Multilinguism

Text adapted from RODRIGUES, Aryon Dall´Igna – Línguas brasileiras: para o conhecimento das línguas indígenas. Edições Loyola, São Paulo, 1986.

Indigenous peoples in Brazil have always been used to situations of multilinguism. That means that the number of languages spoken by an individual can vary. There are those who speak and understand more than one language and those who can understand several but are able to speak just one or a few of them.

Thus it is not rare to find Indigenous societies or individuals in situations of bi-linguism, tri-linguism or even multi-linguism.

In the same village, it is possible to run into individuals who speak only the Indigenous tongue, others who speak just Portuguese and others still who are bi-lingual or multi-lingual. In general, linguistic differences are not a hindrance for Indigenous peoples to relate with each other and marry among them, exchange objects, participate in ceremonies and attend class together. A good example of that can be seen among the Indigenous peoples of the Tukano linguistic family settled along the Uaupés River, one of the rivers that form the Negro River, on both sides of the border between Colombia and Brazil.

Among these people of the Negro River basin, men often speak between three and five languages, or even more – some of them speak eight or ten. In addition, languages are for them elements that constitute their personal identity. A man must, for example, speak the same language as his father, that is, share with him the same ‘linguistic group’. However, he has to marry a woman who speaks a different language, i.e., who belongs to a different ‘linguistic group’.

The Tukano are thus typically multi-lingual, be it as peoples be it as individuals. Their example demonstrate how human beings have the capability of learning in different ages and of mastering several languages, independently of the degree of difference among them, and keep them consciously distinct with simply a good social motivation for so doing.

The multilinguism of the Indians of the Uaupés region does not include just languages of the Tukano family. It involves also, in many cases, tongues of the Aruak and Maku families, as well as the Língua Geral Amazônica or Nheengatu, Portuguese and Spanish.

In contexts such as that, sometimes one of the languages becomes the most widespread means of communication (what experts call lingua franca) and is used by everyone, when together, in order to understand each other. For example, the Tukano language, which belongs to the Tukano family, has a privileged social position among the Eastern tongues of this family because it has become the general language, or lingua franca, of the Uaupés area, and is the vehicle of communication between speakers of different languages. It has superseded other tongues – completely, in the case of Arapaço, or almost completely, such as in the case of Tariana.

There are cases in which it is Portuguese that is used as lingua franca. In some areas of the Amazon Region, for example, there are situations in which different Indigenous peoples and the local population speak Nheengatu, the Amazonian General Language, when speaking among themselves.