As forests are cleared and species vanish, there’s one other loss: a world of languages

A new report shows a direct link between disappearing habitats and the loss of languages. One in four of the world’s 7,000 spoken tongues is now at risk of falling silent for ever as the threat to cultural biodiversity grows

A Nenets reindeer herdswoman in Russia’s Arctic region. Photograph: Staffan Widstrand/WWF (go to The Guardian and click on picture for graphic depicting global language loss)

Benny Wenda from the highlands of West Papua speaks only nine languages these days. In his village of Pyramid in the Baliem valley, he converses in Lani, the language of his tribe, as well as Dani, Yali, Mee and Walak. Elsewhere, he speaks Indonesian, Papua New Guinean Pidgin, coastal Bayak and English.

Wenda has known and forgotten other languages. Some are indigenous, spoken by his grandparents or just a few hundred people from neighbouring valleys; others are the languages of Indonesian colonists and global businesses. His words for “greeting” are, variously, Kawonak, Nayak, Nareh, Koyao, Aelak, Selamt, Brata, Tabeaya and Hello.

New Guinea has around 1,000 languages, but as the politics change and deforestation accelerates, the natural barriers that once allowed so many languages to develop there in isolation are broken down.

This is part of a process that has seen languages decline as biodiversity decreases. Researchers have established a correlation between changes in local environments – including the extinction of species – and the disappearance of languages spoken by communities who had inhabited them.

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“The forests are being cut down. Many languages are being lost. Migrants come and people leave to find work in the lowlands and cities. The Indonesian government stops us speaking our languages in schools,” says Wenda.

According to a report by researchers Jonathan Loh at the Zoological Society of London and David Harmon at the George Wright Society, the steep declines in both languages and nature mirror each other. One in four of the world’s 7,000 languages are now threatened with extinction, and linguistic diversity is declining as fast as biodiversity – about 30% since 1970, they say.

While around 21% of all mammals, 13% of birds, 15% of reptiles and 30% of amphibians are threatened, around 400 languages are thought to have become extinct in the same time.

New Guinea, the second-largest island in the world, is not just the world’s most linguistically diverse place, it is also one of the most biologically abundant, with tree-climbing kangaroos, birds of paradise, carnivorous mice, giant pigeons, rats bigger than domestic cats and more orchid species than any other place on the planet.

Today, both its wildlife and its languages are endangered. According to linguist and author Asya Pereltsvaig, the language of Bo is spoken by 85 people, Ak by 75 and Karawa by only 63. Likum and Hoia Hoia have around 80 speakers, and Abom just 15. Guramalum in New Ireland Province had at the last count only three speakers and Lua is almost certainly extinct, with a single speaker recorded in 2000.

Ironically, Lua is now the name of a successful computer programming language.

More than half of New Guinea’s and one in four of the world’s remaining languages are threatened, says Jonathan Loh. This compares with estimates that suggest a quarter of all mammals, a third of all sharks and rays and one in seven bird species are endangered.

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“There are extraordinary parallels between linguistic diversity and biodiversity,” says Loh. “Both are products of evolution and have evolved in remarkably similar ways, and both are facing an extinction crisis.”

But exactly why there should be such a close link between languages and biological diversity is unclear, even though it was noticed by Darwin. “Places of high diversity, especially tropical forests, have always been known to have high linguistic diversity, whereas tundra and deserts have low diversity,” says Loh. “It is possible in some way that higher biodiversity is capable of supporting greater cultural diversity. The explanation seems to be that both biological and cultural diversity depend on the same environmental factors such as temperature and rainfall.”

Conservationists fear that the loss of species due to man’s activities is accelerating. And linguists say that the wealth of the world’s human languages is now safeguarded by very few indigenous peoples, most of whom live precarious lives in developing countries.

Of the 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, half now have fewer than 10,000 speakers, and these 3,500 languages are spoken by only 0.1% of the world’s population – equivalent to a city about the size of London. These eight million people are now responsible for keeping the wealth of human cultural history alive.

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