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Save languages, save biodiversity
By Pandurang Hegde

As we celebrate the World Mother Language Day on Feb 21, 2013, it is important to realize that local languages also play a crucial role in sustainable conservation and management of biodiversity.

The biodiversity hotspots in the world are under threat due to climate change and its impact. Scientists warn that about 17000 plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction. The targets set by Convention for Biological Diverstiy (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 rescue the dwindling biodiversity resources.

The report of the National Academy of Sciences links the endangered languages and species, and concludes “Hot spots, or regions with an exceptionally high number of species unique to that location and habitat loss of at least 70 percent, comprise 2.3 percent 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.”

The pace at which the languages are disappearing is really staggering. 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.

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”.

In the modern globalised world, domination of three languages, namely, English, Chinese, and Spanish, has taken its toll on local vernacular languages. By adopting industrialized mode of production and copying western civilization 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.

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 recognized that the local language can be an effective tool towards sustainable conservation and management of biodiversity.

Recognizing 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 recognized 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 situation on the World Mother Language Day.

At the moment the Government of India has recognized 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.

According to Bhasha, an organization working on conserving the oral traditions of marginalized communities, a total of 1652 mother tongues were documented in the census of 1961. Several hundreds are not even traceable today!


These lofty goals remain on paper and the ground reality presents a dismal scenario. The present trend of neo liberalization has taken its toll on local languages. According to Bhasha, an organization working on conserving the oral traditions of marginalized communities, a total of 1652 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 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.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Pandurang Hegde  |  appiko@gmail.com

Pandurang Hegde is a farmer, environmentalist and writer based in Sirsi town in Karnataka. He is well known for launching the Appiko movement which played a key role in protecting many forests from the axe in the Western Ghats region.

Write to the Author  |  Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

 Other Articles by Pandurang Hegde in
Global Development  > Global Society > Cultural Diversity and Homogenization

Losing our language
Monday, February 15, 2010

Every language represents the repository of accumulated knowledge over the generations and defines our relationship within the society and its link to nature. Unfortunately, we have begun to judge a language by only its commercial value in the existing market.
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Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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