Lost in translation

Languages are going extinct. And that could affect the health of the planet’s entire population.

Story by Lance Frazer 

“What could possibly go wrong?”

When it comes to languages, the answer is: a lot. According to The Language Conservancy, there are approximately 7,000 languages in the world — and nearly half of them are endangered. In fact, more than 3,000 languages exist only in a spoken form. 

So, what could go wrong without them? Well, there are the irreplaceable losses — personal, cultural and historical. But even worse, language extinction will erode the health of all humanity. As climate change damages the world’s environments, the knowledge of the natural world — and its potential benefits — could disappear with many of the languages that are in danger. 

Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, a senior researcher in the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich, and Jordi Bascompte, a professor of ecology in the same department, recently examined the resilience of Indigenous knowledge and the loss of plant species and languages in northwestern Amazonia, New Guinea and North America in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 

The finding: Languages threatened with extinction support 86% of all unique knowledge in North America and 100% in northwestern Amazonia. 

“My Indigenous colleagues often lamented that their knowledge and language were not being passed on to the younger generation,” Cámara-Leret says. “That got me thinking more on the extinction of Indigenous languages, and on the importance of bringing the human dimension into studies of ecosystem services and conservation.

“Biological extinction rightly deserves our attention,” he adds. “However, cultural and linguistic extinction — which are happening at a much faster rate — need to be addressed too.”

Ruptured systems
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of the world’s population lacked access to essential health services. According to a 2017 World Health Organization/World Bank report, 100 million people worldwide are routinely forced to choose between healthcare and other necessities such as food and education.

Indigenous peoples often experience these barriers to health services. In the U.S., for example, life expectancy for Native American and Alaska Native peoples is five years shorter than the “all races population,” according to the Indian Health Service. In addition, 25% of Native Americans lack health insurance, compared to 12% of the total population. 

That makes their languages all the more important, says WHO Senior Technical Advisor (Equity) Theadora Swift Koller. 

“Traditional medicine is the sum total of knowledge, skill and practices (and is) based on the theories, beliefs and experiences Indigenous to different cultures,” Koller says. “(It’s) used in the maintenance of health, as well as the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.

“Hence, the loss of Indigenous languages can rupture those knowledge systems.”

Abamu Degio (left) watches a recording of herself singing a traditional Koro song with Anthony Degio (center) and K. David Harrison (right).

Natural and digital
K. David Harrison has been visiting the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu since 2016. A professor of linguistics at VinUniversity in Hanoi, Vietnam, and researcher at the New York Botanical Garden, Harrison helped document plants and their uses — and the 110 languages of the 300,000 people across 80 islands.

“We have to remember that writing in a language is a relatively recent thing,” he says. “Roughly one-half of the world’s languages do not use writing. But a number of them have an acquaintance with the world’s technology.”

On Futuna Island, the easternmost island in Vanuatu, Harrison encountered a fisherman who could name 250 species of fish — along with their habits, and when and where they could be found.

“This guy had a tablet,” Harrison says, “where he created a digital photo record of each fish. It was fascinating to watch — here was this guy in a handmade wooden outrigger, and with each catch he’d pull out his tablet and record it.”

Harrison recalls how, when he spent a week on Futuna Island, he and fisherman Anselon Seru recorded the fish names digitally — all of which are now part of the Futuna Talking Dictionary, co-authored by Harrison and Seru and hosted at Swarthmore College. 

In a Swarthmore interview from September 2020, Harrison noted how speakers of these endangered languages were eager to discuss their environment. That includes the plants that are important to their culture. 

“By cataloging and collecting that knowledge,” Harrison said, “we’re cataloging basic knowledge that’s new to science.” That, he believes, “is vital for caring for and preserving the planet.”

Robbie Hart recovers temperature data from a mountain site in Nepal. Photo by Elsa Hart.

Engine of discovery
For Cassandra Quave, the lack of connection that most people in the West have to the environment isn’t just a difference from that of Indigenous peoples. It requires an effort to preserve and share knowledge.

“These cultures are embedded in nature, giving them a much deeper tie to the environment,” she says. “This is not something that Western science can swoop in and find. I mean, look: There are 374,000 to 390,000 species of plants. And so far, we’ve documented about 9% as being used in traditional medicine.”

Quave, an ethnobotanist, associate professor and curator of the herbarium at Emory University, says her earliest exposure to these issues came when she worked with Abëreshë communities in southern Italy. 

“I got to see firsthand what happens when many of the people who can speak the language have passed on, and the younger generations are not speaking Abëreshë. The loss of language is a serious factor, and I take it every bit as seriously as environmental loss.”

