Language and ethnobiological skills decline precipitously in Papua New Guinea, the world’s most linguistically diverse nation
Alfred Kik et al, 22021, PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Around the world, more than 7,000 languages are spoken, most of them by small populations of speakers in the tropics. Globalization puts small languages at a disadvantage, but 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.
Papua New Guinea is home to >10% of the world’s languages and rich and varied biocultural knowledge, but the future of this diversity remains unclear. We measured language skills of 6,190 students speaking 392 languages (5.5% of the global total) and modeled their future trends using individual-level variables characterizing family language use, socioeconomic conditions, students’ skills, and language traits. This approach showed that only 58% of the students, compared to 91% of their parents, were fluent in indigenous languages, while the trends in key drivers of language skills (language use at home, proportion of mixed-language families, urbanization, students’ traditional skills) predicted accelerating decline of fluency to an estimated 26% in the next generation of students. Ethnobiological knowledge declined in close parallel with language skills. Varied medicinal plant uses known to the students speaking indigenous languages are replaced by a few, mostly nonnative species for the students speaking English or Tok Pisin, the national lingua franca. Most (88%) students want to teach indigenous language to their children. While crucial for keeping languages alive, this intention faces powerful external pressures as key factors (education, cash economy, road networks, and urbanization) associated with language attrition are valued in contemporary society.