Study finds links between biodiversity and language diversity

Areas of the world with high levels of biodiversity also contain more linguistic and cultural diversity, researchers at Oxford University, Penn State University and Conservation International have found.

The study in the journal PNAS showed that 70% (4,824) of the world’s known languages occur in an area that is less than a quarter of the earth’s land surface. More than 4,000 languages in the world have fewer than 10,000 speakers and, of those, 2,804 are found in hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas, which are under threat by development and population growth.

Professor Suzanne Romaine of Oxford University’s Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics and co-author of the study, said: ‘Virtually everyone knows about the disappearance of species, but few are aware of a similar extinction crisis for languages.

‘The co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity is fortuitous in that it provides the basis for bringing together organisations and researchers focusing on biodiversity conservation and those concerned with linguistic and cultural conservation. We need to adopt a shared framework for integrating biological and linguistic conservation goals.’

The study focused on 35 of these ‘biodiversity hotspots’ – regions characterised by a high number of species unique to a given hotspot and a loss of at least 70% of natural habitat – and five ‘wilderness areas’ with high biodiversity and low human impact.

Hotspots with the highest linguistic diversity were the East Melanesian Islands, the Guinean Forests of West Africa, Indo-Burma, Mesoamerica and Wallacea, each with more than 250 languages. The New Guinea wilderness area had the highest linguistic diversity with 976 languages, all but four of which are endemic to a single region.

Larry Gorenflo, an associate professor at Penn State University, said: ‘Showing this relationship between linguistic and cultural diversity and areas with rich biodiversity is a critical step in understanding the importance that conservation has to humanity.’

This study builds on Professor Romaine’s research predicting that between 50-90% of known languages will have disappeared before the end of this century.