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Using language to save biodiversity

Pandurang Hegde, Feb 20, 2013

World over the people are embracing languages that bring them economic prosperity.

The biodiversity hotspots in the world are under threat due to climate change and its impact. Scientists warn that about 17,000 plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction.

The targets set by Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) to reduce the biodiversity loss have met with failure. The declaration of International Year of Biodiversity in 2010 has had least impact. Under such dismal scenario, an out of the box approach is emerging that links the contribution of languages to rescuing the dwindling biodiversity resources.

The report of the National Academy of Sciences links the endangered languages and species and concludes that “Hot spots, or regions with an exceptionally high number of species unique to that location and habitat report the loss of at least 70 per cent, comprise 2.3 per cent of the earth’s surface and hold almost half of the world’s vascular plants and terrestrial vertebrate species as well as 3,202 languages, which are almost half of all the world’s languages. Many of these languages are unique to the area and are spoken by few people, leaving them vulnerable to extinction.”
It is estimated that 50 per cent of the world’s languages are endangered, which means there are fewer people who are speaking a particular language. One language disappears every two weeks! World over the people are embracing those languages that bring them economic prosperity and helps them to earn livelihood. In the modern globalised world it is the domination of three languages—English, Chinese, and Spanish that take the toll of local vernacular languages. By adopting industrialised mode of production and copying western civilisation we are forcing the people to follow a single monolithic way of life that is devoid of diversity. This urge to follow the uniform pattern of life and culture has no space or respect for diversity of languages.


Complex classification

According to Unesco “there is a fundamental linkage between language and traditional knowledge. Local and indigenous communities have elaborated complex classification systems for the natural world, reflecting a deep understanding of their local environment.” It cautions that these will be lost when a community shifts to another language. The local languages have the better capacity to adopt and evolve strategies to arrest the biodiversity loss. It is now recognised that the local language can be an effective tool towards sustainable conservation and management of biodiversity.
Recognising the need for conservation of diverse languages and mother tongues the Unesco has adopted a resolution to celebrate February 21 as World Mother Language Day. This is in memory of those people who sacrificed their lives on February 21, 1952 in Bangladesh, for the sake of Bengali being recognised as national language in erstwhile East Pakistan.

As India is signatory to the CBD as well as Unesco to conserve the species biodiversity and the diversity of the languages, it is worthwhile to review the performances on the World Mother Language Day.

At the moment the Government of India has recognised 28 languages as official languages. The constitution of India also assures protection of local languages and accords high priority to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at primary stage for children, especially those belonging to linguistic minority groups. It also states that a special officer may be appointed for securing the interests of linguistic minorities.

These lofty goals remain on paper and the ground reality presents a dismal scenario. The present trend of neo liberalisation has taken a toll of local languages. According to Bhasha, an organisation working on conserving the oral traditions of marginalised communities, a total of 1,652 mother tongues were documented in the Census of 1961. Several hundreds are not even traceable today! Where and how have they become extinct? Unfortunately, our policy makers have no clue about the causes for the demise of these diverse languages.

In February 2010, as the world was preparing to launch International Year of Biodiversity, Boa Senior, the only speaker of Bo language in Andaman Islands passed away. With her death, a 70,000 year old language, a unique heritage of mankind became extinct. With this extinction we not only lost a language, but lost an entire knowledge system, which was different from the industrial age.

These are clear indicators of extinction of the languages. The phenomenon is not limited to ancient languages but there is lingering threat to existing vernacular languages spoken by thousands of people. Nevertheless, India is about to witness a further decimation of the languages as a majority of the people embrace the dominant language of English or Hindi. It is high time that we need to understand the close linkages of biodiversity and languages and heed the call of Unesco to take help of these diverse languages to rescue biodiversity before both become extinct.

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