Index of Linguistic Diversity the first global index of trends in linguistic diversity Wed, 10 Jun 2015 01:57:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Index of Linguistic Diversity Featured in New Smartphone App launched at Convention on Biological Diversity Meeting Wed, 24 Oct 2012 17:40:54 +0000 Continue reading →

Terralingua’s Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD)  is featured in a new Smartphone app called “Aichi Targets Passport”, just developed by The Biodiversity Indicators Partnership (BIP), of which Terralingua is a member. The “Passport” app was launched at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)’s 11th Conference of the Parties (COP), taking place in Hyderabad, India, on 8-19 October, 2012.

This handy app presents information about BIP indicators relevant to the CBD’s 2011-2020 Aichi Targets for addressing the loss of biodiversity. The ILD is showcased as relevant to Aichi Target 18, which refers to respect for traditional knowledge and its integration in the implementation of the Convention. The CBD adopted “state and trends of indigenous languages” as a proxy for state and trends of traditional knowledge.

For each indicator, the Passport highlights what progress has been made towards the relevant target to date, and what baselines exist from which future progress can be monitored.

The mobile app can be downloaded from iTunes at or from Google Play at The Passport is also available as an interactive PDF at

The BIP is a CBD-mandated global initiative to promote and coordinate development and delivery of biodiversity indicators in support of the CBD and other international and national entities. The BIP brings together over forty organizations working internationally on indicator development to provide the most comprehensive information on biodiversity trends.

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Article on Linguistic Diversity featured in Terralingua’s Blog | Public Perception of Language Diversity Wed, 22 Feb 2012 17:11:59 +0000 Continue reading →


Uomini Sonamarg, Photo by Anna Maffi

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.

Continue Reading via Public Perception of Language Diversity | Biocultural Diversity Conservation.

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Terralingua’s Biocultural E-Magazine Focuses on Key Issues of Linguistic Diversity Fri, 23 Sep 2011 20:02:45 +0000

What is linguistic diversity, and why is it so important?  The current issue of Terralingua’s E-Magazine,Langscape, “The Case for Linguistic Diversity”, sheds light on these questions and illuminates them with new insights.  This issue introduces our readers to one of Terralingua’s innovative projects, the Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD), and provides a comprehensive companion to the work of

Continue reading →


What is linguistic diversity, and why is it so important?  The current issue of Terralingua’s E-Magazine,Langscape, “The Case for Linguistic Diversity”, sheds light on these questions and illuminates them with new insights.  This issue introduces our readers to one of Terralingua’s innovative projects, the Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD), and provides a comprehensive companion to the work of ILD developers David Harmon and Jonathan Loh.

If linguistic diversity is part and parcel of the diversity of life in nature and culture, then any loss in linguistic diversity is a loss in the vitality and resilience of the whole web of life.” Luisa Maffi, from Introduction to Langscape 8.

The Issue is available for download at the link below.


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World-First Global Study Demonstrates Alarming 20% Decline in the Planet’s Linguistic Diversity Wed, 02 Mar 2011 21:09:02 +0000 Continue reading →

Media Release

March 1, 2011 (Vancouver, Canada)—Concern about the loss of diversity and vitality of the world’s languages has been building for over two decades. Yet, until recently, this concern was only based on anecdotal evidence. Now for the first time a rigorous scientific study reveals an alarming rate of decline in global linguistic diversity.

The Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD) is the brainchild of researchers David Harmon and Jonathan Loh, who work with Terralingua (, an international NGO that studies and promotes knowledge about the interconnections between biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity.

The study (Harmon and Loh 2010)*, published in the online journal Language Documentation & Conservation(, has attracted the attention of National Geographic. An in-depth interview with the researchers, dated March 1, 2011, is posted on National Geographic News Watch (

The ILD is a first-ever index that measures trends over time in the numbers of mother-tongue speakers of the world’s languages. It analyzes data taken from 10 editions of Ethnologue, an encyclopedic reference work that has catalogued the world’s living languages since 1951. The index shows that in just 35 years, between 1970 and 2005, there has been a dramatic 20% decline in global linguistic diversity.

Terralingua Index of Linguistic Diversity

Global trend in linguistic diversity, 1970-2005.
Source: Harmon and Loh (2010). © Terralingua 2010.

This decline is due to ever-growing social and economic pressures that are enticing or even forcing people to switch from generally smaller, more geographically restricted languages to larger languages, especially global languages like Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, English, or Spanish, or regionally dominant languages like Swahili. The changes in the number of mother-tongue speakers are associated with shifts in the use of a given language in adult speakers as well as a decline in the transmission of that language to new generations.

