Guaricema Pataxo’s indigenous roots are the cornerstone of her identity. The 53-year-old great-grandmother lives on her Pataxo people’s reservation and makes a living by hawking their handicrafts, fully decked out in traditional regalia.
But ask her to speak Pataxo, and she can only stumble through a few basic words and phrases.
Her situation is not unusual.
Of the estimated 2,000 indigenous languages thought to have been spoken in pre-Columbian times in what is now Brazil, only around 160 survive today. Experts warn that as many as 40 percent of those remaining could be lost in the next few decades, as elders die off and young people get more access to television, the Internet and cellphones.
The pace of change has been accelerated by big agriculture’s push into the hinterland, bringing roads, electricity and outsiders to areas with a high concentration of indigenous people.
A program spearheaded in part by UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural and educational agency, aims to give a fighting chance to nearly three dozen threatened languages. Over nearly eight years, the program has helped 35 tribes to transcribe their languages, develop dictionaries and teaching tools for children and document their rich oral traditions.
Read more: ABC News