Linguistic diversity, biodiversity and poverty: Global patterns and priorities

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: English Faculty


Many of the world's poorest people live in areas of high linguistic/cultural diversity and high biodiversity. A parallel extinction crises in species and languages means that as the world is becoming less biologically diverse, it is simultaneously becoming culturally and linguistically less diverse as well. The speakers of most of the languages at greatest risk of disappearing over the next few decades are very often the poorest of the poor at the bottom of the economic ladder. Africa, for instance, is home to around 2,092 (30.3%) of the world's languages, about 1/3 of the world's poor, and high levels of biodiversity. The fate of most of the world's linguistic diversity, and by implication its cultural diversity, lies in the hands of a small number of people most vulnerable to pressures of globalization. Although such facts about the global distribution of linguistic diversity, biodiversity, and poverty are well known in the respective disciplines of linguistics, ecology and development economics, their interconnections have not been explored, much less understood. Understanding the complex linkages requires an interdisciplinary approach. Research addressing the interconnections between global biodiversity conservation and poverty has increasingly moved from treating poverty and conservation as separate policy domains to recognizing the need for integrating socioeconomic data into conservation priorities. Meanwhile, various studies have examined at various scales the geographic overlap between regions of high biological and linguistic/cultural diversity. To date, however, no research has examined the interface between datasets linking biological and cultural/linguistic diversity and poverty indicators. This research will fill that gap by using GIS (global information system) mapping to bring together datasets concerning the geographic distribution of languages, species and poverty indicators into a new interdisciplinary framework to identify global 'hotspots', where threatened languages and species overlap to the greatest extent with high levels of poverty. Because much typically needs to be done quickly with too few resources, setting realistic priorities is urgent. Documenting and analyzing these hotspots where endangered languages and species overlap to the greatest extent with high levels of poverty will identify the most critical areas for concerted action by linguists, environmentalists and development agencies.
The analysis will focus in particular on Conservation International's 34 hotspots and 5 high biodiversity wilderness areas as strategic sites of high concern to linguists, as well as to the development community and conservation experts. Hotspot identification relies on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. These regions display exceptionally high occurrences of endemic species (i.e. those found nowhere else) and loss of at least 70% of natural habitat. They are also home to about 1/3 of the world's total population, and 70% of the world's languages, with up to 72% of them endemic. As many as 60% of all languages in the hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas are at risk of extinction due to small numbers of speakers. A total of 2769 languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 speakers;740 are spoken by fewer than 1,000. Small languages can disappear much faster than larger ones as the resources on which their speakers depend for their livelihoods and transmission of their cultures and languages are damaged by forces such as resource extraction, the spread of mechanized agriculture and unsustainable development projects. The importance of the relationship between such groups and the natural environments they inhabit cannot be overstated for preservation of linguistic and biological diversity. Ultimately the success of conservation initiatives will depend on the engagement of these local communities.

Planned Impact

The research will break new ground in pointing towards possibilities for achieving poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation simultaneously within an interdisciplinary framework incorporating linguistic diversity. The results will not only enlarge the conceptual and methodological framework for conservation and development efforts, they can also be of concrete immediate benefit to intergovernmental organizations (e.g. United Nations, World Bank, UNESCO), national and regional governments, NGOs, indigenous peoples and other minorities. The closer development comes to the poorest, most marginalized peoples in the world, the more likely it is that they will speak a different language from their neighbors. Despite growing calls for development to come from within communities and to be based on local indigenous knowledge so that it is responsive to self-perceived needs, culturally relevant, and sustainable, few have asked the rural poor in their own languages what their conceptions and understanding of development are. Use of local languages is inseparable from participatory development because people cannot benefit from development assistance rendered in a language they do not understand. Most development aid is still administered in a small handful of international languages. Both conservation and development experts can use the results as a guide to the cultural/linguistic groups in specific geographic areas of interest in order to gauge the need to work with speakers of particular languages. In addition to priming further research into the hotspots to examine more precisely the specific causal factors undermining species, cultures and languages, the results can inform and guide policy and planning in a holistic way at local, regional and international levels. Biological and linguistic-cultural diversity are not only intrinsically and inextricably linked; together they hold the key to sustainable development and are critical for the achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Every day governments, policy makers and development agencies must choose between policy options. Failure to understand the complex and dynamic linkages between biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction has meant that many of the efforts undertaken to reduce poverty and to conserve biodiversity have proceeded in isolation of one another, if not even in outright competition as vast sums of money get channeled in opposing directions. At the same time, the preservation of biodiversity and linguistic diversity has all too often been seen as an obstacle to development rather than as part of a strategy for sustainable, empowering development. Reconciling development with conservation of linguistic and biodiversity requires a new understanding of the critical role of language in human development. There can be no true development without linguistic development. The issue of language loss cannot be separated from people, their identities, their cultural heritage, their well-being and their rights. A single integrated and easily accessible measure of risk taking into account indicators from the three domains of biodiversity, linguistic diversity and poverty can provide a holistic and more nuanced index for assessing and monitoring overall ecosystem health that takes into account peoples, cultures, languages, species and their habitats. This can facilitate a new global agenda based on the triple goals of promoting rural development, environmental sustainability, and cultural linguistic pluralism. Because regions containing high biodiversity also represent areas of strategic importance to maintaining linguistic and cultural diversity, conservation strategies that promote a community's economic and cultural well-being will be likely to sustain linguistic diversity as well. The problem of language extinction is thus a 'good' problem, in
Description African Storybook Project, SAIDE (South African Institute for Distance Education), Johannesburg, South Africa
Geographic Reach Africa 
Policy Influence Type Participation in advisory committee
Description Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism, Reading University
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Participation in advisory committee
Description MTB-MLE [mother-tongue based multilingual education] network, RTI International, Washington, DC
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Participation in advisory committee
Description Language and Sustainable Development 
Organisation United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Department UNESCO Bangkok Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education
Country Thailand 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution A policy briefing commissioned by UNESCO-Bangkok, Education for Sustainable Development Unit
Start Year 2010