These remote Indigenous groups have fought a long struggle with healthcare, says Steve King, chief sustainable supply, ethnobotanical research and IP officer for Jaguar Health. 

“COVID only made it worse,” he adds. “Many elders died. These were the last areas to get meds and support. And things are going to get worse.”

The diversity of life on Earth, says WHO’s Koller, has been an engine of biomedical discovery and sustained human health for millennia, contributing to countless medical advances. 

“Indigenous peoples have a key role in safeguarding global biodiversity, which in turn is important for health and wellbeing globally,” Koller says. “Traditional and Indigenous peoples are central to managing natural resources.”

When you combine threatened languages with threatened plants, you have a threat to global health.

Grappling with change
Pre-existing knowledge is a vital tool, and language is an important vehicle for learning, says Robbie Hart, an ethnobotanist and director of the William L. Brown Center at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. 

“There are hundreds of new plant species named every year,” Hart says, “and at the same time, most areas of the world are being affected by human land uses, and all are being affected by climate change. However, there is already knowledge about many of these plants, often held by speakers of small languages. We need to realize that each of these diverse languages is connected to knowledge and a perspective on the world worth preserving.”

Michael Balick, vice president for botanical research and director and philecology curator of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden, was one of K. David Harrison’s colleagues in the study in Vanuatu. In an article he co-wrote, Balick points out that people in an increasing number of areas of Vanuatu are grappling with a transition to a western-style, cash-based economy. 

“As part of that transition,” he says, “loss of native habitat is occurring in many places, and plant knowledge is being lost at an alarming rate as elders, who have been the defenders of habitats and stewards of information, pass away without conveying their knowledge and skills to younger people.”

At the same time, however, there is a movement among the younger generation to maintain the knowledge of, and connection with, their culture’s history.

A United Nations report cites that at the current rates of language extinction, 90% of the world’s languages will die within 100 years.

“In 2019,” he says, “my colleague Gregory M. Plunkett and I received a grant to fund the first Kastom Skul (Custom School) on Tanna Island (the largest island of Tafea Province, Vanuatu) that was an experiment to help foster cultural preservation and the vital role of Indigenous languages. We had expected to involve 20 to 30 young people. But when word of the dates for the school went out on social media, 120 people of all ages showed up. Our group of instructors, led by local cultural specialist Jean-Pascal Wahe, got to take them into the forest and help them learn about the plants and medicines their elders had found.”

Indigenous cultures worldwide are estimated to use 30,000 medicinal plants, Balick continues, “where western medicine has only analyzed around 300 in the greatest deal possible.” 

The drugs that have emerged, he says, include Mytesi: “It comes from the Amazon plant Croton lechleri, used by Indigenous people to heal cuts and treat diarrhea.” 

The drug is now being used to treat chronic diarrhea in HIV/AIDS patients and it is also in final clinical trials for treating cancer patients for chemotherapy-related diarrhea.

King adds that many plants are being tested for psychological issues including chronic depression, anxiety, alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Preserving the source
There have been several cases of pharmaceutical companies profiting from plants and the associated knowledge of Indigenous peoples, with little or no financial or other benefits for the people themselves. 

But in recent years, there has been some movement in a positive direction. 

One example is the HIV-treatment drug Prostratin, which is taken from the bark of the Samoan mamala tree. Shares of the money from its sales are guaranteed by the National Cancer Institute to be returned to Samoa as compensation for protecting the rainforest and to assist economic development in forest communities. 

“Everything is interconnected,” says Nicole Redvers, assistant professor of Family & Community Medicine in the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “The Indigenous languages are at risk for many reasons. The focus on climate change is important, but so is medical care. First, you have to preserve the source. You need to protect the lands and rights and health of Indigenous peoples. We have to remind people here in this country that the issue of protecting Indigenous lands and rights is right here, not just thousands of miles away.”

Quave agrees that “this is not just something happening ‘someplace’ on Earth. The future will bring more viruses, more zoonotic diseases as we get closer and closer to animals in regions like the Amazon, and more plagues like the pandemic we’re living through now.”

In addition, WHO has labeled antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today,” as diseases including pneumonia and tuberculosis become harder to treat — yet another reason for preserving both the threatened environments and the generations-old knowledge of Indigenous people.

Will we heed the warnings?
In July 2021, a group of 30 Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientists from around the world published “Scientists’ Warning to Humanity on Threats to Indigenous and Local Knowledge Systems” in the Journal of Ethnobiology, laying out the irreplaceable value of “the knowledge systems and practices of Indigenous Peoples and local communities” in “safeguarding the biological and cultural diversity of our planet.” 

