Swept under the rug: disappearing Indigenous languages

Brazil’s native identity threatened amid COVID-19

Around 7,000 languages are spoken worldwide today, yet over 40 per cent of them are at risk of disappearing before the end of this century. On average, one Indigenous language dies every two weeks, and this rate has only accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brazil is one of the most vulnerable countries currently seeing its native languages disappear, despite being a very diverse nation. The largest and most populated country in South America is home to 305 Indigenous ethnic groups, with almost every tribe having its own language. The number, however, was much higher before the 16th century: thousands of Indigenous languages have disappeared in Brazil since it was colonized by Portugal during that period.

Elderly natives are almost always the last representatives of their tribe’s language, since languages disappear when the younger generation no longer uses, or even understands, them.

First, the language dies when it loses its last native speaker. Then, it becomes extinct when it is no longer understood even by second-language speakers.

Such occurrences are far from uncommon, as elders and parents face challenges when passing their language to the next generation. As a result of European colonialism, Indigenous languages were unable to solidify their position not only in Brazil, but also in most of sub-Saharan and West Africa, as well as North America.

English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese became the lingua francas of the former colonies. Different ethnic groups would use European languages to communicate with one another. Moreover, when young Indigenous people look for opportunities in their own country, mastering a European language is a necessity, while their mother tongue’s use in the professional world is virtually non-existent.

However, the Guaraní people in Brazil managed to resist assimilation and keep its language alive. There are over 50,000 Guaraní people in the country, and their language is even taught in the community’s public elementary schools.

Other Indigenous languages in Brazil, though, have an unfortunate fate. Puruborá, Omagua, and Tariana are already considered critically endangered, with only 100, 10, and two native speakers left on the planet, respectively.

In 2020, the biggest challenge for endangered Indigenous languages is the pandemic, as elders are the age group most vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus. With over 175,000 pandemic-related deaths in Brazil, the situation is alarming for Indigenous groups. Not only their language, but also their history, values, traditions, and entire cultures are at risk of being permanently erased.


Graphic by @the.beta.lab

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