To speak is to exist – the case of endangered languages in Brazil and Ecuador

By Chanelle Dupuis, Florida State University

Half of the 7,000 languages spoken today will be extinct within the next fifty to one hundred years. Whether this becomes true or not depends on the work and research done to acknowledge and preserve endangered languages. This article compares governmental and educational policies enacted to preserve endangered languages in Brazil and Ecuador. These two countries are being compared because both countries are a part of the Amazonian region and both are countries with a large linguistic diversity. Likewise, both countries have sizeable indigenous populations. The majority of endangered languages are indigenous languages, proving that discussing ways to preserve endangered languages must also include discussing ways in which indigenous communities can gain access to self-representation and community autonomy. The goal of this comparative analysis is to bring awareness to the amount of endangered languages in these two countries and show how these countries can learn from each other’s programs and policies. First, I will explain what an endangered language is and why endangered languages should be protected, secondly I will discuss the constitutional and educational laws and policies of both countries, and finally I will advocate for indigenous self-representation and it’s vital role in helping preserve endangered languages. 

Endangered Languages and their Importance

An endangered language is a language that has a smaller and smaller speaker base and is typically no longer the mother tongue of the children in the area. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization(UNESCO) classifies languages as either safe, vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered, or extinct. These classifications help linguists decide to what extent a language is endangered. 

This begs the question – how do languages become endangered? How does this issue arise? The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages says that language endangerment is affected by the number of speakers of a language, the areas in which the language can be used, and the support for or push against the language. Of course, sometimes more factors arise, and it is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason that has led to the decline of a language. Other factors that cause language loss include situations of conquest, economic pressures, immigration, language politics, attitudes for or against a certain language, and standardization. Whether political, economic, social, or cultural, there are many factors that can affect a language and cause it to lose its speaker base. 

Indeed, why should endangered languages be preserved? Well, language loss is a human concern. Language is important to one’s culture and, when a language is lost, there is a cultural void and important knowledge is forgotten. Losing a language decreases our scientific understanding of the shapes and forms that human language can take. If a language containing a certain rare linguistic feature is lost, linguists may never find out that such a feature can exist in a human language. Languages also carry knowledge and information about the natural world that can be lost when the language becomes extinct. For example, knowledge of medical plants or knowledge of bird species may be contained within a language and lost when that language’s knowledge system is no longer passed on. Lastly, language is a human right. No person should be forced to stop speaking their language and no person should be told that their language is not valuable or worthy of being spoken. Languages can be preserved in many ways and most preservation work depends on governmental laws and programs, community support and participation, and an emphasis on the cultural value and importance of these languages. 

The Case of Endangered Languages in Brazil

Brazil has over 200 spoken languages in the country and about 180 of such languages are indigenous. By an indigenous language, I mean a language that is native to the region and usually spoken by indigenous communities. The exact number of endangered languages is uncertain because there is often an imprecision in documenting indigenous languages and a lack of clarity between what constitutes a dialect and what constitutes a language. This research uses the Endangered Languages Project, the Ethnologue, and the World’s Atlas of Languages in Danger to see how many endangered languages are found in Brazil. These three databases show that there are 172 endangered languages in Brazil.

From the data above, we can see that the majority of languages in Brazil are in fact indigenous languages. Many of these languages are endangered because of the small speaker base. The majority of these languages are spoken by less than 1,000 speakers and some even by less than 100 speakers. The small speaker base makes these languages particularly vulnerable. It is clear that Brazil is a linguistically diverse country but unfortunately the majority of Brazil’s linguistic diversity is in a precarious state. 

We will now take a look at Brazil’s total population size in comparison to Brazil’s total indigenous population size. This sort of data helps reveal information about who speaks these endangered languages and whether or not this population is visible in statistics and census documents. According to Brazil’s 2010 Census, the population of Brazil was 190,755,799 people. Indigenous population according to that census was at 817,963. This means that indigenous population makes up only 0.43% of Brazil’s total population – this population group is statistically negligible. Of course, it is important to note that there is room for error in these statistics depending on who chose to identify as indigenous in the census and who did not participate in the census. This data is shown in the pie chart below. 

Indigenous communities make up a small percentage of Brazil’s total population. Although a small statistic, these communities are responsible for Brazil’s large linguistic diversity and speak the majority of Brazil’s endangered languages. Thus, this group should not be overlooked when policy makers consider language politics and language education.

The Case of Endangered Languages in Ecuador

In Ecuador, there are 25 spoken languages, 21 of which are indigenous languages and 13 of which are endangered. Similar to Brazil, the majority of Ecuador’s endangered languages are indigenous languages and Ecuador has a significant number of endangered languages.

