In discussions about the environment, does language – more specifically, linguistic diversity – matter?

The correlation between biodiversity and cultural and linguistic diversity has been much highlighted. Research has revealed that earth’s 36 biodiversity hotspots (threatened biologically rich locations, including the Horn of Africa, Mesoamerica, Indo-Burma) and five high-biodiversity wilderness areas (rich in biodiversity but not yet threatened, including the Amazon Basin) have a higher concentration of languages than would be expected by pure chance. When traditional habitats and ecological niches come under threat, the languages and cultures of indigenous peoples who inhabit them often also become endangered.

Studies have also suggested that, conversely, language loss has a negative impact on biodiversity conservation. Indigenous communities are widely recognised as possessing traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) – a body of knowledge, beliefs and practices, reflecting deep understanding of the local environment and sustain­ability of local resources. Such knowledge is passed on through generations, embedded in indigenous names, taxonomies and oral traditions. The ancestral sayings of New Zealand’s Maori encompass information concerning plant growth, soils and nutrients, ecological niches and communities, and landscape processes. The Dimen Dong, one of China’s 55 acknowledged minorities, numbering some 2.6 million in Guizhou, pass on clan histories, societal rites and social duties through epic songs. Hong Kong’s boat-dwelling Tanka have a ceremonial song describing various local fish species’ behaviours, reflecting intimate knowledge of their traditional ecosystem. When a community chooses to shift from their traditional language to a dominant language, such as English or Putonghua or Cantonese, such TEK can be lost.

Critics of the biodiversity–linguistic diversity discourse have suggested a lack of evidence that biodiversity conservation efforts have had any effect on language conservation, or vice versa. Rather, language conservation has been effective where speakers have been able to compete in global markets. The bigger issue to be reflected on is that, for vulnerable minority language communities, shifting to a language of wider communication comprises an opportunity in the global economy to exit poverty and marginalisation – a means of successfully adapting to a changing ecology.

Alongside current calls for concerted conservation efforts, integrated so as to maintain both biodiversity and cultural diversity, our aim should also be to create environments that sustainably value multiculturalism and support opportunities – in education, policy and, crucially, economy – for traditional languages, for such communities not just to survive in today’s world, but thrive.