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Story of Brazil’s diverse languages and people

Story of Brazil’s diverse languages and people

Brazil’s vast Amazon rainforest makes news because of threats to its unrivalled biodiversity. Visiting scholar Dr Marcus Maia will shine a light on that region’s equally breath-taking linguistic and cultural diversity – and efforts to preserve it – in a series of lectures at Massey University.

Dr Maia, Associate Professor of Linguistics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and researcher with the National Council for the Development of Science, will take local audiences on a journey into the Brazilian interior, home to nearly one million people and 150 indigenous languages and cultures.

The visit is sponsored by Massey’s W.H Oliver Humanities Research Academy. Director, Associate Professor Kerry Taylor, says; “the maintenance of languages and cultures is a crucial issue both globally and in our own backyard. Dr Maia’s visit is driven by a desire to learn from the local experiences and also to share his own lessons from the Brazilian context.”

Drawing from 30 years of experience as a linguist working with and for indigenous communities, Dr Maia will start by defining what it means to be ‘indigenous’ in Brazil today. He will discuss the main language families found in Brazil – Tupi, Jê, Carib, Aruak – to convey why the Brazilian interior is the most linguistically diverse region in the Americas, says Dr Peter Petrucci, a senior lecturer in linguistics at Massey’s School of Humanities who is coordinating the series with the Brazilian Embassy.

The free public lectures, at Massey’s campuses in Auckland and Wellington and at the Palmerston North City Library in the coming weeks, will feature a 30-minute documentary focusing on a specific group, filmed with the assistance of his partner, anthropologist Chang Whan. They are the Karajá, who live in and around Ilha do Bananal, the largest river island in the world, situated on the Araguaia River.

“As we learn from a 30-minute documentary about initiation rites, the Karajá are an important example of linguistic and cultural resistance in Brazil,” says Dr Petrucci. “Despite frequent contacts with Brazilian society, every member of the community learns Karajá as their first language. The language shares subtle links with the biodiversity of Central Brazil – the named stages of a boy’s development into manhood, for instance, are based on the rich fauna of the region.”

In his commentary for the film, Dr Maia demonstrates the productive vitality of the Karajá language, both in its traditional forms and in new forms resulting from increasing contact with Brazilian society, where Portuguese – the official language – is spoken by the vast majority.

“Much like linguists, educators and elders working with the Māori language, Dr Maia views each of Brazil’s 150 indigenous languages as a treasure that needs to be nurtured, protected and celebrated,” he adds.

Indigenous languages are precious due to the knowledge of local biodiversity they have inherited, he says. “You lose a system of knowledge each time you lose a language.”

During his lecture Dr Maia will discuss work that is being carried out across Brazil in indigenous bilingual education and ongoing UNESCO-supported documentation projects like those involving the Karajá.

A Journey into the Brazilian interior lecture details:

28 September: Albany Campus - 6:30pm (Sir Neil Waters Lecture Theatre Building)

2 October: Palmerston North City Library - 7:00pm

6 October: Wellington Campus 7:00pm (Executive Seminar Suite)


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