Compared to Brazil, Ecuador has only 13 endangered languages present while Brazil has 172. The population size of Ecuador is another interesting contrast. Ecuador, according to the 2010 census, had a total population size of 14,483,499 people. Indigenous population as of 2010 was at 1,013,845. Indigenous population made up only 7% of Ecuador’s total population. This can be seen in the pie chart below.

The indigenous population of Ecuador holds a much larger percent of the total population size than in Brazil. The country’s smaller land size may have an influence on this data or possibly the way citizens choose to identify on the census. No matter, the indigenous population of Ecuador is more present than in Brazil and is less easily overlooked. The large population of Quechua speakers in Ecuador, for example, influence the government’s responsibility towards bilingual programs and laws. Brazil does not have the same type of situation because the multiple languages spoken in Brazil are spoken by very small groups of speakers. We will now see whether or not this influences the governmental programs and policies in place for preserving endangered languages. 

Constitutions and Language Preservation

This section looks at the constitutional policies of both Brazil and Ecuador. A constitution highlight’s a country’s main goals, values, and governance. It also highlight’s a country’s official language and its educational and indigenous policies. Constitutional policies help us understand how governments plan for and respond to endangered and vulnerable languages. Of course, it is important to note that constitutions do not show the reality of a situation but simply highlight the ideal treatment of individuals. 

Brazil’s latest constitution dates to 1988. In the constitution, there are multiple important articles relating to indigenous rights, language, and education. In terms of the official language, Article 13 states that Portuguese is the official language of Brazil. Nevertheless, article 210 gives indigenous communities the right to educate their children in their own language and using their own procedures. Thus, although indigenous languages are not official languages of the country they can be used as the language of education. Another important article for indigenous communities is Article 231. It states that the language, customs, and traditions of indigenous groups are recognized and that they are the owners of the land they traditionally occupied. These are the main portions of the constitution that relate to language rights and indigenous representation. As seen here, the Brazilian Constitution gives indigenous people rights to their land, customs, and language. Bilingual education is also allowed by the constitution. The document does not detail how this bilingual education is to take place nor does it detail ways in which indigenous languages will be protected. Language is a recognized right but it’s preservation and transmission are not explained in the constitution. 

The Constitution of Ecuador includes similar elements. This Constitution dates back to 2008. It’s official language, stated in Article 2, is Spanish and Quechua and Shuar are recognized as official intercultural relations language. The article also states that other ancestral languages are of official use in indigenous villages and that the state will respect and stimulate the conservation and use of ancestral languages. It is really pivotal that the state recognizes two indigenous languages for official intercultural relations and that the state directly claims it will help conserve indigenous languages. In terms of land recognition, Article 242 separates indigenous lands under the title of special regimes. Article 29 and 347 refer to education. These articles give everyone in Ecuador the right to education in their own language and respective of their individual customs. Furthermore, these articles say that bilingual education is allowed and the way that bilingual education will take place is fully detailed. Many other articles refer to indigenous rights but these are the most important ones. It is interesting that Ecuador gives extensive thought to indigenous, ancestral, languages and that a bilingual education system is specifically put in place.

Comparing the two constitutions, Ecuador’s constitution is more specific and mentions indigenous populations far more than Brazil’s constitution. Indigenous communities make up a larger percentage of Ecuador’s total population and certain languages such as Quechua and Shuar have larger speaker bases than the languages present in Brazil. This may be one reason why the constitutions differ in their focus on language. Ecuador also includes certain indigenous languages as official intercultural languages and directly claims it will help conserve and preserve other ancestral languages. Brazil, a country with a much greater number of endangered languages, does not have such claims. These are interesting differences that portray the different level of importance placed by each country on preserving languages and indigenous knowledge. It is important for there to be a cultural value placed on minority languages and for constitutions to recognize the rights of indigenous groups. 


Students of different grades share the same classroom in the Itapó Indigenous State School, from the Karapotó Plak-ô tribe, Alagoas State, Brazil. Foto: G1.

I will now turn to the Ministry of Culture and Education for Brazil and Ecuador in order to understand how the states use education to support, document, or revitalize endangered languages. Specifically, I will use the UNESCO and International Bureau of Education (IBE) World Data on Education reports to understand what sort of educational policies are promoted by the states. 

Primarily, as shown in the UNESCO (2010) report, Brazil has National Guidelines for indigenous education. In Brazil, indigenous schools offer bilingual intercultural education. As of 2005, there were 2,323 indigenous schools in Brazil and 46.6% of them were maintained by the state. Thus, indigenous groups have a right to be educated in their own language. The state funded project called Projeto Interaçao also made it so that indigenous teachers were contracted by the State government for the first time to teach in indigenous schools. This began in 1987 after the Brazilian dictatorship and has continued since. In 2004, more laws were passed to ensure the higher education of indigenous teachers and to fund more public education programs for indigenous education. The country then began to place quotas to allow for indigenous students to go to undergraduate and graduate schools in Brazil. Even though there are multiple laws and programs in place for the education of indigenous groups (and their bilingual education), there are still things that should be done to improve indigenous education. The biggest problems are that indigenous community members need to have access to a higher level of education to be trained as linguists and be able to successfully teach their own languages. There also needs to be more collaboration between indigenous groups, researchers, and teachers in terms of promoting indigenous education and linguistic training (Silva Sinha et al in 2016). Overall, Brazil has guidelines in place for indigenous education although more could be done to improve the situation people’s ability to document and teach these endangered, indigenous languages. 

