Indigenous Languages in Brazil. A Country between Monolingualism and Plurilingualism

Term Paper, 2012

24 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1. Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
1.1 The Geopolitical Situation of Natives
1.2 The Decreasing Diversity of Indigenous Languages
1.3 National and International Laws protecting Indigenous (Language) Rights
1.4 Monolingualism and Linguistic Prejudice

2. The Promotion of Indigenous Languages in Brazil
2.1 Facing Education Problems in Indigenous Schools
2.2 Governmental Investment in Didactic Materials



Main Literary Sources:

Internet Resources:


Brazil is, generally speaking, a country of diversity. It is not only known to have the planet’s largest remaining rainforest and wildlife[1], but it is also known to be rich in culture. It must also be said that it has always been a migration country. Thus, in the last five centuries people from all over the world immigrated to Brazil and brought foreign rituals and traditions with them, which eventually also enriched the Brazilian culture. However, before becoming a Portuguese colony in 1500 Brazil was already inhabited by many indigenous peoples. The majority of them had been extinct through the colonization process, but even after that indigenous people had to struggle and fight for their lives. Sadly, this condition remains to be true nowadays.

Although Portuguese is the official and most spoken language in Brazil, there are also about 215 other languages that are spoken in this country (Müller de Oliveira: 2009; p. 20). Most of those languages are spoken by indigenous peoples. Thus, Brazil can undoubtedly be considered to be multilingual. This vast linguistic variety, however, is neither promoted nor apprehended properly by the Brazilian government, although there are laws to protect it. Paradoxically, Brazil has always had a Monolingualism- oriented policy. Nevertheless, there are increasingly more parties, as for instance the NGO ‘Amazon Watch’ and ‘Survival’ as well as the Brazilian governmental protection agency ‘FUNAI’, which interest it is to protect the indigenous’ cultural diversity, including their languages.

Brazil’s language policy is a very complex issue and cannot be presented in its complexity in this term paper. Therefore, this paper will mainly focus on indigenous languages, indigenous laws and rights, as well as indigenous education. The first chapter deals with indigenous peoples in Brazil, their geopolitical situation, their languages and linguistic prejudices towards them. The second chapter focuses on how indigenous languages are promoted. This includes how indigenous school- and university programs have evolved in the last centuries and especially in the last decade and how didactic materials have also improved. Finally, a conclusion is drawn, followed-up by the list of sources and declaration about the authenticity of this term paper.

1. Indigenous Peoples in Brazil

1.1 The Geopolitical Situation of Natives

It is estimated that when the Portuguese first landed in Brazil in 1500, there were about five million people living in over 1000 different tribes. Thousands of Indians were enslaved and forced to work for colonial masters when they began to forage the newly encountered land. By that time, many tribes were not only brutally assassinated because of not wanting to submit to the horrors of slavery, but they were also killed by exposure to new diseases that the Europeans had brought with them and to which the Indians had no immunity. The genocide evolved in such a drastic manner that by the 17th century there were only a few Indians left on the coast. To not lose the work force African slaves were imported to work in the sugar plantations. Although slavery of indigenous people was abolished in 1755, the practice continued right up until the end of the 19th century (Survival International Publication: 2000; p. 1-12).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Depiction 1: The probable distribution of indigenous peoples in the age of Brazil’s decovery[2]

The map above (Depiction 1) shows the assumed linguistic distribution of indigenous language families when Europeans first arrived in Brazil. Consequently, the map shows also the possible distribution of indigenous peoples at that time. As one can see, the indigenous population of Brazil was not settled on one particular point but rather through the whole country. The biggest indigenous groups are believed to have been speakers of Jê languages, which were located in the central, in the north and in the south of the country, as well as speakers of Tupi-Guarani languages, which was also a widely spread group, but mainly settled on the coast. The north of Brazil was home to four further big indigenous language families: Pano, Aruak, Tukano and Karib. In the south of Brazil, there lived mostly Indians who spoke Tupi-Guarani languages, Jê languages and Charrua languages. On the west side of the country, there also lived a wide range of indigenous language families, which were, however, significantly smaller than the aforesaid groups. The geographical distribution of indigenous peoples has changed drastically since 1500. As can be clearly seen in the map beneath, indigenous tribes are mainly settled in the north-west of Brazil nowadays. It becomes also clear that their living environment has been extremely diminished in size.

