Living on Earth July 15, 2014 · 12:45 PM EDT Writer Max J. Rosenthal
Photo: An Aboriginal performer in Sydney, Australia.
Aboriginal languages in Australia are among the fastest-disappearing tongues in the world. Credit: David Gray/Reuters You probably know that much of the world’s environment is under threat. But a new study says languages are disappearing alongside plants and animals.
This story is based on a radio interview.
Listen to the full interview (link below).
The study, from the World Wildlife Fund, measured the threat to languages using a scale that tracks how threatened species are. Not only are many languages steadily losing speakers, says co-author Jonathan Loh, but “the rate of decline, globally, is actually very close to the rate of decline in populations of wild vertebrate species.”
There’s the obvious threat of in-demand languages, which many people start speaking more and more as the speakers of smaller languages dwindle.
“Thousands of indigenous languages spoken around the world are being replaced by one of a dozen or so dominant world languages like English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese,” Loh says.
But Loh, who’s also a research associate at the Zoological Society of London, says that languages are dying off due to many of the same issues that plants and animals face.
“Some of the drivers that are driving the extinction of biodiversity — such as increasing global population, increasing consumption of natural resources, increasing globalization and so on — are applicable to languages as well,” he says. And that’s no coincidence.
Loh explains that languages have a lot of specific local knowledge built in. “The cultures have evolved in a particular environmental context, so they have an extraordinary amount of traditional ecological knowledge — knowledge of the local species, plants, animals, the medicinal uses of them, the migration patterns of animals behavior,” he says.
So when the languages die off, much of that knowledge goes with them. “Then children stop learning the language, they also stop acquiring that traditional knowledge,” Loh says.
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