Largest World Languages
by number of speakers 1970-2004

Changes in the size of the world’s languages by numbers of speakers, 1970-2004.
Source: Harmon and Loh (2010). © Terralingua 2010.

“Until now, most discussion about language endangerment had centered around speculation that many languages will become extinct in the coming decades,” says Harmon, whose main job is with the George Wright Society, a nonprofit professional association that supports parks, protected areas, and cultural sites. “This is the first quantitative study that tells us the world’s languages— not just their number, but also the linguistic and cultural diversity they represent— are being severely diminished.”

Languages spoken by indigenous peoples, which make up 80% to 85% of the world’s languages, have been especially affected. “The global rate of decline for indigenous languages is faster than the global average for all languages, with enormous variations between different regions of the world” explains Loh, who is affiliated with the Zoological Society of London, a charity devoted to the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats.

Between 1970 and 2005, indigenous linguistic diversity declined by about 60% in the Americas, 30% in the Pacific, and 20% in Africa. Loh cautions that these percentages are not the proportion of languages that have gone extinct in each region. “There have been a number of language extinctions since 1970,” he says. “However, the index measures the average trend in numbers of speakers of a language as a share of the overall population, rather than the rate of language extinctions.”  Says Harmon, “The ILD tells us that concerns about mass language extinctions are completely justified. This is because the precondition for extinction, namely the shift of speakers away from smaller languages as mother tongues and toward just a few dominant larger languages, is so widespread.”

The loss of vitality of many of the world’s languages, and of indigenous languages in particular, not only affects the cultural identity of the speakers of those languages; it also impoverishes the global cultural heritage of humanity. “Furthermore, it has significant implications for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity,” points out Luisa Maffi, co-founder and Director of Terralingua. “This is because, as a language loses its vitality, the traditional environmental knowledge contained in the language also begins to weaken.”

“When indigenous peoples cease to learn and use their own languages,” adds Loh, “they often lose the traditional knowledge of the plants, animals and environment where they live, accumulated over thousands of years, which was never recorded but got transmitted orally in their indigenous languages down through generations.”

For this reason, reliable data on the state of the world’s indigenous languages are sought after by international organizations such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, one of whose goals is to preserve traditional knowledge and practices relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. The ILD provides just such data, which can inform international policies in support of biodiversity conservation and indigenous peoples’ linguistic and cultural rights.

* Harmon, D. and Loh, J. 2010. The Index of Linguistic Diversity: A new quantitative measure of trends in the status of the world’s languages. Language Documentation and Conservation 4: 97-151.

To arrange an interview with the ILD authors, please contact: Dr. Luisa Maffi, Terralingua Director

Tel. +1.250.538.0939, email

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Terralingua’s Index of Linguistic Diversity on National Geographic News Watch Wed, 02 Mar 2011 20:54:22 +0000 Continue reading →

David Braun of National Geographic News Watch interviewed Luisa Maffi,David Harmon, and Jonathan Loh about the new Index of Linguistic Diversity.

“For the past several years, we had been hearing anecdotal reports about endangered languages–how we’re losing languages by the day, how we may lose 50-90 percent of languages before the end of the century. But nobody had any reliable quantitative data to corroborate these claims,” says Luisa Maffi, co-founder and director of Terralingua, an international NGO devoted to sustaining the biocultural diversity of life through research, education, policy, and on-the-ground work.”But now a new Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD), the first of its kind, shows quantitatively, for the first time, what’s really happening with the world’s languages,” Maffi adds. “The ILD shows in quantitatively rigorous ways what the trends have been over the past 30 years in the numbers of mother-tongue speakers of the world’s languages–and the news is not good: an overall decline of more than 20 percent in that period alone.” 

Harmon, of the George Wright Society/Terralingua, and Loh, of theZoological Society of London/Terralingua, are the co-authors of a paper, Index of Linguistic Diversity, published in the journal Language Documentation & Conservation, Volume 4 of 2010. Their work was underwritten by The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit which supports National Geographic News coverage of biocultural diversity issues.

Braun: What is language diversity, and why are we potentially on the brink of a mass extinction of languages?

to view the  article visit:

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ILD Published in the Journal Language Documentation & Conservation Fri, 24 Sep 2010 01:28:34 +0000 Language Documentation & Conservation: "The Index of Linguistic Diversity: A New Quantitative Measure of Trends in the Status of the World's Languages".

