Biodiversity and Linguistic Diversity Correlate!

A Giridhar Rao joins in celebrating the linguistic diversity of the indigenous world, as part of the Forests of Life festival.

Distribution of speakers

Half the world speaks these 25 languages. Source: Terralingua

From 2 – 14 November 2023, Azim Premji University is hosting a magnificent festival Forests of Lifea climate festival that celebrates the joy of nature.” This post celebrates the linguistic diversity of the Indigenous world.

Imagine that you speak one of these languages:

• You don’t say my left arm”. Instead, you say my north / south / east / or west arm”, depending on your actual orientation! Speakers of Warlpiri in Central Australia use the cardinal directions; an absolute frame of reference. (Levinson and Wilkins, 2006)

• You must use one of 10 genders! Yuchi in Oklahoma, USA, use six for Yuchi people (depending on kinship relationships to the speaker), one for non-Yuchis and animals, and three for inanimate objects (horizontal, vertical and round )”! (The Guardian, 2008)

Those are just two of the wonderful ways the approximately 7000 languages of the world describe the world. And there is more!

  • Liguistic diversity

    Graphic — 2: Areas of high biodiversity also abound in linguistic diversity. Source: Terralingua

Look at the places of high biodiversity in the world; 

Number of languages spoken in some of the high biodiversity places in the world

  • 839 Papua New Guinea
  • 704 Indonesia
  • 90 Arunachal Pradesh

Biodiversity hotspots correlate with linguistic diversity! 

The biocultural link here is that the knowledge to sustainably manage this biodiversity is encoded in these Indigenous languages. So, even for purely selfish” reasons, the world must make sure that Indigenous languages flourish.

And how can we do that? Many things are needed, but schooling is clearly one place to start. Bringing mother tongues into schooling will make all education more effective. It will revitalize Indigenous languages as modern-knowledge languages, while its speakers continue to take pride in their cultural heritage. 

Meanwhile, apart from learning in their own languages, children also need high-quality teaching in the other languages that they need to know – the regional language and English, for example. This idea is at the core of Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education (Mohanty et al., 2009).

In itself, this is not enough. The rights of Indigenous peoples need to be strengthened in many other domains. But whatever strategy societies adopt, education is a key component. Only then will generations to come continue to marvel at these diverse ways of being human!

(This post is a shorter version of Vanishing Voices.)

About the Author

A Giridhar Rao asks how language and literature can be taught better in schools. He is also active in the Esperanto movement. He blogs on Bolii. More here.