Magazine article New Internationalist

Of Speech and Species

Magazine article New Internationalist

Of Speech and Species

Article excerpt

Animal and plant species are now being lost at a rate 1,000 times greater than historic background levels. At the same time, half of the world's languages are at risk of disappearing within the next century.

The two may not immediately seem connected, but they are. For nearly three-quarters of the world's languages are concentrated into a small number of biodiversity 'hotspots' inhabited by some of the poorest peoples.

The fate of our planet's biological and linguistic diversity depends on the people most vulnerable to the pressures of globalization and most marginalized by inequality of access to development.

What happens in these regions of high biological and linguistic diversity will determine the future diversity of life on Earth and the welfare of millions.

Although all humanity depends on a healthy biodiversity, these two parallel crises of extinction have a far greater impact on indigenous peoples, who make up 15 per cent of the world's poor and a third of the 900 million subsisting in extreme rural poverty. They live on lands containing 80 per cent of the Earth's biodiversity and speak around 80 to 85 per cent of its languages.

In a rapidly globalizing world with a handful of very large languages and many thousands of small ones, maintaining linguistic and cultural diversity is inextricably linked to the survival of small communities, whose subsistence lifestyles depend on healthy ecosystems and access to land. Without such resources, these groups find it hard to maintain their ways of life and the cultural identities on which the continued transmission and vitality of their languages depend. Lacking adequate access to education, healthcare and water, and frequently unrecognized by the governments of the states where they live, they are deprived of the right to participate in or direct their own sustainable development.

Rich nations are now rapidly destroying habitats that sustain much of the world's remaining biological and linguistic diversity. Resource extraction, the spread of mechanized agriculture and development projects damage the environment and dislocate people from places they traditionally relied on for their food, shelter, cultural practices and spiritual wellbeing.

Speakers scattered

Consider the fate of the Ugong language in western Thailand. In the late 1970s, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand built two hydroelectric dams on the two branches of the R iver Kwai. These dams flooded two Ugong villages, so the inhabitants were moved elsewhere. With the villages destroyed and the community scattered, the older speakers who still preserve the language have few, if any, people to talk to. Ugong has been swamped, quite literally, and its speakers immersed in Thai villages. Their children now speak Thai as a first language; fewer than 100 adults use Ugong at home.

People can survive without knowledge of their traditional languages, so why does it matter if languages die, as long as the people themselves continue to live? The issue of language loss cannot be separated from people, their identities, their cultural heritage, their wellbeing and their rights. The interdependence of human rights, language and development emerges nowhere more clearly than in the global debate about poverty reduction in the context of the Millennium Development Goals launched in 2000.

Even as global poverty levels fall, the promise to end poverty by 2015 has left behind the most vulnerable: four out of five still live in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Not coincidentally, these regions also have the most children out of school and the lowest literacy rates. Together, they account for nearly 90 per cent of the world's illiterate young people aged 15 to 24 and 74 per cent of illiterate adults.

The poorest tend to have least access to the languages preferred at school: more than half of all out-of-school children live in regions where their own languages are not used in the classroom. …

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