Ecuador has similar educational policies to Brazil. Ecuador defines itself as a multilingual and plurinacional country that respects the different languages spoken within its borders. The country also has a 7% indigenous population that is growing at a fast rate- making indigenous education a priority. The UNESCO-IBM World Education Report (2010) shows that Ecuador has created a well-detailed bilingual education plan. The report (2010) says the plans prioritize the method of teaching over the content being taught. This has also made the plan more flexible and means that it has been effective in multiple parts of Ecuador- not just cities. Ecuador also has a National Direction for Intercultural Bilingual Indigenous Education that creates and monitors indigenous education. In the year 2007, the report (2010) shows, there was an enrollment rate in bilingual bachelors programs of 107,694 students. This is a large amount of students to enter higher education as part of a bilingual program- the majority of these students spoke Quechua. These bilingual programs have been very effective and have led to more indigenous people going on to higher education. Discrimination, however, is still an issue. There are still some parents who choose not to teach Quechua to their children for fear that their children will be discriminated against. Overall, Ecuador’s bilingual programs are a success and are promoting the conversation and use of endangered, indigenous languages. 

The biggest difference between the bilingual education programs in Brazil and Ecuador is linguistic diversity. Brazil is faced with such a large linguistic diversity that documenting and creating educational opportunities for all the languages present is a challenge. Ecuador has such a large population of Quechua speakers that they can more easily create bilingual opportunities for these citizens, although they do face difficulties with accommodating the various dialects of Quechua present in the country. Conversely, with the great amount of endangered languages in Brazil, it is vital for future policy makers to promote and conserve these languages. Indigenous populations need to have a right to educate their communities in their own language and they need to have access to self-representation so that these rights are not taken away from them. 

Representation and Language
Indígenas em protesto contra a transferência da demarcação de suas terras para o Ministério da Agricultura, em Março de 2019.

Indigenous people protests against the transference of indigenous land demarcation to the Agriculture Ministry, in Brasília, march 2019. Foto: APIB.

There are close ties between questions of language, identity, citizenship, and environment and they are ones that make this discussion multi-faceted. For this reason, it is important to look at how discussing endangered languages coincides with discussions of indigenous rights and indigenous representations. Many of the educational policies and constitutional rights in place are laws and policies effecting the conservation of indigenous ways of life and indigenous knowledge. Language is just one part of this conservation effort. For this reason, organizations such as CONAIE – La Confederacion de Nacionalidades Indigenas del Ecuador – and COICA – Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indigenas de la Cuenca Amazonica – show the types of problems still facing indigenous communities that are not highlighted in governmental documents. Both of these organizations call for self-governing laws and fight for land and legal recognition of indigenous groups. In a time where the President of Brazil has already made changes such as placing the demarcation of land under the Ministry of Agriculture instead of FUNAI, it is necessary to understand how indigenous populations face issues beyond simply language preservation. In the context of endangered languages, protecting a language is much more than just that – it extends to protecting a community’s way of life and a community’s right to their heritage. These two organizations exemplify this.

Overall, endangered languages are vulnerable in an increasingly global world. Governments such as those in Brazil and Ecuador are passing laws to protect and support indigenous and endangered languages. This research shows that there is a connection between indigenous representation and endangered languages and that most endangered languages are in fact indigenous languages. This discussion means to bring to light the sheer number of endangered languages in Brazil and Ecuador and the reasons why protecting these languages – whether through education or other means- is important for scientific, social, and cultural reasons. Indigenous knowledge is linked to indigenous languages and questions of indigenous representation are also a question of linguistic diversity. Ecuador and Brazil have passed laws protecting communities right to speak their minority languages but there is still room for improvement in areas of funding and training. More value needs to be placed on speaking indigenous languages and more politicians need to understand the value of protecting linguistic diversity. Self- representation of indigenous groups and community autonomy could help communities obtain and advocate for the preservation of their indigenous, ancestral, languages. Linguistic diversity makes the world a brighter place and it would be unfortunate to live in a world without such diversity.

Chanelle Dupuis is a senior undergraduate student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. She studies French and Spanish literature and linguistics with a special interest in endangered languages. She completed the inicial portion of this research under Dr. Tanu Kohli Bagwe at the Center for Global Engagement at FSU.
Featured illustration by Sandro Schutt, Amazonia Latitude’s editor and designer.


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