Te reo learnings could help save endangered Brazilian languages

Brazilian academic Marcia Nascimento, left, and her Maori counterpart, Mari Ropata-Te Hei, are working together on an ...
WARWICK SMITH/STUFF

Brazilian academic Marcia Nascimento, left, and her Maori counterpart, Mari Ropata-Te Hei, are working together on an indigenous languages revitalisation project.

Te reo Māori could help breathe life back into endangered languages in Brazil. 

Māori academics have travelled to Brazil to talk with language teachers and now Brazilian academics are visiting kōhanga reo and schools. 

A joint project between Māori and Brazilian academics started two years ago, when Marcus Maia of the Federal University, of Rio de Janeiro, approached staff at the Māori studies department at Massey University, Te Pūtahi a Toi. 

Māori  had been named the most successfully revived indigenous language in the world by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Maia said. So the linguistics professor wanted to learn more about the steps Māori had taken, and see if they could also be used in Brazil.

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"In the 1980s,  Unesco started to monitor the vitality and state of the languages in the world. Most Brazilian languages are categorised as critical or severely endangered... They've been dying.

"When a language dies you lose a way of thinking and looking at the world, different classifications of animals and plants, and lots of knowledge and wisdom that comes from ancient times." 

The groups are sharing knowledge, and last year four Māori academics travelled to Brazil to talk with language teachers and community leaders about the experience of reinvigorating te reo since World War II. 

This semester, Maia is based at Massey and, along with two other academics from Brazil, is visiting kōhanga reo and other schools. They also observed Māori Language Week.

One of the group, Dr Marcia Nascimento​, is a member of the Kaingang​ ethnic group, the third largest in Brazil. It would be "a dream" if the Kaingang language could follow the same path Māori had, she said. 

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"Kōhanga reo are special because the language and culture are the main purpose, so children have the opportunity to have the language early, firsthand." 

The team would eventually submit its findings to Unesco, Maia said. 

"So this project has the potential to spread to other countries."  

Mari Ropata-Te Hei, of Massey, is taking part in the exchange, and said the Māori experience in fighting for their language's future had already benefited indigenous groups in Hawaii and North America. 

"The exciting thing is, what I was taught is the language we have is not our own. It is left to us by our tupuna, so we have to make sure that we are giving it to those people who ask for it. 

"Unfortunately, we still have people in Aotearoa that feel that te reo Māori and Māori culture have no place here, but we're now on the world stage."​

BY THE NUMBERS

* Brazil is thought to have had 1200 indigenous languages.
* 150 to 180 are still spoken, by 0.5 per cent of the population. 
* In 2013, te reo was spoken by 3.7 per cent of New Zealanders (Statistics NZ). 
* It is thought about 10,000 languages existed in the 1500s, worldwide. 
* Now about 6000 are spoken, worldwide. 
* At the current rate of decline, 90 per cent of languages could die out by the end of the century.
(Source: Professor Marcus Maia).

 - Stuff

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