LinguaMania Episode 2: Understanding our natural world: why languages matter

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Welcome to the LinguaMania podcast. Produced by researchers from Oxford University-led Creative Multilingualism, the series explores some fascinating perspectives on languages and language learning, asking: Do we really need human translators? Why do we use metaphors and what do they teach us about other languages and cultures? How much of an unfamiliar language can we understand? Would creative language teaching make the subject more popular? Can languages help protect the natural environment? And so much more, so stop what you’re doing and start exploring the wonderful world of multilingualism!

Episode 2: Understanding our natural world: why languages matter

Summary: There are many endangered languages around the world. If they are lost or go dormant, the heart and soul of many cultures and communities will be affected. But have you ever considered the impact the loss of a language might have on our natural world? In this episode of LinguaMania, Felice Wyndham, Karen Park and Andrew Gosler explore the links between language and nature. How can revitalizing linguistic diversity help also protect biodiversity? And why do the words we use when talking about our local flora and fauna matter?

Listen and download the podcast on Apple Podcasts or University of Oxford podcasts.

Podcast Transcript:

(00:00 – 01:14)

Rajinder Dudrah: Welcome to the LinguaMania Podcast presented by the Creative Multilingualism team. We are a group of people who love languages. We think languages are an essential part of being human, they’re part of our identity and part of our culture.  And we think they should be celebrated at every possible opportunity! So our podcasts shine a light on some fascinating aspects of languages and language learning which you might not have come across before.

I’m Professor Rajinder Dudrah from Birmingham City University. I’m also a researcher at Creative Multilingualism. We’re exploring the links between languages and creativity.

There are many endangered languages around the world. If they are lost or go dormant, the heart and soul of many cultures and communities will be affected. But have you ever considered the impact the loss of a language might have on our natural world?

(01:15 02:25)

Felice Wyndham: Just about everyone has heard about how animals, plants, and whole ecosystems are threatened by overconsumption around the world. We know that conserving land matters, conserving our water matters, protecting species matters. In this episode we explore the ways that protecting and strengthening the many languages of the world also matters. Not just for their own intrinsic value, not only because they are so important to local speakers, but for their crucial role in helping us understand the natural world.

My name is Felice Wyndham and I'll be exploring this topic with my colleagues from the Ethno-ornithology World Atlas. To begin, we speak with Dr Karen Park, a linguist at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr Park, can you tell us a little bit about the state of the world's languages today.

(02:25 03:40)

Karen Park: This is such a simple question and yet such a difficult one to answer concisely. A relatively straightforward answer would be a number, ‘There are this many languages in the world today,’ but languages are difficult to count. For those who wish the elegance of a quantified perspective I will give you a number shortly but first, some context. What makes languages so difficult to count makes them so beautifully complex and so deeply human. To count we must have a quantifiable unit but language is a sliding scale of idiolect, sociolect, dialect and accent. Most linguists who provide a count of the world's languages provide an explanation for where they draw the line between a dialect and language but acknowledge this line is not fixed. Today's dialects are tomorrow's languages, just as languages such as French, Italian, Romanian, and Spanish were all once dialects of Latin. And once we have determined what falls into the category of language we must make yet another decision regarding what is included in the count. Do we try to count all languages that are or have been present on Earth or only those languages that have native speakers?

(03:41 04:45)

Linguists may classify languages according to three different types; modern languages which have a community of living native speakers; dead languages – these languages are often preserved in ancient writings and though no longer native languages, they are still spoken and learned in rarified contexts. Latin, ancient Greek, Old Norse, Sanskrit and Old English are examples. These languages were not abruptly replaced by other languages, rather they slowly evolved and split into modern languages – we still speak the language of Shakespeare and Chaucer but it sounds very different; and extinct languages. These are the languages with neither a community of speakers nor an accessible historic record. These are our lost languages and the loss is a great one. With these languages is lost identity, history, landscapes, art, music, stories, the great depth of knowledge and expression encoded in language.

