Hidden wisdom in unheard words - the link between language and biodiversity

Hidden wisdom - Art by Aimée Lister

Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse country in the world with around 850 spoken languages amongst its 7.6 million residents - and, interestingly, it is also one of the most biodiverse. It gives home to more than 200,000 different species of plants and animals and it is estimated that half the local biome is yet to be scientifically named. This apparent link between linguistic diversity and biodiversity has puzzled many ecologists, linguists, conservationists and ethnobiologists. In 2001, Luisa Maffi coined the term ‘Biocultural diversity’ (BCD) to describe the interdependence between the various forms of diversity of life: biological, cultural and linguistic. According to her theory, there is an inextricable link between humans, their language, their cultures and the natural landscapes they inhabit. A disturbance in any of these indices can have a detrimental effect on the others.

Biodiversity loss is arguably one of the biggest threats humanity has to face in the next decade. In 2018 The Living Planet Index found, by analysing data on mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, that global wildlife populations fell by 60% between 1970 and 2014, with a significantly steeper decline since 2010. The five biggest drivers of this staggering loss of biodiversity are human alterations to land and sea, overexploitation, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species. According to the theory of BCD, biodiversity, cultural diversity and linguistic diversity are intrinsically interlinked – when one is in danger, the others are too. It is therefore not surprising that just like global biodiversity, linguistic diversity has also been experiencing an extinction crisis with 40% of the world’s estimated 6,700 languages in danger of disappearing according to the UN. Research has repeatedly shown that biodiversity hotspots (regions that contain a minimum of 1500 endemic vascular plant species and that lost at least 75% of their primary vegetation) often contain significantly higher levels of linguistic diversity with 70% of all languages on Earth concentrated in these areas. A paper published by the Arizona State University in 2011 estimated that nearly half of all languages on Earth are found in only 35 biodiversity hotspots. These cover only 2.3 % of the planet’s land surface (around the size of Europe) but provide habitats to 44% of the world’s plants and 35% of all land vertebrates.

This fascinating connection between linguistic and biodiversity is often explained by two factors – ecological isolation and climate. For example, the landscape of Papua New Guinea is divided into ecologically and culturally separate parts by natural barriers. The formation of rivers, forests and mountains have separated wildlife populations, which in turn have undergone distinct genetic changes leading to the appearance of new species (speciation) thus creating one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Similarly, these geographic features acted as natural borders to the country’s hundreds of tribes which developed their own unique languages, cultures and traditions. Linguistic diversity is further maintained by Papua New Guinea’s tropical climate which supports the high productivity of the environment and maintains a reliable year-round food supply. In areas with low seasonality (predictable temperature and rainfall during the year) smaller social groups are more likely to be stable and self-sufficient, unlike communities living in regions with high seasonality (e.g. Europe) where the formation of social bonds to obtain food and resources when they are scarce is crucial for survival.

However, just like most bioculturally diverse regions on Earth, Papua New Guinea has also been struck by rapid species and language extinction. Most of Papua New Guinea’s languages have fewer than 1000 speakers remaining with many being spoken by less than a hundred people. A language becomes extinct when it ceases to be passed onto the next generation. This phenomenon is becoming more and more common in many parts of the world as the number of children who are still able to speak their native language is rapidly declining. Around half of the 3202 languages spoken in these biodiversity hotspots are used by 10,000 people or fewer, with most of these disappearing languages belonging to indigenous communities. Despite constituting a relatively small part of the world’s population, indigenous people represent the largest portion of linguistic and cultural diversity on Earth, and their traditional lands and territories enclose the greatest remaining reserves of biodiversity. Meanwhile, today western-types of formal education reach more and more people but fail to provide the necessary inter-cultural and multilingual education. The lack of minority language teachers and the absence of educational media in minority languages results in these languages being indirectly prohibited in schools. The current education system imposes the majority language (in most cases, this is English) onto these communities in a nominal “linguistic genocide”. Learning of the dominant language should happen additively in schools, without sacrificing the mother tongue. Creating a safe environment in schools that nurtures and treasures linguistic diversity is the key to ensure the survival of these languages and thus the survival of the knowledge they encompass about the natural world.

