First of all, we need to know the difference between a language and a dialect.

Both languages and dialects are systems made up of symbols. These symbols can be sounds, syllables, words or phrases. They are used to express thoughts, emotions, and wishes. And they can be spoken or written down.

 Languages spread over large areas. Often they are spoken by whole countries or more than one country. Dialects are restricted to one area, or to a group of people within a country.

One language may be spoken in many different dialects. The people who speak different dialects of the same language can easily understand each other.

How many languages are spoken in the world?

There are nearly 6 thousand different languages!

More than 180 of these 6 thousand languages are spoken by the indigenous peoples of Brazil.

Did you know that…


  • there are only 25 indigenous languages spoken by more than 5 thousand people?
  • around 110 indigenous languages are spoken by less than 400 people?
  • the Akuntsu language is spoken by only 5 people – the 5 remaining members of the Akuntsu indigenous group?
    Photo: Adelino de Lucena Mendes, 2002.
    Photo: Adelino de Lucena Mendes, 2002.
  • One language is spoken by only 5 people? These are the Guató people, who speak a language with the same name, even though with a population estimated in 370 people.
    Photo: Suki Ozaki, 2006
    Photo: Suki Ozaki, 2006

How many indigenous languages were spoken in Brazil when the Portuguese arrived?

In 1550 it’s thought that around 1200 languages were spoken. If about 180 of these still exist, that means that more or less one thousand indigenous languages have become extinct in the last five hundred years. Many experts agree that this is what has happened.

How can a language become extinct?

A language is in danger of becoming extinct when people stop speaking it, or only speak it rarely and do not pass it on to the next generation.

Often indigenous languages are not passed on because parents speak it to their parents, but they do not speak it to their children. When this happens the children abandon the indigenous language.

Sources of information

  • Aryon Dall´Igna Rodrigues

Línguas Brasileiras – para o conhecimento das línguas indígenas (1986)


Vitalidade da língua e línguas em perigo de extinção (2003)