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!

 

Fijian After One Week: Progress Report!

One week ago, with the start of February, I decided to devote this month to improving my Greenlandic and my Fijian. Greenlandic has been going by better and the new video you’ll be getting at the end of February promises to be a real treat (and better than the December 2017 one on multiple fronts, or so I hope).

Fijian is interesting in the respect that it falls squarely in the middle of the difficulty curve for all of the languages I have ever attempted. It also incorporates English loan words in ways similar to those of Japanese or Burmese. Fijian radio also uses English code-switching to various degrees, making it possible for me to understand what’s “happening” more easily. (For example, on a piece about climate change, while almost all of the dialogue is in Fijian, some phrases like “do your part” or “hard to say” may find their way in, sandwiched between perfectly good Fijian sentences).

I’ll say that there is, in my opinion, NOTHING WRONG with English-code switching, and certainly not in a place where English is the language commonly seen on signs.

Allow me to explain: during British colonial rule there were Indians taken to Fiji as indenture servants. The language that developed in this community became known as “Fiji Hindi”, sometimes described by some of my Hindi-speaking friends as “Hindi with no rules”.

You can also watch my attempts to learn Fiji Hindi here:

Alongside them, of course, were the inhabitants of Fiji present from before, and their language is an Austronesian one, Fijian. Some call them Native Fijians, and ever since 2010 they have been referred to in officialdom as iTaukei (whereas Fijian refers to any citizen of Fiji regardless of ethnic extraction).

I would imagine the dance between the various languages in Fiji to be somewhat similar to what I had encountered in Greenland with Greenlandic and Danish last year (except this time with three languages, English, Fijian and Fiji Hindi, and with English having a more pronounced presence in Fiji than in Greenland). I wrote more about my experiences speaking Greenlandic in Greenland here.

Anyhow, yesterday I helped myself to this wonderful book and it has been hacking away steadily at all of my problem points with the language and I haven’t even owned the book for more than 30 hours yet!

vosa vakaviti

So, what have I done?

  • I got a basic understanding of the foundations and many of the ways to greet people, form sentences and alter verb tense.
  • The difficult-to-translate particles aren’t much of a problem anymore thanks to the Lonely Planet book clarifying exactly what “sa” and “se” mean. (Sa -> denotes a change of state or action and se -> denotes a state or action that is being continued).
  • The patterns of what sort of words I should expect to be English loan words is clarified
  • The patterns as to what English loan words look like in Fijian are clarified. Nurse -> Nasi. Jared -> Jereti.
  • How to passively recognize certain morphology patterns. Katakata -> warm. To turn an adjective into a verb meaning “making something that adjective”, add vaka at the beginning and taka at the end. Hence, to warm up becomes “vakakatakatataka”, which is EXTREMELY difficult to pronounce quickly (and given how often climate change comes up in Oceania, it’s a word I’ve ALREADY heard quite often).
  • Customs and cultures of Fiji, including relations between the iTaukei and the Findians.

 

Where I still have yet to go:

 

  • Distinctions between informal and formal language (Fijians may speak differently to foreigners than to each other, my Lonely Planet books tell me that certain words are used in excess in foreigner-speech and left out in proper speech).
  • Varieties (“dialects”) of Fijian
  • How the language sounds when spoken quickly (I remember that with Gilbertese last month I had an EXTREMELY shocking wake-up call when I realized exactly how fast I-Kiribati speak!)
  • Putting together sentences with ease.
  • Speaking at a natural speed (note that I did NOT say “speaking quickly”)

 

Where do I go from here?

 

Well, I think that right now I have the phrasebook and I will need to master each section individually. I think that if I learn all of the phrases in the book by heart, it will not make me absolutely fluent but enough so that I could reasonably claim BASIC proficiency.

 

From then, I could easily acquire more knowledge and vocabulary through reading, radio and even possibly doing the Huggins International 30-Day Challenge with Fijian at one point. I think that last one…it would have to come down to that before I leave, and if my plan to visit Fiji materializes, it will likely be in the summer. But even if I don’t, I’ll have gained many experiences with the language to cherish not also to mention advantages in learning other languages from Polynesia.

 

This is the beginning of something legendary!

