I Want to Learn Indigenous Languages! How Do I Start?

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

I’m writing this article from Brooklyn, not far away from the Peace Corps HQ, a company that pioneered the study of indigenous languages throughout the Americas (although I don’t think they’ve published any materials for indigenous languages of the US specifically.)

You can see their extremely impressive and useful list of language-learning materials here (and this is probably more useful than most bookstore Language-Learning sections I’ve seen can hope to be): https://www.livelingua.com/project/#by-language

This may surprise you, but in many areas of the Americas indigenous languages are not only markers of cultural identity but also thriving more than you would expect.

Transparent Language Online actually has an indigenous language of LOUISIANA (Koasati) available in its offerings! As well as indigenous languages of Canada such as Ojibwe and Cree, and Lakota (and probably many others I forgot) from the United States (and I have it on good authority that there are more of them on the way.)

I love the fact that I live in a time in which the many painful legacies of colonialism have been confronted, and in particular Christopher Columbus’s moral shortcomings (putting it as lightly as I can).

Indigenous communities from throughout the American continents, all the way from the Inuit in the far north (I’m going to GREENLAND NEXT WEEK!) all the way down to the Mapuche in Southern Chile, now have tools to make their languages more powerful with an online presence. I think one thing that may be holding such prospects back is a self-defeating idea of “why would ANYONE use or need this?” But I think if more such publications were made possible, more people (even people who are complete outsiders to these indigenous communities) would find avenues to learn these languages, thereby creating a very positive “vicious circle”.

Okay, that was enough musing to open the article with, now let’s get to HOW to find resources for indigenous languages!

 

  • Omniglot

 

The A-Z Index of Languages on Omniglot is like window shopping. Languages will be provided with histories, scripts, samples, links for further study (usually) and lists of useful phrases (on some occasions)

Poke around this website in order to find what sort of indigenous languages (or any other) YOU would like to see in your life, and how to proceed.

A word of caution, however: there have been some times that I have literally been unable to learn languages due to a dearth of materials (Chuukese from the Federated States of Micronesia being the most potent example in recent memory). You may or may not encounter such a dearth, but you may also expect to be pleasantly surprised!

 

  • Transparent Language Online

 

With various libraries offering this service for free, you are welcome to explore many indigenous languages of the Americas with their fantastically useful sets of flashcards.

 

You can find a list of offering languages here:

https://home.transparent.com/transparent-language-online-available-languages?_ga=2.108520199.400276675.1507569656-1845425504.1451068801

 

On the desktop version, not only will you have all languages available but you’ll also be able to choose from MANY different modes of study for your cards, like matching, blank-filling, or even rattling all of the audio in the target language for your entire collection! (I tried this and I got bored after a few seconds).

 

The mobile version is more simplified with only flashcards being available (although it is nonetheless extremely useful on train rides, for example)

 

If there is one weakness, it is the fact that grammar explanations are usually lacking unless they are ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY (e.g. with Icelandic)

 

  • Your Bookstore / Your Library

 

I discovered the Quechua Lonely Planet Guide in the Columbia University Bookstore one fine day and I was enchanted by the very idea of speaking the language of the Incas (although there are many different regional variations thereof depending on where in the Andes you are).

 

I also found a book on Australian English and it actually had a guide section in the back about basic phrases in various Australian Aboriginal Languages! (Not enough to make one fluent or even reach A1, not by a long shot, but still interesting. If memory serves correctly, I don’t think the book is in print any more, but print-on-demand may provide you a save if you’re still seeking it…)

 

And, of course, Greenlandic, which I also discovered in a Lonely Planet Guide…one thing led to another and my dream to learn a language with ultra-mega-long words led to me designing a video game set in contemporary Greenland. Fancy that!

 

Still haven’t gotten around to speaking Quechua, although I’m going to shamelessly plug myself when I mention…

 

  • YouTube!

 

I originally discovered Guarani, an indigenous language of Paraguay and the surrounding countries, thanks to Duolingo (a resource not on this list because it offers just one indigenous language of the Americas with currently no plans to add other ones that I’m aware of).

