This Living on Earth story makes a point that’s been made here before but that needs to be repeated because it’s often neglected by those who think the death of languages is no big deal (why can’t they just speak English?):
But [Jonathan] 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.
There are plenty of linguists who are studying and trying to preserve native languages, but Loh wants to see them work with biologists to make sure that valuable ecological history isn’t missed. “Linguists often don’t have the knowledge of natural history that’s necessary in order to be able to record an endangered language because so much of the lexicon is tied up with names of species or types of ecosystems,” he says.
He argues that “if we can recognize that culture and nature are inextricably interlinked, then working on a biocultural diversity as a whole, as a subject, would be a more fruitful way of looking at conservation.”
As is so often the case, specialists need to talk to each other across the boundaries of their specialties.