not fair that the first world countries pay developing nations to destroy their forests, native people, and wildlife so that we can have palm oil, fancy wood furniture, and new cell phones each month!

11:00AM PDT on Jun 19, 2014

thank you for sharing.

9:18AM PDT on Jun 19, 2014

Q: when we have destroyed all the rainforest, fracked the living hell out of the planet, killed the bees and wildlife, the only way to see any once wild animal is in zoos on on google, the planet is now covered in palm oil and cows.... what will Big Business do then?
How will they be able to illegally landgrab then?
The thought of relocating to another planet to screw that up quicker than we did this one isn't worth thinking about (and to be honest, I'm not sure it will happen in our lifetimes)
But what then? Grey skies, acid rain, people living in mass slums or really high tiny apartments, nothing but dogs, cats, cows and the odd animal that has evolved to live in cities to eat our crap (I'm looking at you pigeons / foxes / etc)

5:38AM PDT on Jun 19, 2014

"Because we don't think about future generations, they will never forget us"
(Henrik Tikkanen)

5:36AM PDT on Jun 19, 2014

Destroy our environment...? What does that make us? I know in fact; -We humans are absolutely worthless idiots!

5:21AM PDT on Jun 19, 2014

Agreed Diane L!!!

2:50AM PDT on Jun 19, 2014

Language does indeed shape the way we think, but it also conveys a great deal about the people who created the language and the world in which they live. Inuits have many different words for snow and ice that convey meaning about their qualities and how they were formed that provides the listener with valuable information about how to safely deal with them, for instance. On the other hand, Irish has eight different words for ennui, supposedly all slightly different. I'm not sure I like the implications of that!

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