Speaking nature's language

Press release
Children inspecting a log for bugs, with a ranger
Published : 30 Jul 2019 Last update : 31 Jul 2019

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[3].
  • 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.[2]

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, says, “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 how the implied meaning of some common nature words has changed dramatically in the UK over just one generation, from the 1990s to the 2010s:

Word

1990s meaning

2010s change in meaning

1990s nature usage %

1990s
non-nature usage %

2010s nature usage %

2010s
non-nature usage %

tweet

birdsong

Twitter

100.00

0.00

1.00

99.00

web

spider web

internet

71.43

28.57

7.00

93.00

stream

a little river

online video/audio streaming

100.00

0.00

36.00

64.00

branch

tree branch

branch of shop, bank, department

80.56

19.44

51.00

49.00

net

a net for catching things

the internet

100.00

0.00

63.00

37.00

fibre

fibre in food

fibre optic broadband

93.55

6.45

63.27

36.73

field

field of grass, farmland etc.

metaphorical fields – of work, gravity, energy, etc.

100.00

0.00

70.00

30.00

cloud

cloud in the sky

the cloud – online data storage

100.00

0.00

77.00

23.00


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.[4]

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.[5]

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’.[6]

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)[7]. 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.

Video

Nature Words

The study commissioned by the National Trust accompanies a striking, unscripted video that shows seven to ten-year olds who are losing nature meanings in their language and then the joy of reconnecting with the nature meanings of words.

The release of this study also marks 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, says: “As a nation we are losing our connection with nature.  This is really worrying for us as a conservation charity. One of the key reasons we were formed was to protect and look after green spaces and wildlife for the benefit of the nation.  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

What are people doing about it?

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%[8]).

National Trust spokesperson Andy Beer said: “There is a free way for parents to help kids connect with nature - 50 Things is our evidence-based list of things that help and it’s free for anyone to use, anywhere. Many of the words identified as losing meaning are covered there. Importantly, the list isn’t about ‘teaching’ kids or just getting them to observe – it’s about helping them think, feel and relate to nature, doing things that really help them connect.  If we can strengthen the connection with nature we can strengthen the benefits to our wellbeing, like increased happiness and self-esteem and reduced anxiety.”

The National Trust’s list of 50 Things to do before you’re 11 ¾ is a list of fifty nature adventure ideas available FREE online at nationaltrust.org.uk  for kids to have a go at over the Summer holidays, weekends and October half-term, at a local park, in a garden, at the coast or at a National Trust place.

-ends-

For more information, contact: nationaltrust@mischiefpr.com, 020 3128 6600

 

[1] Research conducted by Dr Robbie Love, May-June 2019, from British language corpora

[2] YouGov, children’s omnibus of 416 British kids aged 6-12, June 2019, analysed by the National Trust

[3] Research conducted by Dr Robbie Love, May-June 2019, from British language corpora

[4] Research conducted by Dr Robbie Love, May-June 2019, from British language corpora

[5] YouGov, children’s omnibus of 416 British kids aged 6-12, June 2019

[6] YouGov, research with 4,404 British parents/grandparents of British kids aged 5-12, June 2019

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.