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Speaking Nature’s Language

What do you think of when you hear the words: tweet, web, stream, cloud? Do you think of birds, spiders, rivers and skies? Or messaging, data and live video? A new study has shown that our language for the natural world is being lost or overtaken by uses that refer to digital technology, especially among younger generations.

An academic study of evidence from over 25 years has highlighted a declining trend of Britons associating words like stream, web and cloud with nature:

  • Today just 1% of uses of the word ‘tweet’ relates to birds and 7% of the word ‘web’ to spiders.
  • In the 1990s, 100% of mentions of ‘stream’ meant ‘a little river’ versus only 36% today.
  • Nature usage of ‘cloud’ is down nearly a quarter (23%) in three decades.
  • Kids appear to start switching from nature definitions to tech at age 10.

Dr Robbie Love, linguistics fellow at the University of Leeds, who conducted part of the study using two data sets of informal conversations among members of the UK public, said, “Language represents what’s important to a culture or society. Nature language being replaced or used less frequently suggests nature potentially becoming less important or being replaced by other things.”

The research shows the implied meaning of some common nature words has changed dramatically in the UK over just one generation, from the 1990s to the 2010s. The following nature words have also decreased in relative frequency among young people between the 1990s and 2010s according to Dr Love’s analysis: lawn, twig, blackbird, picnic, fishing, paddle, sand, welly, desert, paw, snow, grass, jungle, sky, path, bridge, bush, land, hill, fish, pond, mountain, soil, branch, stick, park, ground, wheel, tree, stream, rock, bird, road, garden, shell.

A follow-up study in June 2019 of 6-12-year-olds using YouGov’s children’s omnibus survey observed that on average, kids start switching away from nature meanings in their language around the age of ten. The National Trust’s analysis of the YouGov survey found that 37% of kids associate the word ‘web’ with the internet rather than spiders. In some children, this was observed as starting at as young as six.

Parents and grandparents recognised this trend too, with 50% believing their children/grandchildren would see ‘web’ as a technology word – 48% ‘tweet’, 43% ‘net’, 30% ‘stream’ and 20% ‘cloud’.

Parents and grandparents also reported that time spent watching TV or playing on ‘gadgets’ is markedly higher for their kids (63% and 65% respectively said their 6-12 year-olds played ‘often’) versus their own generation’s childhood where 50% of respondents said they watched TV and 20% said they played on electronic devices.

However, they felt that their children spend a similar amount of time playing outdoors in the garden as they did as kids (66% vs 75%, ‘often or very often’ playing outdoors). What is important here is the difference between simply being outdoors and having a connection with nature – which has been proven to provide mental and physical health benefits to children.

The release of this study also marked the launch of the charity’s updated 50 Things to do before you’re 11 ¾ initiative – 50 free and easy ideas to help kids connect with nature. New activities include ‘cloud watching’ and ‘watch a sunrise or sunset’, with the aim of inspiring kids to get stuck into nature with all their senses in a local park, their garden or National Trust place.

The charity’s Andy Beer, Regional Director for the Midlands and nature writer, said, “As a nation we are losing our connection with nature. If today’s children aren’t connected to nature, then who is going to stand up for our countryside and wildlife in the future?”

Nature connection isn’t just about playing outside, it means using all the senses – actively noticing nature, such as the way gorse growing wild by the coast can smell like coconut, how fog in the autumn can cling to your hair, how a spider web can sparkle on a dewy morning and enjoying the eye-catching popping of colours of wildflowers that grow in the cracks in the pavements and waste ground during the summer.”

Almost 4 in 10 parents and grandparents (39%) in the study said they felt worried about their kids losing nature meaning from language. Among the most popular suggestions for helping children learn or relearn nature language included getting kids to play outdoors more (74%), having outdoor lessons at school (56%), having nature taught at school as a separate subject (54%), and nature language taught in schools like modern languages are (30%).

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Holly Brega

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