Depiction 2 is a map published by the Brazilian ministry of environment that shows the legal situation of indigenous land in Brazil in 2007. Indigenous land is hereby classified in five different types: declared, confirmed, delimited, approved and regulated. Regulated land, which is marked orange, could be found in some areas close to the frontier to Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Suriname. It must hereby be clarified that a ‘regulated situation’ does not mean that Indians are not at risk of being attacked by intruders or that they have any kind of ownership for the land they live on. The land is still controlled by the Brazilian government. The regulated status solely means that tribes, which live in the aforesaid type of area, could stabilize the number of population and they are not as much threatened to be soon extinct as tribes who live in other areas of the country. It follows from the foregoing that in all other states the land issue remains even more unsteady.

Declared land, which is marked green, can mostly be found in the state Pará. The terminology ‘declared’ means that a given area in which Indian tribes live in is known to the government and it is stated as such in an open way. However, like confirmed, delimited and approved areas, this type of land is not properly protected by the government. Thus, tribes that live in that area are quite vulnerable. The term ‘confirmed’, which is marked purple, is used for areas for which the existence of indigenous people has been speculated for a significant amount of time and which has eventually been confirmed to be true. Delimited land, which is marked as pink, can be found in the states Amazonas, Pará and Mato Grosso. For those marked areas the tribes’ condition is very critical und it is very unlikely that the number of Indians who live in that area have the capacity to recover. The areas of approved land, which are marked light blue, are found in the state Amazonas and Roraima. Approved lands are legal-wise similar to the declared pieces of land because both are considered to be known by the government. But, unlike declared lands, approved areas cannot be administered by indigenous peoples[3].

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Depiction 2: The distribution of indigenous peoples in Brazil in 2007[4]

Five centuries of murder, exploitation, torture and disease have drastically minimized the number of indigenous people in Brazil. Nowadays there are solely 350 000 Brazilian Indians left who live in 215 distinct tribes, of which 53 tribes remain uncontacted[5]. One third of Brazil’s tribes number less than 200 individuals each. Sadly, criminal actions against natives continue happening. The reason why indigenous people in Brazil are still endangered is because the land where they live and depend on is not properly protected by the government. Invasion and exploitation of the land often remains unpunished. As a consequence, their habitat is either irreversibly damaged or destroyed. With other words, Brazilian Indians are threatened, tortured, driven out of their land and even killed nowadays because of economic reasons (Survival International Publication: 2000; p. 1-7).

Although Brazil has a government Indian affairs department, called FUNAI[6], it fails to prevent national and international intruders to ravish lands resident by indigenous and the demise of Indian tribes at an average of one to two tribes every two years (Survival International Publication: 2000; p. 2). This is why the land problem has become the most important issue to Brazilian Indians. Protected land which is not only used and administered but owned by Indians would legal-wise mean less dependency on the Brazilian government and more right of self-determination. However, not one of the peoples who have lived far longer in Brazil than those descending from the Europeans is permitted to own the land they live on. This outrageous circumstance has actively been promoted by the Brazilian government until 1988. Although there are national and international laws now (see chapter 1.3), which enable indigenous groups to possess their own land, the Brazilian government tends to ignore those laws anyhow, if it is for the government’s and the economy’s convenience (Survival International Publication: 2000; p. 3). In conclusion, the geopolitical situation of natives in Brazil is characterized by injustice, brutality and uncertainty. This affects eventually all other aspects of indigenism in Brazil, including its language policy.

1.2 The Decreasing Diversity of Indigenous Languages

As already mentioned before, indigenous people lived all over the country a few centuries ago. Nowadays, Brazilian Indians are mainly settled in the states Amazonas, Pará, Rondônia, Roraima, Acre, Maranhão, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Goiás and Tocatins (Seki: 1999; p. 259). It is self-evident that through the massive decrease of the indigenous population in Brazil the number of spoken languages has likewise been minimized. Although it does not exist precise data about how many indigenous languages are still spoken in Brazil, most scientists estimate that it might be a number between 180 (Seki: 1999; p. 258) and 110 (Survival International Publication: 2000; p. 25) languages. It is clear, though, that all those languages are minority languages.

