Lost in translation: linguistic diversity could save biodiversity

The extinction crisis is one of the greatest challenges currently facing our planet. According to new research, tapping into the information held in studies published in languages other than English could be key to the fight against species and biodiversity loss.

The study, published in PLOS Biology, reviewed over 400,000 papers published in 16 other languages. More than 1200 contained important evidence not found in the scientific literature published in English – for example, information about species and geographic regions.

The researchers estimate that they were able to access scientific evidence from conservation research across 12–25% more areas of the world and 5–32% more species.

In addition, the number of conservation studies published in some non-English languages has been significantly increasing since the year 2000. This means that the knowledge base in the non-English-language literature is only likely to expand further.

These findings counter widely held assumptions about the value of non-English-language studies in the conservation field. Lead author, Dr Tatsuyo Amano of the University of Queensland, hopes that the new research will be a “game changer”.

“When English alone is clearly not providing us with sufficient scientific evidence for making effective conservation decisions, we cannot afford to be overlooking any evidence out there,” he says.

Because a lot of biodiversity is concentrated in parts of the globe where English may not be widely spoken, such as Latin America, failing to look at evidence from other languages creates a bias that excludes some regions most in need of conservation attention. However, by simply remembering to consider the non-English literature, researchers and policymakers could access considerably more information that can be used to support conservation efforts.

“This clearly showcases why it is important to nurture culturally diverse scientific communities,” says Amano. “Global challenges call for contributions from diverse communities from every corner of the globe.”

Other fields of research, such as healthcare and international development, would also likely benefit by including more evidence from languages other than English.

To preserve the diversity of life on our planet, we need to harness the diversity of languages.

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