Multilingual Education
A special session at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Conference

Abstract for "Maintaining Two Worlds: Mother Tongue Literacy for Brazil’s Amerindian Societies"

Isabel I. Murphy, Ph.D.
SIL International

The purpose of this paper is to explore mother-tongue awareness among some Brazilian amerindian societies, highlighting factors which could contribute to policy decisions regarding mother-tongue education among minority groups.

The paper begins with a case study of the Jarawara people’s appropriation and use of the written word in their own language, even as academics were debating the pros and cons of writing for an oral society! The Jarawara incorporated writing into their culture in an unique manner, communicating with each other through the written word in ways that oral communication inhibited due to cultural norms and taboos (Vencio, 1996).

The Xerente, on the other hand, now perceive their written language as a means of cultural affirmation and resistance in opposition to the majority culture (Guimarães, 2002). These two groups represent two ends of a continuum in the ongoing struggle of traditional societies to find acceptance and equality in Brazil’s multicultural mosaic.

These case studies, supplemented with a variety of illustrations, will be discussed in the light of continuing debate among Brazil’s educators about what constitutes appropriate educational intervention within traditional societies. This paper brings together new cultural and sociolinguistic insights that, it is hoped, might alert policy makers to the practical educational needs and aspirations of minority groups. Although the study is specific to Brazil, clearly there are broader implications for mother-tongue language issues worldwide.


Guimarães, Susana Martelletti Grillo. A aquisição da escrita e diversidade Cultural: a prática dos professores Xerente. Brasília: FUNAI/DEDOC, 2002.

Vencio, Elizabeth. Cartas entre os Jarawara: um estudo da apropriação da escrita. UNICAMP. Campinas, SP. 1996.