Saving language, preserving culture

RIT linguist Wilson Silva treks through the Amazon to document dying languages




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RIT lecturer and linguist Wilson Silva stands at the banks of Rio Negro, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon River.

It’s natural to wonder—at times—if the work you’re dedicated to is really worth the hassle. Wilson De Lima Silva has similar moments of deep reflection—often occurring as he floats down the eerie, snake-infested rivers and streams of the Amazon basin in a three-person canoe.

Silva, a linguist and lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Sociology and Anthropology, has spent the majority of his professional career recording and preserving dying languages spoken in remote villages nestled near the Brazil/Colombia border, deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.

“Sometimes I really can’t believe that I’m doing this,” he said. “But language is my passion and I am inspired to help preserve a dying culture.”

The goal of Silva’s research is to understand the origins of languages in Northwestern Amazonia and how these languages are related. He hopes to achieve this by regularly embarking on what he calls “treasure hunts” in search of native speakers of the dying Desano language— one of the 280 indigenous languages spoken throughout Brazil.

Each summer, Silva treks to an isolated region of the Amazon River delta to document languages while training native speakers to self-preserve their history and culture—through linguistics. Since 2008, Silva, originally from Brazil, has been creating a writing system for the traditionally unwritten Desano language using grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation. The grants also provide equipment and stipends for his research assistants.

But, according to Silva, the challenge often lies in finding and coaxing native speakers to share their language.

“In Brazil, there are only about 80 fluent speakers of the Desano language, and they are all in their 60s,” Silva said. “The time is now to capture these languages while they are still alive.”

Silva explains that the natural environment of the Amazon creates its own barrier to documenting languages. In addition, these “hidden speakers” are often reluctant to share their knowledge due to the intense prejudice they are subjected to in their country.

“In the towns, these indigenous speakers are being forced to learn and speak Portuguese, which is the language most commonly spoken and accepted throughout Brazil. They are trying to ‘fit in’ and avoid social prejudice; they are called ‘indíos’ (Indians), a Portuguese word often used as a derogatory term associated with a lack of education. This mindset is filtering down to children and grandchildren. Young people are simply not being taught their native language and are in jeopardy of losing their native identity.”

Silva realizes it’s impossible for one man to take on the daunting task of saving a culture by himself. Identifying and training native speakers to become instructors and document the languages is a major part of Silva’s initiative—and a contributing factor to his success thus far.

Frank Matos is Silva’s primary language consultant in Brazil and a Desano educator. Two years ago, Matos was a laborer who had never before used a computer, but he displayed a talent for linguistics and grasped the linguistic concepts that Silva was teaching him. Now a valued research assistant, Matos is working alongside Silva to teach others like him how to preserve languages.

Silva and Matos are currently working with village elders to collect Desano stories that will be translated into a children’s book.

“The children in the area are illustrating the book, which has helped further immerse them into their culture,” Silva said. “We are also working with them to develop and adapt games in their native Desano language, and we are creating scenarios where the children can actively engage in their language. If we hope to keep this language—and others—alive, we need to continue to work with our young people.”

Silva’s interest in language stems from his experience as a university student in Manaus, Brazil, a city of about 2 million people. There he met with a linguistics professor looking for a research assistant.

“I learned everything about social linguistics from this professor,” Silva said. “I realized that there are so many speakers of different languages in Brazil, so close to home. But they are truly hidden. I just can’t bear to witness the disappearance of an entire culture.”

Today, a newly awarded NEH grant (Desano Collaborative Project: Collection of Audio-Video Material and Texts) will allow Silva to continue his “language and culture-saving” work in Colombia, where he has heard children speaking Desano in some indigenous communities. He’s also hoping to bring an RIT student with him on his next trip to the Amazon so he can continue to inspire others with his love of language—and his love of the native speakers.

“Sailing down the Amazon in a little boat isn’t easy. It’s a treacherous trail,” he added. “But, I do love my work; it’s so personally and professionally rewarding. I just feel so connected to these people.”

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RIT lecturer and linguist Wilson Silva stands at the banks of Rio Negro, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon River.

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Wilson Silva (green shirt) has used grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation to fund

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RIT lecturer and linguist Wilson Silva, center, travels to the Amazon region of Brazil to help native Desano speakers preserve their dying language.

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Frank Matos, Wilson Silva’s main language consultant and a Desano educator, discusses research with Silva during a work session.