Climate change could have grave consequences on the world’s linguistic diversity
With Earth Day right around the corner, climate change and environmentalism are top of mind for us — and probably for you too. While conversations about climate change often center around topics like global warming, loss of biodiversity, and natural disasters, we think there’s another topic that deserves attention in the discourse surrounding climate change: loss of linguistic diversity.
Climate change and language are just as closely linked as, say, climate change and biodiversity. Just as experts predict that climate change will have a devastating effect on the planet’s biodiversity (a 2020 study, for instance, projected that climate change could lead to the extinction of one-third of the world’s plant and animal species over the next half a century), it’s likely that climate change will have a negative impact on linguistic diversity as well.
Though estimates vary from source to source, anywhere from 50 to 90% of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to be lost by the end of this century. As the environment becomes increasingly more hostile for people living in highly linguistically diverse areas — from sea-level rise along the coast to more severe droughts in desert regions — climate change-induced migration could have serious consequences for some of the most at-risk languages spoken today.
As we recognize Earth Day this weekend, it’s important to consider how climate change affects not only our planet’s ecosystems but also its linguistic diversity. Read on to learn more about how climate change and language are closely linked, and what you can do to support the planet’s linguistic diversity in the face of the current climate crisis.
How does climate change threaten linguistic diversity?
While there are many other threats to linguistic diversity, evidence shows that climate change is accelerating language loss.
The languages that face the most serious consequences are those spoken in regions that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change — think island nations, coastal regions, and deserts. Minority and Indigenous languages that are only spoken in one or two geographic regions are particularly vulnerable here — as climate change forces Indigenous people to move from their original homes, their language may not be passed onto the next generation.
As the climate changes, natural disasters like floods and hurricanes are likely to become more frequent and more severe, causing entire communities to be displaced, leading to the loss of their languages and cultures.
This forced migration can be particularly damaging to Indigenous languages, which have historically been vulnerable to the more dominant languages spoken in their vicinity. When members of a community move to another geographical region, their descendants tend to adopt the predominant language in their new community. Sociolinguists note that immigrant communities often pass down their language to the second generation, but it’s rare for third- and fourth-generation family members to speak the language natively.
Interestingly, the loss of biodiversity appears to be correlated with the loss of linguistic diversity as well. In 2012, researchers at Arizona State University found that the number of languages spoken in a given region is closely linked with the number of species that can be found in that same area.
And this shouldn’t be particularly surprising after all — biodiverse regions tend to be highly hospitable to human life, allowing a wide range of cultures and languages to thrive — in turn, these languages store important knowledge about the plant and animal species around them. As a result, these languages are intrinsically linked to the biodiversity of a given region — if we lose one, we may lose the other as well.
Even more, Indigenous people are working hard to protect these regions at higher rates than others. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “Indigenous peoples are fighting to save the planet. Although they comprise less than 5% of the world population, Indigenous peoples protect 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity”
How to support linguistic diversity
So, what can we do to support linguistic diversity in the face of climate change-induced language loss?
While most of the same tips to fight climate change apply here — things like reducing greenhouse gas emissions and recycling — it’s also important to devise an action plan to support the languages that will be most affected. Here are just a few ways we can promote the languages that will need the most care as climate change worsens:
- Support the development of language contact programs and cultural centers
- Invest in language immersion programs and language nests for at-risk languages
- Emphasize the important of language access – create Indigenous languages action plans
- Promote translation and interpretation services in low-resource and Indigenous languages
- Support policies that promote Indigenous languages
This last one is particularly critical — we must encourage and enable people to speak with their most authentic voice in their preferred language. In turn, this means giving them access to the same opportunities and services available to others with language support through translation and interpretation, rather than expecting them to use a more widely spoken language.
Language service providers will play an especially important role here, by providing language support for low resource languages. Remote interpreting options are particularly useful in supporting authentic voices, as they enable individuals to speak and be understood without requiring an interpreter to be physically present in the same space. This means that the pool of available interpreters in low resource languages may increase, as you can reach interpreters who are living in different locations.
Additionally, relay interpreting — wherein two interpreters work in two different, but overlapping language pairs — can help when there is no interpreter for a specific language pair. For instance, a Quechua-Spanish interpreter and a Spanish-English interpreter might work to help a Quechua speaker be understood by an English-speaking audience. By offering these services, LSPs can make a great difference in allowing individuals from linguistically vulnerable communities to use their authentic voice.
This Earth Day, we hope you’ll remember the link between climate change and language. Just as we support our planet’s biodiversity on this day, we should also celebrate and support our linguistic diversity, which is an integral part of promoting health communication and knowledge sharing. In short, here are just a few things we encourage you to consider this Earth Day:
- Climate change isn’t just a threat to biodiversity and our ecosystems — it’s also likely to have a negative impact on linguistic diversity.
- Anywhere from 50 to 90% of the world’s languages are expected to be lost by 2100 if we don’t take action.
- Indigenous and minority languages are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
- Here are some ways to promote linguistic diversity in the face of climate change:
- Support language immersion and cultural enrichment programs and activities
- Fight for legislation that emphasizes language justice and promotes Indigenous languages
- Promote translation and interpretation services for low-resource languages
At Avantpage, we’re proud to support linguistic diversity by offering translation and interpreting services in low-resource languages. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can utilize our services to help protect and preserve the languages most at-risk to climate change, contact us today at contact us at [email protected] or (530) 750-2040.