Continue reading →

The Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD) is fully explained in a paper  published in the online journal Language Documentation & Conservation: The paper, “The Index of Linguistic Diversity: A New Quantitative Measure of Trends in the Status of the World’s Languages”, can be downloaded from the above link.



The Index of Linguistic Diversity: A New Quantitative Measure of Trends in the Status of the World’s Languages
David Harmon and Jonathan Loh

The Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD) is a new quantitative measure of trends in linguistic diversity. To derive the ILD we created a database of time-series data on language demographics, which we believe to be the world’s largest. So far, the database contains information from nine editions of Ethnologue and five other compendia of speaker numbers. The initial version of the ILD, which draws solely on the Ethnologue subset of these data, is based on a representative random sample of 1,500 of the world’s 7,299 languages (as listed in the 2005 edition). At the global level, the ILD measures how far, on average, the world’s languages deviate from a hypothetical situation of stability in which each language is neither increasing nor decreasing its share of the total population of the grouping. The ILD can also be used to assess trends at various subglobal groupings. Key findings:

  • Globally, linguistic diversity declined 20% over the period 1970–2005.
  • The diversity of the world’s indigenous languages declined 21%.
  • Regionally, indigenous linguistic diversity declined over 60% in the Americas, 30% in the Pacific (including Australia), and almost 20% in Africa.


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Keynote About ILD Presented at Trace Foundation Symposium Fri, 10 Sep 2010 23:14:19 +0000 Continue reading →


Terralingua Director Luisa Maffi gave a keynote on the ILD at the Trace Foundation symposium “Interdependent Diversities: The Relationship Between Language, Culture, and Ecology”, which was held in New York in September of 2010. As part of the UN-declared International Year of Biodiversity, on Friday and Saturday, September 24th and 25th, 2010, Trace Foundation convened the fifth lecture in their lecture series Minority Languages in Today’s Global Society, to examine the relationship between linguistic, cultural, and biological diversity from the perspectives of traditional land use, livelihoods, and medical knowledge.

“Each language is a unique key to a community’s world view and culture and plays a central role in transmitting historically-developed knowledge about specific, biologically-diverse environments. There is an increasing awareness and recognition of linguistic, cultural, and biodiversity as inter-related and mutually supporting aspects of the diversity of life. As such, the crises affecting these aspects—from biological extinction to disappearing languages—appear to converge and even drive each other on. Understanding the integrated nature of these crises is essential to working towards solutions.”  Trace Foundation Website


Maffi’s Keynote Abstract: Over the past two decades, research has brought out increasing evidence of the links between biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity at local, regional, and global scales. This research has given rise to a field of inquiry that has significant relevance for policy and on-the-ground action. This talk will review current knowledge about biocultural diversity, illustrated with maps and graphs that link biodiversity and linguistic diversity and show some of the trends in biocultural diversity over time. As a contribution to the Year of Biodiversity, the talk will then highlight the vital importance of conserving biocultural diversity in order to sustain our planet’s precious heritage in nature and culture.

To learn more on this symposium visit: Trace Foundation.

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ILD Presented at International Conference on Biological and Cultural Diversity Fri, 18 Jun 2010 23:03:31 +0000 Continue reading →

Terralingua Director Luisa Maffi presented on the Index of Linguistic Diversity in a session devoted to “Measuring Biodiversity and Its Values” at the  International Conference on Biological and Cultural Diversity, co-organized by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and UNESCO and held in Montreal in June of 2010.

The aim of the Conference was to contribute to transforming political commitments into concrete actions by developing recommendations towards effectively integrating biological and cultural diversity into development cooperation strategies and programs.

The main objectives of the Conference were to:

  • bring together civil society, representatives of indigenous and local populations, policy makers, scientists and intergovernmental and development cooperation agencies to exchange knowledge and practices linking biological and cultural diversity
  •  provide elements for a program of work to be jointly implemented by UNESCO, the CBD and other partners.

Click here to learn more about this conference: International Conference on Biological and Cultural Diversity.

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ILD Presented at the 12th International Congress of Ethnobiology Mon, 24 May 2010 01:18:18 +0000 Continue reading →

In May 2010, Terralingua participated in the 12th International Congress of Ethnobiology held in Tofino, British Columbia, Canada. One of the sessions we organized there, titled “How Many People Speak Your Language? Data and Indicators of Linguistic Diversity and Language Vitality”, included a presentation on the ILD given by Terralingua researchers David Harmon and Jonathan Loh. Other session participants were Luisa Maffi (Terralingua), Gary Simons (Ethnologue), Melissa Grimes (UNESCO), and Alejandro Argumedo (IIFB/Tebtebba).

