Learning Endangered / Minority Languages to Fluency: Is it Possible?

Learners of languages that have little political support (like Breton or Palauan) struggle more than those who learn politically powerful languages (like French or Japanese). The reason behind this has actually very little to do with the grammatical makeup of “difficulty” of the language.

For English speakers, Fijian (a language I’m currently learning) is easier than Finnish if one takes ONLY grammar into account. Within a little more than a week I’ve mastered many of the elements of Fijian grammar and that same task for Finnish took me at least A YEAR.

Of the languages I’ve done for the Huggins International 30-Day speaking Challenge (Lao, Greenlandic, and Hungarian–I’m doing Greenlandic again in February), I would say Hungarian and Greenlandic are about equal in terms of grammatical complication but Greenlandic is harder for me in general because (1) not as much support in technology and Internet usage (2) the words are longer (3) ways to engage with the language are more scarce and (4) Greenlandic doesn’t have as many Latinate / English cognates as Hungarian does (and Hungarian has significantly fewer than its Finnic bretheren further north).

Make no mistake: learning a rarer language can seem like an uphill battle at times, and that’s without taking into account what people may say to you (if you even care what sort of reactions other people have towards your project at all…part of me has really learned to stop caring).

Finding written material in Bislama was difficult, despite the fact that it was probably one of the easiest languages I encountered (given the fact that it is Vanuatu’s English Creole with French influence). I had no shortage of listening material, however, and that really sealed my journey to fluency. That, and putting the comprehensive vocabulary (about 7000 words, including place names from Melanesia and the Bible, in the WHOLE language–as in, every known word in it) into Anki.

With multiple rarer languages, I defied the odds and got fluent. It seems that I’m on track to do it again with Fijian! But why do so many language learners struggle and fall (note that I did not say “fail”) when it comes to learning rarer languages?

Have no fear!

Mother of the Sea and Me

 

(1) A lot of people getting attached to their language-learning materials.

This is a big one, and I addressed it a while back here.

Point is, language learning materials are to be grown OUT of, not grown ATTACHED to. And even when you’re fluent, feel free to use them as a reference now and then, but fluent speakers engage the language with material intended for native speakers.

What usually happens is that people sometimes get too attached to their books and their apps and use them as a recourse to engaging with the language when they should hop into the real world of that language…as QUICKLY as possible.

 

(2) A lot of people getting attached to needing to use the language with real people.

I became fluent in Bislama without even having SET FOOT in Vanuatu or in any other country of Oceania. How did I do it? I made a “virtual Vanuatu”. I had Ni-Vanuatu radio stations playing regularly when I needed a break from teaching and had to play mindless video games. I employed dozens of other methods across language-learning disciplines.

I used it actively by singing Bislama songs to friends and even recording myself.

Using the language with real people helps, this is beyond any hint of doubt. But don’t use “I need to be surrounded by people who speak it!” as an excuse to deny yourself a language you’ve been dreaming of, and certainly not in the age of the Internet.

Fun fact: up until I met Greenlandic speakers for the first time, a few minutes before boarding the plane to Nuuk in Reykjavik, there was a TINY nagging voice in my head that tried to convince me that Greenlandic was actually a conlang that was only used on the Internet and in a handful of books (given that I had never, EVER heard it spoken or used by real people up until that moment).

Turns out, the language as it was used in Greenland was every bit as real and authentic and MATCHED UP WITH everything I learned with books, music, radio and online studies.

You can fool your brain into thinking you’re pretty much anywhere on the planet at this point with immersion even with a language you haven’t heard ONCE used by real people in person.

 

(3) A lot of people begin learning rarer languages with a losing mindset and no intention to shed it

“I’m probably not going to be fluent in this language anyhow. There’s just no way. But I’ll try it…”

Hey.

Stop it.

If you WANT to learn your dream rare language to fluency, it may take more effort and LOADS of more discipline because giving up is the path of least resistance, especially with a language that others may actively be discouraging you from learning.

But you’re a winner, right? You want to be fluent in that language, right? So why believe the dream killers or that internal voice saying you won’t do well?

 

(4) They don’t build emotional attachment to the language

One of the first things I did when I learned rarer languages successfully (Yiddish, Tok Pisin, Fijian) was FIND MUSIC that I liked in the language and put it on all of my devices and my phone.

That way, I would build an emotional attachment to the language every time I heard the song and it would, on some level, increase my motivation.

A lot of people don’t really do this. Instead they slog away at books or classes and seldom if ever do they actually “get to know” the language or the place where it is spoken.

Also for Kiribati / Gilbertese in January, I tried searching for music that I liked and my first impression was “this country has ABSOLUTELY no good music whatsoever!” But interestingly enough, I found YouTube channels that collected Kiribati music and I sampled fifty different songs. I acquired the songs I liked and I put them in a folder and there are so many Kiribati songs that I find myself wanting to hum while walking on the streets of Brooklyn that, right now, I actively needed to be REMINDED of the time in which I thought that Gilbertese music was “no good”.

Also feel free to use the national sub-reddits for smaller countries to get music or radio-station recommendations. (There may be a handful of countries with no subreddits or, in the case of Kiribati, one that is locked ot the general public. I applied to get in. Still waiting. Hey, administrators, if you’re reading this, could you approve me, please? I have videos of me speaking Kiribati on the Internet!)
(5) They don’t learn about the culture behind that language in detail.

 

Pretty much every human alive in the developed world has some knowledge of what French or Japanese culture is like. I knew very little about Papua New Guinea’s cultures before learning Tok Pisin, despite the fact that my father had stories from his time there. So one thing I did was I headed to libraries and bookstores where I found travel guides to “PNG”, and read up about what the political systems there were like, the history, the cuisine and important things that travellers to the country should know.

Without that cultural knowledge, even with global languages, you will be at a disadvantage to (1) native speakers and (2) learners who have that cultural knowledge. So get reading!

 

(6) They may believe limiting advice from language gurus, the vast majority of who have never learned endangered or minority languages and have no intention to do so.

 

And not having that intention is okay, I should add. Personally I really like learning the rarer languages and I’ve embraced it fully. I understand that not everyone has that drive.

That said, a lot of gurus in the language-blogging world may insinuate things that you could possibly interpret as discouragement from wanting to learn Mandinka or Bislama or other languages that don’t have millions of people clamoring to learn them.

Disregard any advice that makes you want to run away from your dreams. And embrace any advice that encourages you to make them real.

I think I couldn’t end on a better note so I’ll just stop with that. Have fun!

 

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