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.”