Will warnings like this one be heeded in time to prevent catastrophic damage to the planet? 

“It requires us to recast our thinking about the world, and about how we’d like to see it in 10 generations,” Balick says. “We’ve been more interested in sticking our finger in the dike than repairing it, and that’s got to change. The future of humanity depends upon it.”

If current trends are not reversed, Cámara-Leret says, “losing languages and losing knowledge about plants will make (Indigenous peoples) less adaptable and more dependent on external goods for their health care. And as we have seen during the pandemic, Indigenous groups are often the last to receive health care support.”

Other necessary steps, he says, include support for local communities and for the transmission of language and knowledge from parents to children. That support should take the form of legal recognition of their land, government programs that support bilingual education and more value and respect from each country for their Indigenous cultures. 

“Just like we prioritize mapping of the stars or documenting the chemistry of other planets,” Cámara-Leret says, “we need to prioritize understanding and valuing this wonderful cultural heritage that still exists and which is a unique legacy of our species.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

One Approach to Saving Spoken Languages: A Brief Interview with Anna Luisa Daigneault, Program Director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages

Interview by Lance Frazer

Can you provide a brief background on Living Tongues, its development and goals?

Anna Luisa Daigneault: We are a nonprofit organization based in the U.S., and our work is at the intersection of community activism and linguistics. We have ongoing projects through Asia and the Pacific region, Africa and the Americas. Our goals are to document threatened and endangered languages from a scientistic perspective, and also to support language activists with technological tools such as our web platform (Living Dictionaries) and free online training.

How many languages are currently represented?

Since 2005, researchers from the Living Tongues have visited more than 100 endangered language communities in 15 countries. Our collaborators and teams have created more than 250 online Living Dictionaries to support threatened and low-resource groups.

Does the Institute work with other governmental agencies around the world?

We do not work directly with any international governmental agencies at the moment, but we receive funding from governmental agencies in the U.S. such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.

On your website, it speaks of training community members in the use of “writing systems and modern digital media.” Can you explain how “writing systems” can be a tool for the preservation of a language which is only spoken?

We train community members who are interested in working on documentation projects how to use audio recorders, video recorders and related digital software to help process recorded data. These recordings are used to preserve linguistic and cultural knowledge for generations to come.

With over 3,000 languages in danger of being lost before 2100, we know there is a strong need for comprehensive, free online tech tools that can assist language communities. A moral imperative of the 21st century is the decolonization and democratization of linguistic resources.

What are the Institute’s long-term goals?

As activists in the field of endangered language documentation globally, we know that colonization has caused thousands of language communities to become disenfranchised. Most countries are not investing in resources needed to support minority languages. Through the Living Dictionaries platform, we aim to obviate institutionalized barriers that prevent equal status and equitable treatment of all forms of linguistic communication. One of our main goals is to expand the online platform to serve all the 3,000-plus threatened languages in the world by 2050.

Drugs From Indigenous Knowledge: A Sampler

  • Quinine: Used by the Quechua of Peru and Bolivia as a muscle relaxant to treat shivering, now used as the most effective treatment for malaria.
  • Vincristine and Vinblastine: From a plant native to Madagascar, used by Indigenous peoples to treat diabetes. Now used as a treatment for different cancers.
  • Mytesi (trade name for Crofelemer): From the South American tree Croton lechleri. The latex from the tree used by Indigenous people to treat diarrhea, wounds, inflammation, insect bites and more. Used to treat diarrhea associated with anti-HIV drugs.
  • Cascara sagrada: A tree whose bark is used by Native American tribes in Washington, Oregon and California to treat constipation and restore bowel health. Now used worldwide to prepare a treatment for constipation. 
  • More than 100 prescription drugs have been derived from rainforest plants, and are used to treat cancer, leukemia, heart disease, bronchitis, rheumatism, diabetes, arthritis and TB worldwide.

Suggested reading:

When Languages Die, K. David Harrison, Oxford University Press, 2008

The Plant Hunter: A Scientist’s Quest for Nature’s Next Medicines, Cassandra Leah Quave, Viking Press, October 2021

UN Information on the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (beginning in 2022): un.org/press/en/2021/hr5463.doc.htm.

Related organizations and resources:

Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages

Talking Dictionaries: A collaborative platform created by Swarthmore linguistics professor K. David Harrison.

The Language Conservancy

Acate Amazon Conservation working with Matese who have created their own dictionary of medicinal plants in their language. More at acateamazon.org.

Terra Lingua. More at https://terralingua.org.

The Endangered Language Fund 

Indigenous Language Institute (Santa Fe New Mexico). More at ili@ilinatve.org.

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