For each language, the number of speakers can vary greatly. The Brazilian indigenous language with the biggest number of speakers is Ticuna. It has about 32. 613 speakers and is spoken in the state Amazonas. The languages Yanomami, Makuxi, Terena and Kaingang have about 10.000 speakers. About 110 tribal languages have less than 400 speakers each and 40 further languages are spoken by less than a hundred people. There are also languages, which do not have more than 20 speakers. The probability of those languages to die out is very high. It is likewise very probable that all other indigenous languages will lose increasingly more speakers because the importance and spreading of Portuguese is becoming increasingly more dominant. Thus, the indigenous languages are pushed farther away (Rodrigues: 1993; p. 20-26). Nevertheless, the numerous indigenous languages in Brazil that still exist, respectively, represent not only a great linguistic diversity, but eventually also a cultural diversity which is lost forever when those languages die.

Most of those languages belong to one of the following major language families: Tupi, Macro-Jê, Karib, Aruak and Pano. Additionally to these language families, there are nine further language families, which are however quite small compared to the aforesaid language groups, and ten linguistically isolated cases. To put it another way, there are ten languages that do not fit in any language family- profile that is known of. The language family Tupi consists of thirty-three Tupi-Guarani languages and dialects, seven Mondé languages, three Tupari languages, two languages of Munduruku, Ramarana and Juruna, as well as the languages Aweti, Mawé and Puruborá. Although most languages of this language family are spoken in Brazil, the expansion of some languages goes beyond Brazilian borders, as they are also spoken in Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Paraguay, for instance (Seki: 1999; p. 259).

The languages that are part of the Macro-Jê language family are mostly spoken in the region of the south of Maranhão and in the state Pará. However, some languages can be found in the central and in the south of the country. The Macro-Jê family consists further of Jê languages, Bororo languages, Botocudo languages, Karajá languages, Maxacali languages and Pataxó languages. A special feature about this language family is that it can only be found in Brazil. Unlike Macro-Jê, the language family Karib is also present in the neighboring countries Guiana, Venezuela and Colombia. A total amount of twenty languages are counted to be part of the Karib language family. The language families Pano and Aruak include likewise languages which are spoken in several countries. Nonetheless, the most complex language family existing in Brazil remains to be Tupi (Seki: 1999; p. 260).

Among other things it is also estimated that since the Portuguese arrived in Brazil, there have been over a thousand indigenous languages that ceased. This number itself is already quite impressive, but it becomes even more overwhelming when one considers that the estimated total number of spoken languages in Brazil in the 16th century was approximately 1176. That implies that about 85% of all spoken languages in Brazil, which were spoken at the time when the Portuguese invaded the land, died out (Seki: 1999; p. 258). Nowadays indigenous languages in Brazil are still at risk to cease. To prevent that development many precautions must be taken. Among other things, the indigenous education system must be improved as well as the legal situation for the aforesaid languages. Nonetheless, the prejudice against indigenous peoples, their rituals, traditions and languages must be fought and abolished, too.

1.3 National and International Laws protecting Indigenous (Language) Rights

Brazil has just one official language: Portuguese (Senado Federal: 2006; p. 5). This circumstance has been regulated by law in the country’s constitution since 1824[7]. However, this was not always the case. From 1500 to roughly 1700 the most used language in Brazil was not Portuguese, but the Lingua Geral. This aforesaid language began as a pidgin language and evolved to a Tupi creole language that was used by various indigenous peoples to communicate with each other. It was even used by European settlers to also communicate with indigenous peoples, but also with other European settlers who lived in Brazil. Thus, the Lingua Geral was considered to be Brazil’s lingua franca at the aforesaid mentioned time span. The Portuguese language, though, was seen as the official language of the country and was therefore used for official documents and spoken by those who were involved in the colony’s administration. Eventually, the Lingua Geral lost its importance and has been spoken decreasingly and coinstantaneous Portuguese has been spoken increasingly (see source above).


[1] (15th September, 2012)

[2] (16th September, 2012)

[3] (20th September, 2012)

[4] (16th September, 2012)

[5] Uncontacted tribes are peoples which indeed may never have had contact with white or black Brazilians, but at least have known neighbouring tribes and/or have had contact with settlers in the past.

[6] FUNAI stands for ‘Fundação Nacional do Índio’ (translation: National Foundation of the Indian).

[7] (25th September; 2012)

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Indigenous Languages in Brazil. A Country between Monolingualism and Plurilingualism
University of Bremen
Sprachpolitik, Sprachenrechte, Sprachplanung
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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873 KB
Brazil, Language Policy, Monolingualism, Plurilinguilism, Racism
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Yasmin Barrachini-Haß (Author), 2012, Indigenous Languages in Brazil. A Country between Monolingualism and Plurilingualism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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