Languages in Article are Closer than they Appear

Upon studying many languages in a similar area, you begin to realize that each language tells a story—one of its own culture’s relationships with others, one of its own culture’s struggles, and also of its hopes.

Trying to list ways to prove that is something for another time.

But another thing that happens is that you get to see certain pairs of languages which seem uncannily similar to each other.

The fact that English and Icelandic/Faroese share many idiomatic structures shouldn’t surprise anybody (e.g. “I am with child”, made famous from the story of King David, parallels an Icelandic method of indicating ownership by saying “Ég er með…”).

But here are some other pairs that are more surprising.

The fact that English and Modern Hebrew share close idiomatic links is often overlooked by the many Americans and other English speakers who take Hebrew classes every year. This is in part because of the British Mandate of Palestine, but also because of American and English-Language influence on Contemporary Israel.

The American Olim brought their idioms with them from across the Atlantic, and many of them have impacted Modern Hebrew’s development very starkly. There are people in other countries (Germany and the Netherlands come to mind) who do use lots of English words in their native-language speech, but not as often do they translate the idioms into their languages. Modern Hebrew has done exactly that, in too many examples to even count.

For those of you in Hebrew classes: see if you can notice this more often, especially if you are in an upper-level class. (I’m not giving examples here because I’m afraid the left-to-right thing might screw things up a bit…)

Another example of European influence with a non-European language has been the exchange between Danish and Greenlandic (c’mon, you guys know me by now, of course I would mention it!).

Danish favorites, such as “lev vel!” (bye bye, meaning “Live well”, “tak for sidst” (“thanks for the last time”), “vi ses” (“We [will] be seen [by each other again]”) and “velkommen (“welcome”) got translated literally into Greenlandic, courtesy of Oqaasileriffik (the “Greenlandic Language Secretariat”, which creates purist words, place names, and personal names).

I’ll give an example: “Tikilluarit” means “Welcome” in Greenlandic:

Tiki – to come

Luar – to do something well

-it – you (singular

It is a literal translation of “come well”, which is exactly what “welcome” and “velkommen” and its Germanic siblings all convey!

All modern items (computers, typewriters, etc.) can also be conveyed in Greenlandic using Danishisms (computeri, skrivemaskiina, etc)

In their idiomatic structures, Finnish and German are quite similar. Wednesday in both Finnish and German indicates “middle of the week” (“keskiviikko” and “Mittwoch”), whereas in Swedish this isn’t the case.

The compounding of nouns is nearly identical in both languages and the sentence structure in Finnish is closer to German than it would be to Swedish. This is probably due to trade routes, although definitely some German structures that existed in Swedish were thrown over to Finnish as a result of Swedish control of the region.

A surprising amount of cognates similarly exist between Northern Sami and Swedish/Norwegian. One example is that “Stora/Store” (big) becomes “Stuoris”. The word for chair is “stuollu” (stol), the word for fox is “rieban” (my first Northern Sami word, actually, coming from Norwegian “reven”).

I was shocked to see how many of these exist in the language (I can’t speak for the other Sami Languages), and nothing that I saw in Stockholm’s Nordic Museum on the Sami People and Languages alerted me that this would be the case. Like the English idioms in Hebrew, the scope of these import words is quite mind-boggling.

And for a final pair I’ll leave you with Irish and Biblical Hebrew.

Yup. You read that right. A number of my professors mentioned it throughout the years, but I still don’t have a convincing theory as to why this would be the case.

Both languages lack indefinite articles. The idea of prepositions with a personal ending exists in both. The sentence structure in both is so congruent that I find it almost frightening.

That isn’t to say that they are all the same—Irish, like Spanish and Portuguese, differentiates between two states of being (“ser” in Spanish would be “Is” in Irish, and “estar” in Spanish would be “Tá”). In Hebrew, like in Russian, there is no present tense of the verb “to be” in conjugated forms.

There are also some cognates between the other Germanic Languages and Hebrew, “אֶרֶץ” vs. “erde” (German), “לְהַצִיג” vs. “Zeigen” (also German), and others that a professor of mine told me about but don’t come to mind too easily.

One thing that I truly have noticed: sometimes similarities can note a language’s diplomacy and history. But at other times similarities are just coincidences.