I found online tutorials (in Spanish) on how to learn Basic Guarani. Somewhat unsatisfied with their level, I decided to…take it up a notch!

 

Found a Public Domain book on how to learn Guarani online and began filming the process bit-by-bit. Hey, you could do this with your other languages to and help raise awareness or just get feedback from fluent speakers or experienced learners!

As to where I got that book…

 

  • The LiveLingua Project

 

https://www.livelingua.com/project/#by-language

COME HERE KIDZ FREE BOOKZ!!!!1!!! (And by “free” I mean “legally free” not “pirated”!)

 

  • Religious Materials (for Christians)

 

Even if you’re not Christian yourself, you can use materials produced by missionaries in order to aid your journey. The Bible (sometimes both the Old and New Testaments) has been translated into more languages than any other in human history, keep in mind that the New Testament does tend to be translated more often by a small margin.

Also, the most dubbed-film in human history is The Jesus Film, and while it does remind me a lot of something I would watch in high school classes when the syllabi ran dry (I don’t really mean that as a genuine compliment, although my teachers there were great!), it can also be a very useful language-learning resource given how visually-oriented the plot and dialogue are.

The most translated website is that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well. Yes, more commonly translated than…

 

  • Wikipedia

 

Sadly in some indigenous languages (like Cree and Greenlandic) there is a lot of the “colonial” language used in the interface (that would be English and Danish respectively), but in many others the words are more complete, such as the Guarani Wikipedia (https://gn.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ape), the Quechua Wikipedia (https://qu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qhapaq_p%27anqa) and “Huiquipedia (the Nahuatl Wikipedia) (https://nah.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cal%C4%ABxatl)

 

You can also find out how to contribute in some capacity even if you’re a beginner in the language! (There are a lot of times that I’ve seen articles that are literally three words long, and then this gem from the Bislama Wikipedia: https://bi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven [as of the time of writing, it just shows the number seven in a picture with the caption “Seven, namba 7”)

 

You’ll pick up a significant amount of useful vocabulary to discuss languages and cultures with these wikipedias if you look at the articles detailing these languages or countries respectively.

 

This is a list that is just going to keep growing

 

With accelerated growth of technology will come more opportunities for indigenous communities to proliferate the usage of their language as well as, perhaps, a more keen sense that “time is running out” if they perceive their traditions as threatened.

 

New resources are coming into the world every year and it seems that more and more people are open to the idea of learning indigenous languages, which I think we, as polyglots in general, should do.

 

We need to use our strong, cohesive identity and passion to heal the world. And where else to start by telling these small cultures that we care about them and want them to keep creating in their languages, many of which have been lost to us forever?

 

May this Indigenous People’s Day be a source of determination to you!

greenland asanninneq

 

A Brief Look at Some Native American Languages

Today is an American holiday fraught with controversy. In its honor, I have decided to reflect upon some indigenous languages of the Americas, one of which I know quite well and the other two of which I don’t.

  1. Sioux / Lakota

 

For those of you wondering what language was described in my book collection as a mixture of Polish, French and Chinese, wonder no more!

 

Obviously this statement can only be qualified in regards to the way the language sounds, and even then there are those that may try to call it into question. For one, the “l” sound in Lakota sounds very much like the English “w”, not unlike the Polish letter “ł”.

 

Lakota has a language forum for all levels (from beginner until Native Speaker) and a language consortium as well. Have a look yourself:

 

http://www.lakotadictionary.org/phpBB3/

 

http://www.lakhota.org/

 

One thing that is noteworthy about Lakota is that, unlike either of the other members on this list, it is a very purist language.

 

For those of you who have studied Chinese you may remember that various country names are given new versions that match a certain sound in the language being borrowed from and a meaning in Chinese that is deemed relevant.

