Public Perception of Language Diversity


Diversity is the natural state of the world (Harmon 2001). It is the quintessence of the evolutionary process as found in the natural world in its multiplicity of flora and fauna called biological diversity and in the constructed world in its multiplicity of cultures called cultural diversity. Language diversity is part of the co-evolution of humans with ecological diversity and it is comparable with the evolution of diversification of species. Languages are the core component of the ecologically evolved cultural diversity, which enable representation and transmission of the core aspects of cultures for acquisition by succeeding generations of the community and for interaction with other contemporary communities. It is natural for cultural diversity to emerge and sustain itself through language diversity. It is established empirically (Harmon 2002) that the diversity in nature and culture are integrally related and they are connected with the development of ecosystems and with their sustainability. This has given rise to the concept of biocultural diversity as a unified phenomenon. Most of the specialists in the respective fields of study of nature and of culture and the common people seem not to be aware of the connection between diversity in nature and culture. The awareness of the common people about the connection between culture and language is more socio-political and psychological and less philosophical in nature. One piece of evidence is that an increasing number of minority linguistic communities transplanted in the midst of a dominant linguistic community ask seriously the question whether they can maintain their culture without their language.

The awareness of, and scientific enquiry into, biological diversity transformed into concern and activism for the preservation of that diversity, renamed in the 1980s as biodiversity (Wilson1988), when the people saw the loss of diversity to be coupled with environmental degradation instigated by human behavior. It is not that extinction of biological species did not occur before in paleo-historical times. It has occurred five times in a massive scale, each separated by millions of years, extinguishing together more than ninety per cent of species that ever lived (Heywood 1995). But the earth regenerates itself every time with new species. The impending sixth extinction feared by specialists will be the first one after modern humans (Homo sapiens) came into existence 250-200 thousand years ago and the human language emerged sometime after this evolutionary happening and before the modern humans migrated out of Africa 100-70 thousand years ago. The sixth extinction, if it happens, will be the one caused by humans and it may include the human species (Pimm and Brooks 2000). It will then be the one that includes extinction of languages. Even if there is no total extinction as feared, there is increasing loss of language diversity now directly attributable to human action.

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A Biocultural Approach to Development

Ganga Aarti ceremony in Rishikesh, India. photo: Jamie Beck

It is a natural assumption that international development programs lead to direct improvements in lives around the world. Decreasing rates of under-five mortality from malaria? Absolutely. Improving lives in the wake of unimaginable destruction from natural disasters? Without question. It was under these obvious assumptions that I worked for years on various development programs as part of a large government agency. However, I quickly realized that this dominant model of development – one that often takes a Western approach to what progress looks like and applies it to people in all parts of the world regardless of their own values – does not fare so well in empowering cultures, languages or local solutions. With time I saw clearly that in addition to building health clinics, schools, and green revolutions, I was in some cases unknowingly contributing to the creation of a Western monoculture and the destruction of beautifully diverse cultures and languages that hold immeasurable value.

What I learned and experienced through that work led me to believe that deep and fundamental change is needed to this Western led and strictly structured development paradigm. Along with many others, I now call for a new approach to international development that breaks with Western tradition to embrace local tradition: one that empowers local people to drive their own progress; one in which diverse approaches, practices and ideas are heard, embraced and celebrated.

These two models of development– the dominant Western approach and this new, sustainable one that values biological and cultural diversity – are reconcilable. The old model is rooted in indisputable good will, far reach, and well-researched methodology, but desperately needs to be reframed into one that allows the development conversation to be defined and led by those to whom it is most critically relevant.

The Dominant Development Paradigm

It is widely agreed that there are three primary aspects to the traditional development model that together create a three-legged stool upon which a healthy society rests: environment, society and economy[i]. Undeniably, this dominant approach has made great strides in creating opportunity and improving lives – indeed for the ‘recipients’ of the aid, but also for the development industry and those who work within it. Through working within that approach, I was given the invaluable opportunity to learn from some of the most brilliant, creative, and driven local and indigenous peoples from India to Tanzania. Deeply impressed by the vast storehouses of ideas, practice and knowledge that these communities held, I realized that more often than not, the solutions to their own development needs already existed within their respective communities.

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Filling the Gaps in Biocultural Diversity Conservation

What do we need to do to further promote biocultural diversity conservation?

Since the existence of an “inextricable link” between cultural and biological diversity was affirmed in the pioneering 1988 Declaration of Belém, the field of biocultural diversity (BCD) has grown organically out of a variety of sources in the natural, social, and behavioral sciences, humanities, applied sciences, policy, and human rights. It has developed as an integrative approach that sees biodiversity, cultural diversity, and linguistic diversity as three interrelated and interdependent aspects of the diversity of life. BCD research has also shown that there is a “converging extinction crisis” of BCD: BCD is in significant decline globally, under the cumulative and synergistic effect of environmental degradation and rapid socio-economic, cultural and political changes driven by economic globalization and cultural homogenization. These changes affect in particular Indigenous peoples and local communities, who represent most of the world’s cultural diversity and are the main stewards of BCD.

Efforts are underway all over the world—many of them spearheaded by Indigenous peoples and local communities themselves—to sustain and restore cultures and biodiversity, often against tremendous odds. Efforts are also underway to further advance knowledge and understanding of BCD and impart this approach in education, as well as to promote the adoption of bioculturally friendly policies at international and national levels. In short, BCD is becoming an increasingly accepted paradigm; yet, the overall prospects for sustaining the biocultural diversity of life remain precarious. The very fabric of life in nature and culture continues to unravel, leaving our biocultural world increasingly fragile and the outlook for humans and all other species increasingly uncertain. What more needs to be done to foster a global shift in values toward a new paradigm that celebrates, cherishes and protects the biocultural diversity of life, in order to ensure that sustaining and restoring BCD becomes a primary societal goal and a fundamental object of political, social, and economic action? What obstacles need to be overcome, what opportunities need to be seized?

In our book Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook (Earthscan, 2010), Ellen Woodley and I identified a number of gaps and needs at various levels: in research and field work, in policy, in synergizing with other germane approaches and common interest communities, and in education. Some examples are:

In research and field work:

Identify causal links between effective conservation and the maintenance of traditional and local values, beliefs, continue reading–>