Language Science Talk: Dr. Luisa Maffi

Dr. Luisa Maffi, the Co-founder and Director of Terralingua, an international non-governmental organization that works to sustain the biocultural diversity of life, including language diversity, will be giving a Language Science Talk in Room 100 of the C. K. Choi Building.

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This event will also be livestreamed, and recorded for future viewing.  For updates on how to tune in, visit the event page on the Language Sciences website.


Title: Language, Culture, and the Environment: Thinking Out of the Silos


What do language, culture, and the environment have to do with one another? Popping up in my mind twenty-five years ago as I was completing my doctoral studies, that question sent me on a quest for connections that, I soon realized, could not easily be found within the silos of individual disciplines. Thinking out of the silos meant stepping out of academia to pursue a path beyond established disciplinary boundaries. That unorthodox path led to the emergence of the idea of biocultural diversity—the interconnected and interdependent diversity of life in nature and culture—and of a nonprofit organization, Terralingua, devoted to fostering understanding of that idea and of its value for the future of life on earth.

Today, the idea of biocultural diversity has given rise to an integrative field that combines knowledge and action, research and public engagement not only to advance science, but also, and above all, to promote a radical shift in our way of thinking: a shift away from the disconnected view of humans as separate from (and often as dominant over) nature and from the misplaced belief that cultural and linguistic diversity are a hindrance to human progress; and toward recognition of the “inextricable link” between people and the environment and of biocultural diversity as vital to the health of the planet and to the resilience of human societies. Conceived outside of academia, the idea has now filtered into it while maintaining a solid footing in policy and practice and in the broader arena of public communication.

We will explore the concept of biocultural diversity and some of its “real-life” applications that are helping make a difference in how we view our place and purpose in the world.



Luisa Maffi, Ph.D. (UC Berkeley, 1994), is co-founder and Director of Terralingua, and spearheads Terralingua’s program of work. Trained in linguistics, anthropology, and ethnobiology, Luisa is one of the pioneers of the concept of biocultural diversity. Her interest in the relationships between language, culture, and the environment, and between linguistic, cultural, and biological diversity led her to co-found Terralingua in 1996, and to launch the organization’s activities with the interdisciplinary conference “Endangered Languages, Endangered Knowledge, Endangered Environments” (Berkeley, California, U.S.A., 1996). She was President of Terralingua from 1996 to 2006, and has been its Director since 2007. Since 2010 she has also been an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Social and Applied Sciences at Royal Roads University, as well as an International Fellow of the Explorers Club. Luisa has conducted extended fieldwork in Somalia (1979-85) and Mexico (Chiapas, 1988-93; Chihuahua, 2000-2008), and has carried out research in China and Japan. She has written on a variety of topics ranging from Somali and Mayan linguistics to color categorization, ethnomedicine, traditional ecological knowledge, language maintenance and revitalization, indigenous peoples’ linguistic and cultural rights, culture and conservation, and the relationships between linguistic, cultural, and biological diversity. Among her key publications on biocultural diversity are the edited book On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge, and the Environment (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), the coedited volume Ethnobotany and Conservation of Biocultural Diversity (New York Botanical Garden Press, 2004), and the co-authored book Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook (Earthscan, 2010).