When a language disappears, thousands of years of ancestral knowledge is also lost with it. Knowledge about how to sustainably maintain and use some of the most vulnerable and most biologically diverse environments in the world is hidden in these languages. Their loss can seriously threaten our chances of survival on Earth. Indigenous communities have spent thousands of years exploring the secrets of the natural world on their doorsteps. The strength of connection between these people and their local environment is not something that can be learnt from textbooks. However, since the language we speak is heavily influenced by the natural world around us, by listening to and learning about the languages spoken by these communities we can open a window into this vast archive of knowledge preserved over many generations.

Linguistic knowledge has already successfully been used to revive endangered aspects of the ecosystem. For example, the Harasis’ indigenous knowledge of the antelope, Arabian oryx, was used to revive the endangered population in Oman. This majestic desert animal is a culturally important inhabitant of the Arabian Peninsula and has been mesmerizing local painters and poets for hundreds of years. Arabic artistic records do not only admire the antelope’s strength and beauty but also document its behaviours and habits – knowledge that proved instrumental in the reintroduction of Arabian oryx into the wild. This was the first conservation project to bring back an animal species that was “previously extinct in the wild” and its huge success was largely due to the effective mixing of modern scientific knowledge with native wisdom. Today, there are more and more projects aiming to promote language and ecosystem revitalisation by encouraging locals to speak about their natural environment in their own language.

The preservation of linguistic diversity is not only important in the spoken world but also in written academic records. Languages can seriously limit the transfer of knowledge in environmental sciences in two directions – during the centralisation of scientific knowledge and during its redistribution for practitioners and policy makers. Language barriers can cause gaps in information availability during the global compilation of scientific knowledge by often ignoring non-English papers. For example, over a third of scientific documents on biodiversity conservation published in 2014 were not in English. Knowledge generated by conservationists in the field is particularly under-represented in English because many of them, as non-native English speakers, struggle to have their work published in an academic journal. This potentially renders local and indigenous knowledge unavailable in English. On the other hand, while the recent large increase in English publications has helped global English-speaking communities access broader information, it posed a barrier for local practitioners and policy makers whose mother tongue is not English. This poses an especially big problem to conservation projects since the areas experiencing the biggest loss of biodiversity and thus in the greatest need of information are often places where English is not spoken widely. Therefore, multilingualization of scientific knowledge is now more crucial than ever. To overcome language barriers, scientists around the world should collaborate and ensure that at least the abstract of their research paper (and then, if requested, a complete translation) is available in multiple languages.

The 2020 City Nature Challenge, held across the world during national lockdowns, encouraged those living in urbanised areas to record from their window or during their daily outdoor exercise the various plant and animal species that pay secret visits to their gardens or local parks. The 244 cities participating in the challenge collectively recorded more than 800,000 observations of close to 33,000 different species from all around the world. Flipping through the archive of the various species recorded, I can’t help but notice how vividly descriptive some of the common names given to these organisms are - Easter Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly, Red Winged Blackbird, Black-crowned Night Heron, and so on. You get an even more animated picture of the organisms by studying the expressions used to describe them in different languages. It is fascinating how in some languages the physical characteristics form the basis of the name, while in others it might be the sound the animal makes, the habitat it lives in or its behaviour that determines its name. Imagine collecting all the names used to identify a particular species around the globe. Not only a wealth of useful knowledge could be built up about nature on our beautiful planet, but we could also look at the living world through the eyes of the locals, people who are the most connected to that unique environment.

It is widely known in Ecology that the strongest, most viable ecosystems are those with the highest diversity. Diversity is directly linked to stability – the more diverse an ecosystem is, the better it is in sustaining itself in the face of external stresses (natural or cultural). Our success on this planet has been due to an ability to adapt to different kinds of environments over thousands of years. Such ability is born of diversity: biodiversity, linguistic diversity and cultural diversity. The health of our ecosystem is necessary if we want to continue to have access to clean air and water, stable climate, food, medicine and shelter. But the preservation of languages and cultures is essential if we want to see the world in colour. Each language and culture provides a unique outlook on the world. It is yet to be discovered which of these perspectives will hide a solution to global food security, climate change or even to the control of a new virus. Until then, we need actions that combine the protection of the natural world with the conservation of the social, cultural, spiritual and linguistic health of all human societies.

By Louder Than The Storm contributor Darinka Szigecsán


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