Ethnobiologist and previous National Geographic in-residence explorer Wade Davis is not necessarily a linguistic specialist, but that doesn’t make his TED talk on disappearing cultures any less relevant to endangered languages. (Watch this talk – one of his many – here.) A Harvard graduate, Davis has traveled to the far reaches of the world – Borneo, Nunuvut – to document disappearing cultures. If you’re interested in reading up on some of his work, he wrote lots of amazing books and published photographic documentaries – here’s an awesome book he wrote on the significance of disappearing cultures and world perspectives!
Davis’ TED talk on endangered cultures focuses on how multiple perspective-based realities formed from individual cultures are crucial to maintaining the social diversity on our planet. Other ways of being and thinking in relation to the Earth due to cultural norms and traditions – different ethnospheres – can only be protected through preserving the languages through which this culture is disseminated. Language loss is the loss of the vehicle for maintaining individual cultures. Over the last forty years, 50% of the world’s 7,000 languages, he says, are no longer taught to children. As a global society, it is very important that we prevent the future of a “blandly amorphous generic worldview” where one language is spoken universally and every culture has been assimilated – the preservation of individual languages is the preservation of unique and important cultural differences.
This was a fascinating TED talk. He does get pretty scientifically specific when he starts talking about plant chemistry at one point, but for the first ten minutes this talk touches on several really important language preservation points. Although Davis is not by trade a linguist or endangered language specialist, his work is significant in terms of informing the world about endangered languages and cultures from his firsthand knowledge.