As a teenager in Bogotá, Colombia, Diego Loukota picked up the basics of Sanskrit and Japanese by browsing the capital city’s used book stores.

When he was beginning his UCLA doctoral work in 2014, one of his professors, Stephanie Jamison, noticed that Loukota took class notes in Chinese — even though the course she was teaching was on Iranian languages.

And by the time Loukota joined the UCLA faculty as a specialist in South and Central Asian Buddhism, in 2021, his resume listed expertise in an astounding seven modern and eight ancient languages.

His wife, UCLA professor Stephanie Balkwill, said when the couple traveled abroad, if they were in any location for a week’s time, Loukota would pick up the local dialect before they departed. Even among other leading lights in his field, his extraordinary talent for learning, understanding and analyzing languages, past and present, stood out.

Loukota, an assistant professor of Asian languages and cultures, died March 17 at the age of 38, at his home in Santa Monica. The cause was glioblastoma, an incurable form of brain cancer; he had been diagnosed in March 2023.

“Diego was a brilliant scholar, a once-in-a-generation type of intellect,” said Seiji Lippit, UCLA professor and chair of Asian languages and cultures. “His ability to work across so many languages of the Buddhist tradition was unmatched, and it allowed him to do pioneering work, drawing connections across languages, texts and traditions that had not been seen before.”

Loukota studied the philological treatment of unpublished documents, fragments and inscriptions in Central Asian languages, with an eye to their contribution to the history of Buddhism and of the Silk Road, the series of ancient trade routes stretching from Asia to the Mediterranean.

For all of the accolades he earned from colleagues and peers, Balkwill said what mattered most to Loukota was the opportunity to mentor students at a public university.

“He was very proud of being a Latino scholar in a field in which the Latinx community has always been critically underrepresented,” she said. “And doing that at UCLA meant a tremendous amount to him. He was so proud to be at a public university, and one that served the Latinx community as unambiguously as UCLA seeks to.”

He also was a champion for the humanities in higher education. “He believed very strongly that the humanities have a role to play in countering nationalist political agendas and political agendas that are inherently biased and unequal,” Balkwill said. “And in better preparing students to deal with misinformation and social inequity.”

Jamison, who taught the Iranian language course Loukota took during his first year at UCLA, described him as a “philologist’s philologist.”

“When I first met him, it was immediately clear that he was going to be unlike any graduate student I had yet encountered — his vast knowledge base and the scholarly maturity of the questions he asked were those of a senior colleague,” said Jamison, a professor of Asian languages and cultures, and of classics.

“But despite his evident superiority in all these classes, he never used it as a wedge between himself and his fellow students. His aim was always to create community, to spark in them the same enthusiasm for the subject that was so infectiously evident in him — and he was remarkably successful.”

Loukota was born April 16, 1985, in Colombia, to Pilar Sanclemente and Pedro Loukota. As a child, he also spent time in Guatemala, his father’s homeland. At 21, he moved to Italy to begin his undergraduate studies at the University of Bologna.

Loukota and Balkwill met while they were both graduate students at Peking University; Loukota had learned to speak Mandarin so he could study with a professor there for his master’s degree. The couple were married in Beijing in 2014, the same year they moved to UCLA for Loukota to begin his doctoral work under Professor Gregory Schopen. Three years later, the couple moved again, to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Balkwill took her first faculty position at the University of Winnipeg.

They moved back to Los Angeles in 2021, and both of them joined the Asian languages and cultures department. Despite his diagnosis, Loukota continued to teach through the end of 2023.

“He embodied everything the ideal scholar is supposed to be: full of boundless curiosity, contagious enthusiasm and an immense generosity of spirit,” said Torquil Duthie, professor and vice chair of Asian languages and cultures. “He paid extraordinary attention to details, whether he was reading a manuscript or engaged in conversation, and had a remarkable talent for connecting these details to the larger worlds of both past and present. As both a scholar and a human being, Diego was one of a kind.”

In addition to his parents, Loukota is survived by Balkwill; their daughter, Remedios, 8; and his brother, Juan.