(04:46 – 05:52)

Lastly we are limited by the reaches of our knowledge of human diversity and our interconnectedness or lack thereof. In the last 10 years new languages have been discovered in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia amongst others, so what is the state of the world's languages today. Well ‘glottolog’, which is one of the most comprehensive and respected databases of linguistic diversity, puts the number of modern spoken languages at 7,596 and adds another 194 modern sign languages to give us a grand total of 7,790. These are modern languages that have communities of native speakers. There are more numbers I can give you, but again do take these numbers with a bit of salt – these are approximations and can sometimes vary widely. Some linguists have observed that of these almost 8,000 living languages only 200 are spoken by some 88% of the world's population.

(05:53 – 06:42)

Conversely, areas in the world with high levels of biological diversity or biodiversity hotspots are   home to over 70% of the world's languages. 7, 790 living languages is a good number – we still live in a time in which there is a remarkable amount of linguistic diversity. But to give you one final number, linguists predict that 80 years from now, in the year 2100, 40 to 80 percent of those languages will have gone extinct – not dead or dormant, simply lost, with all that history, complexity, feeling and knowledge. And we will all be the poorer for it.

(06:43 – 07:06)

Rajinder Dudrah: So we’ve just heard from Karen that many languages are at risk of dying out. And also that there are often correlations between the number of languages spoken in an area and how much biodiversity there is in that area. But why should this be? Why should the number of languages spoken be related to how many plants and living organisms there are in a given area?

(07:07 – 08:00)

Felice Wyndham: Digging a little deeper into this idea that languages are a crucial part of how knowledge and local ecology work together, we look at some specific examples of exactly how local languages and particularly names for living things can play a key role in landscapes that thrive. The argument goes like this; If people know the names of things they pay more attention to them. When we pay more attention to living things because they're complex and mysterious, we find out more and more about them and all the things they are related to. We end up caring more, we realize how they're useful to us, why they might have an intrinsic right to exist alongside us, and how they might play a role in teaching us, guiding us, or simply contributing to the beauty of life.

(08:01 – 09:08)

One example from my research with Rarámuri communities in Mexico is the name for a Plantago plant called ‘rorogochi’. My ecology teacher there thought that the name might derive from the fact that the ‘goró’, which is called a sandhill crane in English, eats a lot of this herb during its southerly migration. People copy the bird too, eating the plant fried up with beans so we see that there’s a whole story in one name ‘rorogochi’. The name points to migrating cranes, to the plants they eat on their migration, and how people can learn from the birds about a wild food source.

Next, to explore a few more examples we speak with Dr Andy Goslar, an ethno-ornithologist at the University of Oxford, who's going to tell us a little bit about his research on British folk names for birds.

Felice Wyndham: What can we learn from folk names?

(09:09 – 11:26)

Andy Goslar: The first thing we can learn from folk names is fairly obvious, which is ‘Oh my goodness! There are 7000 English folk names for British birds for example. For 150 species, 7,000 names recorded.’ That tells you that people in the past have been very deeply engaged with birds, connected with birds. They knew all sorts of things about the natural history and ecology, behaviour of birds and those things are reflected in the names. So, it's a snapshot of the past, in a sense, of telling you something about a world which is disappearing, which is a world of human connection with, with nature and, you know, we see today my own work with students where young people often know very very few names of common birds. I have taught students, British-born students who didn't know what a robin was and thought there was nothing peculiar about not knowing what a robin was, and that speaks volumes about what is happening in our society, in our culture. And so I've come to realize that there was much more diversity in the British Isles in the names that, that we had and what I hope to do, and I've done this quite a few times through talks that I've given, is try and engage people with nature through this cultural heritage, so it's a natural heritage and cultural heritage. I show people that it's all bound up together, that you don't have to make a choice between, you know, the nature and the economy or whatever, that actually this is all part of living a good life and your health and well-being, and knowing the names is part of that.

(11:30 – 12:35)

Felice Wyndham: Some examples of information we can glean from the folk names of birds such as the ones that Dr Goslar talked about, like the Robin, include information about its behaviour, information about its habitat, relationships with people, relationship with other animals, their forms, their colour, that kind of thing. For example in the case of the robin, which is so ubiquitous in the British Isles, we can see that there are quite a diversity of names that have been used in the past such as ones like ‘Robin Red Breast’ obviously referring to the colour and the pattern of the bird itself. Another name is ‘The Ruddock,’ again referring to the colour of the bird. Some other names include the ‘Bob Robin’, ‘the Bobby Eric’. In York the Robin was sometimes called ‘the ploughman's bird’ in reference to the way that these birds would follow the plough along looking for bugs and worms to eat. They really lived in close proximity to people and human activity and the folk names reflect that.

