How climate change is killing the world’s languages

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NPR’s Ari Shapiro speaks to Karen McVeigh of The Guardian about her reporting on the connection between climate change and global language loss.


Right now someone is speaking or thinking in a language that is on the verge of disappearing. Of the world’s roughly 7,000 spoken languages, one dies every 40 days, according to one estimate – languages like Babanki, spoken in Cameroon…


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Babanki).

SHAPIRO: …Or Nalik, heard on an island in Papua New Guinea.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Nalik).

SHAPIRO: And some of the places where rare languages are the most concentrated are also most vulnerable to climate change. Linguists call global warming the final nail in the coffin for more than half of humanity’s languages. Karen McVeigh wrote about this for The Guardian. Welcome.


SHAPIRO: Let’s start with a specific example. Tell us about the island nation of Vanuatu.

MCVEIGH: Vanuatu is a South Pacific island nation. It’s very small, but it has 110 languages spoken there, which is the highest density of languages in the world.

SHAPIRO: And it’s also one of the nation’s most vulnerable to climate change.

MCVEIGH: Exactly. It is also one of the countries most at risk of sea level rise and climate change. And here, you find this kind of sort of perfect storm. Linguists see that many small linguistic communities – perhaps there’s only 100 people speak the language or something like that – are on islands and coastlines vulnerable to hurricanes, to weather and sea level rise.

SHAPIRO: And so if rising seas or storms displace those people and they wind up in – I don’t know – Indonesia or Australia, what happens to the language that those hundred people speak?

MCVEIGH: Well, what often happens is that they aren’t necessarily displaced with the same people in their community, and also, even if they are displaced with other people in their community, the children will often adopt the language of, you know, Indonesia or Australia or whatever, the dominant language there because they get – it’s economically advantageous for them to speak the new language, the dominant language. And the language kind of dies.

SHAPIRO: A language is much more than words. Like, I’m thinking about the specificity of Yiddish curses. There’s one that says, all his teeth should fall out except one to make him suffer. Like, that’s such a Yiddish way of viewing the world.


SHAPIRO: And so is the loss of the language itself just a small piece of what’s happening?

MCVEIGH: I think absolutely it is because the language carries so much local knowledge and culture. Like, there’s a single word in Greenlandic, which is vulnerable but still spoken. And translated, it means something like a strong afternoon wind that comes from the fjord. But it has more than that. It’s a very kind of specific meaning. When locals translate it, they say something like, the wind in the fjord that comes in from the sea, and it can be hard to get home, but once you’re out of the fjord, it’s nice weather. So they’re describing a local weather pattern.


MCVEIGH: Yeah. So it describes so much more. There’s so much culturally lost when a language dies.

SHAPIRO: What did you learn about efforts to slow this trend?

MCVEIGH: Well, there have been massive efforts, particularly in Hawaii and also in New Zealand. In the 1970s, it was something like 2,000 native speakers of Hawaiian remained. But activists launched these immersion schools where children are taught from birth, usually by kind of grandparents, and now more than 18,700 people speak it. And the same thing happened in New Zealand in the 1970s. Only 5% of young Maori people spoke the language, but now something like 25% now speak it.

SHAPIRO: Karen McVeigh is a senior reporter for The Guardian, and her piece about disappearing languages is called “Lost For Words: Fears Of Catastrophic Language Loss Due To Rising Seas.” It’s been good talking with you. Thank you.

MCVEIGH: Thank you.

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