What’s happening with biocultural diversity?

John Elliott, Voices of the Earth Project, photo by Tania Aguila, 2011

John Elliott, Voices of the Earth Project, photo © Terralingua, 2011

No doubt you’ve heard that there’s a big problem with the loss of biodiversity—a loss in the amazing variety of Earth’s plant and animal species and in the health of the ecosystems that sustain them. Biologists believe that we’re in the midst of the 6th mass extinction of life on Earth—the previous one being the episode that led to the extinction of dinosaurs, about 65 million years ago. Researchers also point out that this current extinction crisis is the first one to be entirely of our own making: it’s the mounting pressures caused by human activities that are leading to the collapse of ecosystems and the disappearance of thousands and thousands of living species, every single day.

Boa Sr, one of the last remaining speakers of the Andaman languages recently passed on in 2010. Photo: VOGA/Anvita Abbi

Boa Sr, one of the last few remaining speakers of the Andamanese language recently passed on in 2010. Photo: VOGA/Anvita Abbi

But do you know that there is another mass extinction going on at the same time? Just as with species, the world is now undergoing a massive extinction crisis of human languages and cultures. For the past several decades, anthropologists and linguists have been warning us about the tragedy of vanishing cultures and endangered languages, swept away by the rise of a global monoculture and dominant languages like English, Spanish, Chinese and Portuguese.

Up until very recently, though, we didn’t have any systematic information about the extent of this crisis. Researchers were relying on educated guesses, based on scattered reports in the literature telling us about this or that language on the brink as the last speakers pass away, or this or that indigenous culture under threat of assimilation.

Now for the first time the work of Terralingua has provided quantitative evidence of what’s really happening. Our Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD) shows that since 1970 there has been a 20% decline in global linguistic diversity, as measured in terms of changes in the numbers of native speakers of each of the world’s languages. That is to say that more and more people are switching from the small languages to the more dominant ones, and that more and more of the small languages are not being transmitted to the younger generations.

Terralingua research shows that the trend in Global Linguistic Diversity has decreased by 20% in the past 35 years. Credit: David Harmon and Jonathan Loh/Terralingua. Click image to enlarge.

What’s more, the trend in the loss of global linguistic diversity revealed by the ILD closely mirrors the trend in the loss of global biodiversity for the same period of time, as measured by WWF’s Living Planet Index. This is another indication that what happens with diversity in nature goes hand in hand with what happens in diversity in culture.

The decrease in Species Diversity an alarmingly similar rate to that of Language diversity. Research: WWF, Jonathan Loh.

The decrease in Species Diversity an alarmingly similar rate to that of Language diversity. Source: Living Planet Index/WWF, Jonathan Loh.

And along with the erosion of linguistic diversity comes the erosion of the traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) encoded in the languages. For this reason, we also created our Vitality Index of Traditional Environmental Knowledge (VITEK), which tracks changes in the transmission of TEK over time. The VITEK also helps identify the factors that account for the loss of TEK, such as the presence of language shift, formal education, habitat degradation, displacement, and so forth.

VITEK Pilot Project. Hoti people drying cane for blowguns.  Credit: Stanford Zent.

VITEK Pilot Project. Hoti people drying cane for blowguns. Credit: Stanford Zent.

Loss of biodiversity. Loss of ecosystem health. Climate change. We are rapidly losing our critical life-support systems. And now we are also losing the precious pool of human knowledge and languages that can tell us so much about how to live sustainably on this planet—the only home we have. As traditional cultures and languages decline and natural environments become degraded, our collective “survival kit” is becoming depleted.

It’s a “converging extinction crisis” of the diversity of life in all its forms.

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