Indigenous peoples speak more than 4,000 of the world’s estimated 6,700 languages, but language scholars predict at least half — likely more — of those languages will be extinct by 2100.
In May, three Arts & Science undergraduate students visited the city of Boa Vista in the Brazilian state of Roraima to study the region’s Indigenous languages. As part of a Department of Spanish & Portuguese course in the Research Excursions Program, the students worked with local Indigenous speakers documenting, analyzing and preserving their languages.
“I always try to explore experiential learning activities in my courses,” says Suzi Lima, assistant professor in the Department Linguistics and supervisor of the research trip. “I want to put students in a central role as researchers and as independent thinkers.”
Along with their Brazilian hosts and collaborators from the State University of Roraima (UERR), Lima and her students conducted “elicitation sessions” — one-on-one meetings between a researcher and an Indigenous language consultant in which a particular aspect of the language is demonstrated and discussed. An elicitation session can consist of anything from translating a simple list of nouns to unravelling more complex linguistic concepts.
The three students on the trip were each assigned one Brazilian Indigenous language — Macuxi, Ye’kwana and Taurepang.
Woodsworth College student Octavia Andrade-Dixon, a human geography specialist minoring in Portuguese, researched Taurepang, an Indigenous language spoken in the Venezuelan savannah and northern Brazil. While some documentation of Taurepang exists in Portuguese and Spanish, there is little available in English.
“Our work expands on existing information while presenting it in other languages,” says Andrade-Dixon. “And our consultant was of the Brazilian Taurepang community rather than the Venezuelan population, which may present some variation. So, in some regard, we are uncovering new information.”
“This trip taught me about the challenges that arise with translation and fieldwork,” says Andrade-Dixon. “I also learned how skillful you have to be to find answers — I watched Professor Lima change sentences to be more culturally relevant, create elaborate scenarios and draw pictures to reach our objectives. It felt as though I was piecing together a puzzle.”
Victoria College student Gregory Antono has just graduated with a double major in linguistics and Spanish along with a minor in Latin American studies. He studied Macuxi, the Indigenous language spoken in the borderlands of southern Guyana, northern Brazil and eastern Venezuela.
Antono says his previous experience in linguistics and Latin American studies at U of T prepared him well for this trip.
“My studies have made me think critically about the complexities surrounding Indigenous communities,” he says. “I’ve also learned to think more critically about the role of linguists and other academics who conduct research on and with these communities — which was particularly relevant for this trip. Getting to apply what I learned in a classroom was challenging, but deeply rewarding.”
“One thing that heartened and surprised me was the sheer enthusiasm of our language consultants,” says Antono. “During one session, one of my consultants took out a USB key to share audio recordings of the Macuxi language. Another consultant enthusiastically showed me his bilingual Macuxi-Portuguese bible and spoke about his efforts to create more pedagogical material for his language.”
Lima insists the experiential aspect of fieldwork is key to developing not only students’ academic skills but their people skills too.
“Research-oriented courses help students develop organization, communication and reasoning skills that will be useful in different fields and careers,” she says. “Moreover, the exchange of views and ideas is a very meaningful part of this course. Listening to others helps us understand our own reality better. Participating in collaborative research with Indigenous communities in Brazil has brought a lot to my life, and I hope it gives the students a similarly enriching experience.”
The research trip to Roraima wasn’t limited to academic activities. The students visited a refugee camp for Indigenous people from Venezuela, attended a dance performance inspired by the songs of Brazilian singer Elis Regina and sampled local culinary specialties like vapatá, a stew made from a woody shrub called manioc, and kibe, a small fried handheld snack of rice and seasoned beef.
They also made sure their exchange of knowledge wasn’t a one-way street by giving presentations on Canada’s Indigenous populations to their hosts and collaborators at the State University of Roraima.
“It is one thing to learn in the classroom, but nothing beats getting firsthand experience learning in the field,” says Antono of the trip. “Especially from instructors with such profound experience. We learned and laughed a lot, and we are grateful and inspired.”
Want to know more? Check out the students’ blog, "Brazilian Indigenous Languages: Documentation, Language Maintenance & Revitalization" where they documented their experiences and posted pictures of their adventures in Brazil.