Sunday, October 10, 2021

Globalization's Assault on Traditional Language and Knowledge.

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biodiversity, Culture, Nature, Society, Sustainability

Ed Hessler

The biological and cultural diversity of the island Papua New Guinea is staggering as Deanne Morrison reports in Inquiry: Exploring the Impact of University Research: 9 million people, some 840 languages or 12% of the worlds ~7000 languages, and the "world's most floristically diverse island,  harboring about 5 percent of the world's plant species.

One-third of Papua New Guinea's languages are endangered and according to UMN's George Weblein who has spent most of his career studying the island's plant biodiversity, "the traditional ecological knowledge (contained in the languages) are at even greater risk of extinction than biodiversity." 

In a co-authored study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (linked in Morrison's story) it was found that "our understanding of the drivers and rate of language loss remains incomplete. When we tested key factors causing language attrition among Papua New Guinean students speaking 392 different indigenous languages, we found an unexpectedly rapid decline in their language skills compared to their parents and predicted further acceleration of language loss in the next generation. Language attrition was accompanied by decline in the traditional knowledge of nature among the students, pointing to an uncertain future for languages and biocultural knowledge in the most linguistically diverse place on Earth."

The most striking result says Morrison: "while 91 percent of parents were fluent in an indigenous language, only 58 percent of the students were." It stems, according to Weblein "from social and technological change in a country undergoing rapid globalization. ...  The rise of Tok Pisin, an English-based creole language that is used in 66 percent of homes. English is used in 4 percent."

Morrison discusses how language loss happens, noting that it is due to a web of interactions but some threads stand out. For instance, urbanization brings people together and leads to more marriages between speakers of different indigenous languages.  "Only 16 percent of such 'mixed language' families used indigenous languages at home, compared to 38 percent among those who marry within a language. Of the surveyed students, 37 percent came from mixed-language families. Also, urbanization often interrupts contact between generations that reinforces indigenous language use."

In closing, Morrison quotes Weblein: "At this time of unprecedented change, we need their wisdom (ecological knowledge) more than ever."

Please read the Morrison's reporting for more information and to link to the original paper on which Morrison's piece is based which describes the research design and findings in more detail but also to see one of those photographs-worth-a-thousand-words of students in their school uniforms and adult in traditional dress traditional dress and school uniforms.

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