Saturday, November 7, 2009

Where Language, Health, and the Environment Overlap

The following is an excerpt from David Taylor's paper, "Ancient Teachings, Modern Lessons".

For Luisa Maffi, an anthropological linguist, the place-name study confirms that language is a vital key to indigenous peoples' community health. "The obvious fact is that much of knowledge' if not all, ii encoded in language," says Maffi, who is also president of Terralingua, a nonprofit research group that conducts studies on ecosystems and cultural diversity in order to support maintenance of that diversity. Their studies involve ethnographic interviews and local participation in ecosystem inventories'

Maffi says that the number of languages in an area can be a good indicator of cultural range, which in turn is linked to the store of knowledge of a given ecosystem and its biological diversity. "If you look at a map of the world's biodiversity hot spots and overlay on that a map of linguistic diversity, you see a striking overlap," she says. That suggests a correlation between the number of discrete cultures in an area and biological diversity.

Terralingua has explored that correlation globally in a project with this world wide Fund For Nature International that mapped biocultural diversity as a step toward sustaining ecosystems. On a smaller scale, the group's Sierra Tarahumara Diversity Project aims to understand those interrelationships in a part of northern Mexico where mining and logging have degraded the environment and undermined local cultures by discouraging the use of native language on the job and presenting Western consumer goods that may entice young workers away from Tarahumara customs. Indigenous societies in the Sierra Tarahumara depend on both subsistence agriculture and a wide array of local plant and animal species for their survival' Project researchers have met with Tarahumara communities to assess priorities, document the linkages among biologic, cultural, and linguistic resources, assess local impacts of commercial activities (including tourism), and suggest various alternatives' The project aims to advance basic scientific research as well as conservation planning.

Besides expressing how people understand their environment, Maffi finds that people's words express how they perceive symptoms of illness. When a minority language is marginalized' that can affect the quality of health care the speakers receive' In the Chiapas region of Mexico, Maffi found that the Tzeltal Maya had a sophisticated range of terms for describing symptoms in their language (distinguishing a wheezing cough from a hacking cough, for example). Yet when a field medic would visit the village and ask the towns people about their illnesses in Spanish, she said, "People would be completely unable to talk about it, to convey the subtleties that they could in their
own language." That chasm, she says, together with the medic's impatience with local customs' seriously affected the quality of health care they received.

Taylor, David. "Where Language, Health,and the Environment Overlap". Ancient Teaching, Modern Lessons. Available online:

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