School and writing

Prior to the establishment of systematic contact with non-Indians, the languages of the Indigenous peoples who live in Brazil were not written. With the development of projects of school education conceived for Indians, this has changed. This is a long story, which raises questions that ought to be thought upon and discussed.

A bit of history

The history of Indigenous school education shows that, in general, schooling had always had the goal of integrating the Indigenous populations into the greater society. Indian tongues were seen as the biggest obstacle for such integration. Thus the function of the school was to teach Indians student how to speak, read and write in Portuguese.

Only recently some schools have started to use Indigenous languages in alphabetization, when the difficulties of teaching students how to read and write in a language they are not familiar with, such as Portuguese, became clear.

Even in such cases, however, as soon as the students learned how to read and write, the Indigenous language was no longer used in the classroom, since the mastering of Portuguese was the main objective. So it is clear that, given that situation, school has contributed for the weakening, depreciation and, as a result, the disappearance of Indigenous tongues.

Indigenous languages at school

On the other hand, school can also be an element capable of encouraging and favoring the permanence or revival of Indigenous languages.

Inclusion of an Indigenous tongue in the curricular grid attributes to it the status of a full language and equals it, at least in terms of education, to the Portuguese language, a right mentioned in the Brazilian Constitution.

It is clear that the effort made at school for linguistic permanence and revival has limitations, because no institution alone can define the fate of a language. Just as schooling was not the sole culprit for the weakening and eventual loss of Indigenous tongues, it does not have the power of, alone, keep them strong and alive.

In order for that to happen it is necessary that the entire Indigenous community – and not only the teachers – wish to keep its traditional language in use. Thus schooling is an important but limited instrument: it can only contribute for the survival or disappearance of those tongues.

The Portuguese language at school

Mastering the Portuguese language at school is one of the tools that Indigenous societies have for interpreting and understanding the legal bases that conform life in Brazil, especially those that refer to the rights of Indigenous peoples.

All documents that regulate life within Brazilian society are written in Portuguese: laws – especially the Constitution -, regulations, personal documents, contracts, titles, registers and statutes. Indian are Brazilian citizens, and as such have the right to be familiar with these documents in order to interfere, whenever necessary, in any sphere of the country’s social and political life.

For the Indigenous peoples that live in Brazil, the Portuguese language can be an instrument for the defense of their legal, economic and political rights; a means to expand their own knowledge and humankind’s; a recourse for them to be recognized and respected nationally and internationally in their diversity; and an important channel for relating with each other and taking common political stances.

The introduction of writing

If oral language, in its various manifestations, is part of daily life in practically every human society, the same cannot be said regarding written language, since the activities of reading and writing can normally be performed only by people who were able to go to school and while there found favorable conditions to realize how important the social functions of those activities are.

Thus to struggle for the creation of Indigenous schools means, among other things, struggling for the right of the Indians to read and write in the Portuguese language, so as to make it possible to them to relate in equal conditions with the surrounding society.

Writing has many practical uses: in their daily lives, literate people elaborate lists for commercial exchanges, correspond with each other etc. Writing is also generally used to register the history, the literature, the religious beliefs, and the knowledge of a people. It is, also, an important space for the debate of controversial subjects. In today’s Brazil, for example, there are many texts that discuss topics such as ecology, the right of access to land, the social role of women, the rights of minorities, the quality of the education being offered, and so on.

School cannot aim at just teaching students how to read and write: it ought to give them conditions for them to learn how to write texts that are adequate to their intentions and to the contexts in which they will be read and used.

The benefits Indigenous peoples can obtain from learning how to read and write in Portuguese are thus very clear: the defense of their citizenship rights and the possibility of exercising them, and the access to the knowledge of other societies.

But writing Indigenous languages, on the other hand, is a complex question, one that must be pondered and whose implications must be discussed.

The functions of writing Indigenous tongues are not always so transparent, and there are Indigenous societies that do not wish to write their traditional languages. In general, this attitude becomes clear in the very beginning of the process of school education: the urge and the need to learn how to read and write in Portuguese is clear, whereas writing in Indigenous languages is not seen as so necessary. Experience shows that, with time, this perception can change and the use of writing in Indigenous languages may make sense and even be desirable.

One argument against the written usage of Indigenous languages is the fact that the introduction of such practice may result in the imposition of the Western way of life, which may cause the abandonment of oral tradition and lead to the appearance of inequalities within society such as, for example, the difference between literate and illiterate individuals.

But a strong argument for the introduction of written usage of Indigenous languages is that to limit those tongues to exclusively oral uses means to keep them in a situation of no prestige and of low practical applications, thus reducing their chances of survival in contemporary situations. And writing them also means that those languages will be resisting the ‘invasions’ made by Portuguese. In fact, they will themselves be invading the realm of a major language and conquering one of its most important territories.

[Text condensed and adapted from the document Referencial curricular nacional para as escolas indígenas, Brasília: MEC, 1998]