TED Conversations

Janielle Guzinski

Graduate Student - Landscape Architecture,

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What will happen when the world speaks only a few languages?

Increasing levels of globalization are causing a few languages to spread at unprecedented rates. But many less common languages and their associated cultures are going extinct. Programs exist for the conservation of species and habitats at risk of extinction, but very little attention is given to language extinction. Some scientists are suggesting that there are more languages at risk of extinction than bird or mammal species

Does language extinction really matter? It is hard to imagine how the loss of a language halfway around the world would impact your life, and diversity in language makes it difficult to understand one another. But should that diversity be preserved?



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  • Jun 5 2013: In the 1990s the idea of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) was developed in order to establish a universal value for indigenous cultures that would hopefully help protect them. One very practical and global incentive for preserving indigenous language is that if the language is lost, then TEK may be lost with it. This is possible as there may be no English or other major language with words to articulate many traditional ecological concepts. However, TEK can be observed if cultures and languages are protected along with the habitats in which they practice TEK. Perhaps we should protect indigenous cultures for many reasons, but one Eurocentric reason is that embedded in TEK are many of the ideas that developed nations ought to consider in order to correct the consequences of centuries of biosphere mismanagement.

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      Jun 7 2013: I agree Robert, I think we could learn a lot from how many of indigenous cultures value, treat, and interact with their ecosystem on a different level. this reminds me of the TED talk that Janielle and Ben posted for us to watch before their presentation, where the people ( I forget where) could identify 12 species of ayahuasca at a far distance, that we would all categorize as the same species. It was pretty amazing.

      Have you ever heard of Darrell Posey?? He was an anthropologist that worked hard to protect the rights of indigenous people in Brazil in the 90s. He also helped develop the idea of indigenous intellectual property rights, protecting the knowledge of these cultures and giving them legal rights to their ideas. I think you might like his article, Intellectual Property Rights: and Just Compensation for Indigenous Knowledge. It discusses the issues faced by the Kayapo people and how they fear turning to the ecologically destructive ways that are encroaching upon them in order to persist. It also touches on the medicinal advantages we have derived from plants discovered by indigenous people. In 1989 an estimated 155 million dollars in sales of 3 drugs based from plants that had been shown to researchers by indigenous people, but less than 0.001% of profits were allocated to these people.


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