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Protecting Linguistic Diversity

There may be more than 100 million natural species in the world, yet as many as 10,000 become extinct each year. There are more than 6,900 languages in the world, excluding dialects. Yet one dies every two weeks. The same forces which threaten biodiversity menace the world’s rich linguistic diversity, reveals recent research funded by the AHRC.

Working with non-profit Conservation International, Professor Suzanne Romaine of Oxford University and colleagues mapped the overlap between species and languages. Their startling finding was that 70% of the world’s languages are concentrated in 24% of the world’s surface. That same 24% includes the places most ravaged by political and economic turmoil in the last 50 years. It also contains a majority of the world’s species. Overall, nearly 4,800 languages are found in regions containing high biodiversity. These are the regions which people fight over; these are the regions at risk of losing both species and languages.

Species are concentrated in biodiversity “hotspots”: nearly half of all vertebrate animals and half the plants are found in 34 areas making up less than 3 per cent of the earth’s surface. Nearly half the languages spoken on earth (3174) are currently spoken in these same areas, home to about one-third of the world’s population. There are such riches here, but over 90 percent of the major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 occurred within countries containing biodiversity hotspots. More than 80 percent took place directly within the hotspots themselves.

War and ecological devastation disproportionately afflict many of the poorest and most marginalized people, who rely on natural resources for their daily survival. But not only are they faced with daily danger and dispossession: they also face the loss of their languages and cultural identities. Due to these threats languages spoken by fewer than 10,000 people face possible extinction within a generation. On the other hand, nine languages are spoken by half the world’s people, with more than 100 million speakers each.

“Most people know about species extinction, but few know about language death,” argues Suzanne Romaine.  Her work is aimed at remedying this ignorance, since, she says, “Monolingual speakers, especially if they speak a dominant language, don’t see what is valuable in other languages. But all languages encode scientific, technical and cultural knowledge which  is valuable to us all. Big pharmaceutical companies bio-prospecting in the Amazon for the next new drugs that may provide a cure for cancer understand this very well.”

Since completing her initial AHRC research in 2009 and a further Fellowship in 2011/12, Professor Romaine has given the keynote address at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s Language, Education and Millennium Development Goals Conference at Bangkok. Kristy Bang, who co-ordinated the conference for UNESCO says, “Professor Romaine’s keynote speech introduced and emphasised broad issues concerning human rights, development and the conceptual underpinnings of Millennium Development Goals as they relate to linguistic diversity, speaking to over 400 participants from 30 different countries.”

Mapping endangered languages onto areas that are both rich in natural species and face rapid loss of those species throws up another stark correlation. People living in relatively small linguistic groups are the poorest. Suzanne Romaine links this directly to education. “I’ve been looking at language loss all my working life,” she says. “It’s a global village phenomenon and it goes hand in hand with poverty and dispossession. These areas have no access to education in their own languages so they are excluded from the power structures of their country, as well as from development.”

Fewer than 30% of languages are written. Fewer than 10% are used in education. A disconnect between daily life and the classroom disadvantages pupils. As Professor Romaine puts it, in far too many places, “Children sit in classrooms taught in languages they don’t understand taught by teachers who don’t understand the languages in which they teach, so children don’t really learn — nor are they given a chance to learn. So they drop out, girls especially.”

Her work, says Kristy Bang, helps UNESCO’s drive to increase public awareness of mother tongue-based multilingual education and promote positive policies and practices on multilingual education, particularly in Asia and the Pacific region. International aid for education has to change, Suzanne Romaine believes. “It is so totally wrong-headed to keep sending English language textbooks. Education experts tend to be monolingual. So what do they know about bilingual education and the value of other languages? Using more of children’s first language in school is likely to lead to more effective learning of additional languages and to reduced repetition and drop-out rates, resulting in significant cost savings to the country’s education budget.”

The AHRC-funded work is now a jumping-off point for more searching exploration of the links between linguistic diversity and poverty. “I’m trying to get this point across to the World Bank. All poverty experts say that education is key to development. Language is the pivot on which education depends. If you have education in the mother tongue you give people some chance. ”

For those who scoff at this defence of the value of linguistic diversity, Suzanne Romaine has a simple, scholarly riposte. “It’s a historical accident that some few languages dominate. Some people say that languages die a natural death because they are not fit for the modern world. Well, nor was English. That’s why scientists imported all those Latin and Greek words and we continually coin new words to keep pace with technology. Anyhow, it’s not a zero-sum game. More than half the world’s population is bi- or multilingual. Multilingualism is not holding back countries like Switzerland or Singapore (each with 4 official languages) - in fact, it is crucial to their economic success.”

Professor Romaine gave a plenary presentation on the values of linguistic diversity at UNESCO’s 2010 conference on Biological and Cultural Diversity in Montreal, Canada, organised with The International Economic Forum of the Americas. The theme of that conference, “Diversity for Development- Development for Diversity”, is one focus of her current research, subject of on going grant applications to AHRC. “The next step is proper field studies,” she says “to get geographers and poverty experts involved.”

In the meantime, she is writing a policy briefing on Language and Sustainable Development in partnership with UNESCO Bangkok’s units on Multilingual Education (MLE) and Education on Sustainable Development (ESD).

Article by Victoria Neumark-Jones

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