I have so many of these throughout my collection of languages and beyond that I could make a case as to how any two languages are related. But just because I can do it doesn’t mean that I should.

Or maybe you’re going to put me up to the challenge?

Le Français: My (Not Exactly) First Impressions

It’s not quite a secret, but French is actually my second language. My father had a desire to visit/work in French West Africa, and as a result bought himself some tapes for kids. My sister and I were quite young children then, and we picked it up, even going so far as to attend weekly French lessons at some point.
But then, because of disuse, both she and I forgot all of it…well, almost all. Thanks largely to the not-always civil exchange between France and Britain, not also to mention the Norman invasion, the French language is the biggest source for English import words, more than any other language on earth.
In honor of Bastille Day yesterday, I betrayed the expectation set in my own blogpost and I went ahead with the French Duolingo course anyway (I often do things like this in honor of certain calendar dates). I haven’t gotten very far, nor do I even consider myself even close to having my first conversation, but I thought that now would be a good time to write down what my “first impressions” are…even if they aren’t first impressions at all…
Thanks to having learned so many languages to varying degrees, I know that the first element to encounter is always frustration and hopelessness. I remember when I was going to Hebrew University for the first time, I was in Newark airport by myself, confused about what to do, wondering if my luggage would actually find its way to Tel-Aviv, and then, I was nagged by the following thought…
“You know, Jared, you could always just quit. You could just decide that you’re not going anymore and just stay here in the cozy U.S. of A…”
Well, good thing that I didn’t.
I know this feeling all too well. I remember seeing in a Lonely Planet advertisement that the hardest part of any journey is deciding that you’re going to go. This is true for many things and language learning is definitely one of them.
Did I go off topic? Yes, I think I did.
I found the pronunciation particularly difficult, but thanks largely to one of my previous linguistic adventures, I didn’t find myself as intimidated.
Throughout the lessons as well as trying to grapple with TV shows for children and seeing how many words I could make out, I had constant flashbacks to my first steps in learning Danish.
Mention Danish to a native speaker of Swedish or Norwegian and you may get treated to a certain homily about how written Danish is very familiar to him or her, but when it is spoken it sounds “as strange as Chinese”.
Both with Danish and with French, I had a lot more familiarity with the written language before I even started studying it to any degree. In Sweden, Swedish, Finnish and Danish are the most common languages (in that order) on product labels. Because I was exposed to it just by sight-reading, I had a “leg-up” with Danish and I expect my French journey to provide a similar advantage.
I learned Danish after having studied both Swedish and Norwegian to significant degrees, and similarly, I have had my Portuguese and Spanish adventures (not also to mention some vague knowledge of Italian) that have been vaguely helpful in understanding what little French I encountered yesterday. One way in which the situations are not comparable, however, is the fact that the Scandinavian trifecta’s members are a lot closer to each other than the biggest of the Romance Languages could ever hope to be.
Within my first few weeks of Elementary Polish back in June 2011, I remember being frustrated so much by saying certain words out loud that I almost threw my laptop across the room. I imagine that French may frustrate me in a similar manner somewhere along the journey (and all of my languages have, although some more than others…and the journey is continuing with all of them…my native language included), but I keep on having to tell myself that I’ve encountered far worse obstacles.
The fact that it is one of the world’s most commonly studied languages will make it easier for me in every regard. For one, every single one of the basic phrases had an air of familiarity about it, thanks largely to Anglophone popular culture. Finnish, on the other hand, provided only about five import words in the whole English language, the best known of which is “sauna”.
Part of me also feels a little bit guilty for starting it this late again. After adventures in stranger languages, I something tell myself, “Jared, what took you so long?”
I’m just on the first few steps. I’m developing a good sense of the phonemes (which are always the most important part and, in some cases, could always use improvement throughout the learning process, no matter how advanced you are).
The most important thing that I should tell myself is that I shouldn’t expect magical results instantly, especially when I’m not putting in as much effort as I could. But after Lord-knows-how-many-times of doing the same, I know that already.
I remember one time when I was learning Greenlandic in a cafeteria and putting together a sentence for someone, I was told, “it’s interesting…to you, Greenlandic is just another language…”
I have adopted the same mentality in this case. French is just another language.
As is Faroese, which I will write about…some other time!