Session Abstract: In 1988, the Declaration of Belém first affirmed the “inextricable link” between biodiversity and cultural diversity. In 1996, building on that pioneering recognition, Terralingua began exploring and researching the idea that the diversity of life is biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity—all inextricably interlinked through the nature-based and place-based values, beliefs, knowledge systems and practices of Indigenous and local communities the world over. The focus on linguistic diversity as a component of biocultural diversity turned the spotlight on the fact that language vitality is a key requirement for cultural resilience and the maintenance of the “inextricable link” between people and the environment; yet, the diversity and vitality of the world’s languages is increasingly under threat owing to the same forces that are eroding biological and cultural diversity.

Over the past decade, it has become increasingly apparent that policy in support of biological and cultural diversity must include support for language vitality and linguistic diversity. Some international policy processes, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) 2010 Targets for halting the loss of biodiversity, call for the development of indicators of the “status and trends of linguistic diversity and numbers of speakers of indigenous languages”, taken as a proxy for the status and trends of indigenous and traditional knowledge relevant for the conservation of biodiversity. Indigenous Peoples’ organizations also have begun to develop their own sets of indicators to assess and monitor their cultural resilience in the face of global environmental, social, and economic challenges.

Systematic information about linguistic diversity and language vitality is crucial in such contexts, yet until recently no reliable tools existed for assessing the status and trends of the world’s languages. Several institutions including Ethnologue, UNESCO and Terralingua have developed indicators and databases to monitor and record the status and trends in the numbers of speakers of the world’s languages. This session will discuss the indicators, data sources, their reliability, applications, users needs and what more needs to be done in order to provide robust information on trends in language demographics worldwide. The session will also offer an opportunity for discussion of and comparison with related efforts that are taking place among indigenous peoples’ organizations, international agencies and linguists, with a goal to establish common ground for greater effectiveness in both data gathering and policy analysis.

For more information on the congress, go to

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ILD Presented at the 4th World Conservation Congress Fri, 24 Oct 2008 00:12:15 +0000 Continue reading →

Terralingua organized the workshop “The World’s Cultural Diversity: New Measurements Show What’s Happening and Why It’s Important to Conservationists” at the 4th World Conservation Congress (WCC) held in Barcelona, Spain, in October 2008. David Harmon and Jonathan Loh presented the initial results of Terralingua’s Index of Linguistic Diversity, Stanford Zent introduced Terralingua’s  Vitality Index of Traditional Environmental Knowledge, and Margaret Florey discussed her work on the Linguistic Vitality Index.

Session Abstract: Conservationists are well aware of the global biodiversity extinction crisis. What many may not know is that the world’s cultural diversity is just as imperiled, if not more so. Take as an indicator the state of the world’s languages: at least half of the roughly 7,000 languages still spoken today may become extinct by 2100. The result would be a massive loss of the diversity of cultural values, beliefs, and knowledge, including traditional environmental knowledge (TEK), which is embedded in languages at risk. Many international organizations now recognize that biological and cultural diversity are closely linked, and even interdependent (a concept called “biocultural diversity”). For example, the CBD has made trends in numbers of speakers of indigenous languages one of the 2010 Biodiversity Target indicators, UNEP’s 2007 GEO-4 Report defines biodiversity as including human cultural diversity, and IUCN has identified cultural diversity as one of six key issues in its 2008–2012 program. Using a “learning meeting” audience-interactive format, this workshop will explore three new tools that measure the status of and trends in cultural diversity on the global and local levels. The Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD) tracks changes over time in the number of speakers of the world’s languages, providing the first-ever time-series data on global language demographics. The Vitality Index of Traditional Environmental Knowledge (VITEK) provides locally appropriate, globally applicable quantitative measures of trends in retention or loss of TEK over time. The Linguistic Vitality Test (LVT) analyzes both current linguistic vitality and the transmission of linguistic knowledge from older to younger generations. Together, these indicators permit standardized assessments of cultural diversity and vitality based on empirical data. Participants will have an opportunity to discuss key points with each other and the presenters, and will take home a CD of resources that explore these ideas in depth.

This event attracted the attention of the WCC press. A report on the session appeared in an article titled “Globalisation is killing languages” in the Congress bulletin TerravivaDownload Terraviva (.pdf)

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