Bio-Diverse and Multi-Lingual

If the Philippines are a biodiversity hotspot, they also could be considered a language hotspot. The islands are home to a dizzying variety of cultures and languages. There are more than 100 languages in the Philippines (each language unique enough to be unintelligible by speakers of another) and over 1,000 dialects for those languages. This is all within thousands of islands that, when combined, make up 116,000 square miles, or an area about the size of Arizona.

Learning the language has been a priority for members of the KU research team. Rafe Brown and graduate student Jake Esselstyn speak Tagalog, a widely spoken language from southern Luzon. Knowing the language assists with the research as much as any other skill. “Usually local residents have a better idea of where to find certain species than any researcher could,” said Brown. “Being able to speak the language helps the expedition team appreciate the culture and values of Filipinos, easing cultural tensions and promoting cooperation.”

Brown (at left) with colleague and friend Arvin Diesmos, curator of amphibians and reptiles at the National Museum of the Philippines.

Four languages account for the primary language of more than 70 percent of the population, whereas smaller language groups can number a few hundred speakers or less. As citizens adopt the more widespread languages, ancient languages are lost. Endangered languages are to linguists what endangered species are to biologists. When languages go extinct, cultural diversity is lost. The Philippines are perhaps a symbol of today’s too-common ecological and cultural problems – precious resources and traditions on the decline, underappreciated treasures pushed to the side and the pull for uniformity.

Preparing specimens in the field attracts the attention of the curious.

Philippine locals call tarsiers by many names – “mago”, “mamag” and “magatilok-iok,” to name a few. A creature best appreciated by not a singular point of view, discipline, or culture, the tarsier is a symbol of the need for both biological and cultural diversity. And somehow the Philippine islands have an abundance of both. What about the Philippines encouraged so much diversity, both in species and languages? If the diversity of the two groups is related, something could have shaped the two worlds to arrive at the same level of both richness and rarity. If there is an overlapping force, how could it be used to cast both fields of study in a new light? And, perhaps the most important question: can they be preserved by using the same techniques?

Finding specimens often means navigating tricky terrain.
Page 3: "Making Connections"