(12:36 – 13:03)

Rajinder Dudrah: So the words we use to refer to birds and the natural world around us can reflect how closely connected we are to nature. And the language used can carry a lot of knowledge which could help us protect our natural world. As languages become extinct, we are losing vital knowledge about local flora and fauna. Next up, Felice will look at what can be done to protect these links between language and the natural world.

(13:04 – 13:56)

Felice Wyndham: So if we accept this premise that languages matter in terms of understanding our natural worlds, what kinds of things can be done to help preserve, conserve, and encourage the flourishing of languages and natural history? How can we learn to do a better job, respecting both local languages and local ecologies and the ways they interact? How do we best support local people who are working to make all of these thrive? One initiative our research group here in Oxford has been developing with Birdlife International is called the Ethno-ornithology World Atlas or EWA. Dr Andy Goslar is EWA’s Research Director.

Felice Wyndham: What is the Ethno-ornithology World Atlas?

(13:56 – 15:50)

Andy Goslar: Well EWA - to document people's names of birds, people's stories of birds, people’s dance, maybe pictures of artefacts, anything culturally connected with birds from right around the world. One of the most exciting points in the last year in developing EWA was our managing to get Michel Desfayes’ 100,000 European folk names of birds in at least 11 languages. He has amazing documentation for 11 languages but there are many more languages included in this. It's his life's work and we've managed to get all of that onto EWA as a searchable collection, but as we go forward we will be running projects that invite people to contribute their own names. So, we know that the 100,000 names documented there is just the tip of an iceberg of what once existed in Europe. For a start, they're only the names that were ever published and most folk names were never published. But also we're interested in knowing ‘Okay, that's a historical record,’ but we want to know how many of these names are still alive today, how many of those names are still in use, maybe in the places where they were originally documented, but also what other names? There may be thousands of names still, still existing and still in use today and we hope people will want to share those with, with the world.

(15:51 – 16:27)

Felice Wyndham: We are aware that this short podcast has been entirely in English but you'll find that the content on the EWA website Andy mentioned is much more creatively multilingual. We invite you to check it out at E-W-A-T-L-A-S, that's – the link is in the show notes. To wrap up this podcast, Dr John Fanshawe from Birdlife International tells us a little bit about the potentials in linking up language conservation with biodiversity conservation.

(16:28 – 17:42)

John Fanshawe: It's that sort of interplay between what you might call the birds and the people that is the, is the rub. That's where everything happens, that's where the successes are born and the conflicts exist really. And if you go back to, you know, the opening question about why I'm excited by this, it’s because it's at the local level that I guess an anthropological and ethnobiological and ethnological approach is so important. And there are many many reasons for that; one, that we have classically exported something of a western conservation model, often conducted the whole debate in English, possibly Spanish, possibly other languages but primarily driven by the English; and, you know, the opportunities to work at a local level with local people with their extraordinarily rich knowledge of nature and birds in their landscapes means that we come to language, we come to issues of language, come to issues of interpretation. And if you look at the relatedness between loss of linguistic diversity and loss of biodiversity, this whole biocultural debate, then many of the places that we are concerned about from the point of view of the conservation community are the same as they are from the point of view of the of the cultural community as it were.

(17:43 – 18:44)

Felice Wyndham: Working from the principle that language holds information about the relationships between people and the places they live in, information that's often key ecological knowledge, an underlying theme emerges over and over. This is the need to approach the connections between language and biodiversity as inextricably historical and political. Whose languages are spoken? Which plants and animals thrive? Who owns the land? Let's find out more about the languages and living things in the places where we live and value stories from many different perspectives and in many different languages. We can become involved in citizen science documentation projects or join our local biodiversity or language conservation group. There's a vibrant world out there and several thousands of languages in which to speak it.

(18:55 – 19:38)

Rajinder Dudrah: Thanks for listening to our LinguaMania podcast… the series is produced by Creative Multilingualism, a research programme led by the University of Oxford and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Our aim is to make languages more visible, valued and vibrant!

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, have a listen to the rest of the series. And you can find out more about Creative Multilingualism at or follow us on Twitter @creative langs.

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