A Brazilian indigenous people got textbooks for their endangered language

Language is related to both culture and the natural environment. According to Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen, who headed a textbook project for the Apurinã language, the diversity of all three should be fostered.

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin live in close communion with their surroundings, with their songs and stories also drawing inspiration from it.

“Language is not separate but connected to the environment and culture. The diversity of all three should be fostered,” says Associate Professor Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen.

Virtanen has worked with indigenous peoples in Brazil since 2003. Among other things, she has investigated youth and leadership among indigenous peoples, as well as the human–nature relationship.

The Constitution of Brazil has only provided protection for indigenous cultural knowledge since the late 1980s. Many have lost their native language and been forced to speak only Portuguese.

While the Apurinã people comprises roughly 10,000 individuals, only 30% speak their own language. The people live in roughly 20 reservations along the Purus River. The language has been preserved better in more remote reservations than those split by a highway.

Recently, textbooks for the Apurinã language were produced under the direction of Virtanen together with linguist Sidney Facundes. The leaders of the indigenous people requested the support of the researchers to strengthen their language. For years, the scholars organised workshops in the Apurinã reservations, which led to the creation of the textbooks.

“We listened to children, adults, parents and leaders. Dozens of teachers of the Apurinã language participated in the workshops.”

One of the books is an alphabet book that helps in learning to write, the other is a discussion book. Most of the textbook content was produced by representatives of the indigenous people themselves. They wrote texts and illustrated the books with their art.

The Apurinã language has several dialects, and the goal was to include all of them in the books. This is why words appear in different forms and spellings.

“I considered how to learn and teach language better. A key lesson has been to tie teaching in the traditions as well as the plant and animal life of the teacher’s own region.”

Revitalising the language would also require action from the Brazilian government.

“In many municipalities, Apurinã is not accepted at all in the curriculum. It would require more room for lessons in the native language and cultural knowledge.”


This article has been published in Finnish in issue 6/2022 of the Yliopisto magazine.