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The Importance of Language in Climate Education

Voulez-vous parler du changement climatique?


I was in French class and a topic I finally found interesting had come up. This is what eight years of painful language learning had prepared me for: to be able to communicate about climate change, an issue that I’ve been passionate about for many years, despite being young. For me, French is usually like stumbling around blindfolded. Every sentence is an ordeal and I can never seem to convey my thoughts the way I want to, let alone understand what the other person is saying. I had thought it would be different talking about a subject I had years of experience thinking about and discussing, but it was the same painful process. 


In English, I know how to talk about the various and complicated issues surrounding climate change, but, in French, fossil fuels, the greenhouse gas effect and rising sea levels suddenly became a struggle. And I couldn’t imagine bringing up or understanding the intersections of gender, racial inequity and the environment. It was unnerving; I suddenly didn’t want to talk about an issue that I usually can’t stop talking about. 


But amongst all the comment dites-vous ‘subsidies’ and pouvez-vous répéter, s'il vous plaît, I realised that my floundering might not be so different from english speakers speaking english about climate change. Climate change language can also sound like foreign words--intimidating, unknowable words. They know things are hotter, or wetter, or generally more extreme. But like me in french class, they’re swimming around in words they don’t understand that might be important, but they’re not so sure. 


In fact, for many of us, climate discussions are harder than foreign languages, because it’s all in a language we speak, read and hear every day--and therefore should understand--but the ideas are far more complicated. How does the treatment of women relate to how many cows and cars there are? They don’t know this language. They don’t understand and speak this language.


French class that day became one of my most valuable lessons to date. I realised that if I wanted to walk away from talking about such a complex problem like climate change in french, others would do the same in English. I have been lucky enough to have been surrounded by vocabulary such as nature, renewables and carbon offsetting my whole life. The uncomfortable truth is that’s the case because I’m privileged; my family talks about climate change frequently. My family doesn't have to talk about financial struggles or racism. My present is not a dystopia, therefore I can think about the terrifying reality of the climate crisis. 


Climate denial and inaction don’t usually stem from ignorance, but rather from lack of exposure to language and ideas that help people to understand and communicate about the problem, although political ideology can also get in the way. Regardless of the root cause of denial, delusion, or inaction, climate crisis education is the answer. Similar to that day in french class, without the right exposure and language, that too many of the privileged take for granted, people understandably want to walk away. They want to avoid it and talk about something that’s in their comfort zone. 


The lack of language and exposure to climate change have massive knock-on effects; it’s a positive feedback cycle that only gets worse. When it is difficult to understand something, people don't want to read about it, so the media doesn’t talk about it, and therefore there is even less exposure to the language and ideas. When people don’t want to hear about an issue like climate change, politicians don’t use it to win votes, and therefore not enough political action is taken. When people don’t want to talk about it, life carries on “business as usual”. This french class was quite the epiphany. I am grateful for the chance to gain empathy and understanding that can improve the fight against climate change. 


By the end of the lesson, I may not have been able to communicate the complexities of climate change as I could in my head, but I could do so without panicking. It took an hour of talking about these issues, and getting used to the foreign words, for me to regain confidence and enjoy it again. What could a whole day of school do? Or a whole syllabus? For the whole population; in English. This is what, I believe, is the foundation of climate crisis education; language and exposure to key ideas have utmost importance when it comes to inclusivity in climate action. 


Serena Murdoch, 16

Teach the Future England climate education advocate


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