 

Lakota is even more rigid in fact that the names given to countries don’t even match any sound in the language. The word for “Germany”, for example, literally means “the land of people who speak badly”

 

iyasica makhoche

There is a historical reason for this: American settlers were expected to speak English, and the Sioux picked up the language accordingly. As for the German-American settlers that spoke German and not English—they were known as the “people who speak badly” because they couldn’t be understood. The name stuck and remains in place until today.

 

I actually did some searches in the Lakota Dictionary for “Israel”, “Austria”, and “Switzerland” and it didn’t turn up anything.

 

The words for modern inventions are likewise all neologisms, not unlike the situation found in Icelandic, also noted for being notoriously purist.

 

Some things you may recognize in the journey to learning (which I have barely begun because of sustaining other languages): the word “tipi” comes from Lakota, as does a system for giving names to outsiders, similar to that of Chinese (also quite purist). Obviously this system has been featured in American popular culture depictions of Native Americans.

 

For those of you who might have played some of the Age of Empires games, I recall vaguely that one of the installments did feature Sioux soldiers using bits of genuine Lakota.

 

Before I go onto the next language, I should say that the Lakota Language Consortium has created a version of the Bernstein Bears cartoons dubbed into the language!

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nta0aAQyVIA&list=PLWebueRr1D03NQzavj6yIHZimqbjFhQ1Y

 

  1. Greenlandic / Kalaallisut

 

“Oh, that’s the language with the really long words, right?”

kid banging on a typewriter

Greenlandic is an Eskimo-Aleut language with a good balance of purism and Danish import words. The word “Inuit” is actually a Greenlandic word, meaning “people”. For that matter, “Igloo” also comes from the word “illu”, meaning “house”.

The names of the countries in Greenlandic almost all come from Danish, with exceptions made for Greenland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the Faroe Islands (arguably America, which could be referred to as “USA”, “Amerika”, or “Naalagaaffeqatigiit”, which is a literal translation of “United States”).

Some linguistics have referred to Greenlandic as the world’s hardest language, and therefore I should consider a blogpost as to why learning Greenlandic isn’t as hard as they might thing. But this is not that post.

I wrote about Greenlandic in more detail here: https://worldwithlittleworlds.wordpress.com/2014/05/30/thats-all-one-word-learning-introductory-greenlandic/comment-page-1/

Interesting fact: Greenlandic was featured in Gravity, spoken by an off-screen character singing a lullaby.

For those of you more intrigued by Greenland’s more modern side (which I get asked quite often about by people), look no further than these links:

Here is a show on KNR (the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation), in which video games and movies are reviewed:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NjR5uAaAZM

 

One of my favorite television shows back before KNR did a cleanup of its site a few weeks ago was this show, “Pisuttuarpunga” (a kid’s show, “I was out for a walk”). It is based on the premise of a Greenlandic children’s song about what kids think about when the adults in their lives are away working.

The premise is based on the song (featured in the video), and the main character who lives in a tent spends each episode trying out a new job in real-life modern Greenland, and learns the basics of each in a given episode. Extraordinarily educational, and I believe there are two seasons for sale on DVD (but hopefully the free episodes will come back to the site soon):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtjEdZ8XxiY

 

My journey through Greenlandic Language and Culture has been quite extensive so I invite you to look around this blog and read what you want on the topic, should you be interested.

  1. Nahuatl

 

“The Elegant Language”, as it literally translates to, was formerly known as “Aztec” by many. My Nahuatl book (which is in German) asks the following question in the introduction: “Aztec? Hasn’t it already died off?”

 

No, actually, and when you think about it, it makes sense that it didn’t. If the Spanish colonists were trying to convert the local populations, wouldn’t it make sense to learn the local languages to reach out to them? (The same logic that led to the New Testament being translated into Yiddish…the result is positively hilarious, I assure you…)

 

That book also offers the following remark about the indigenous languages of Mexico: there are many of them, and they are about as diverse as German, Korean, and Swahili. (Hence: if you think that a given Maya Language is similar to Nahuatl in any way…rest assured that English and Icelandic are closer to each other than Maya Languages to Nahuatl)

 

Nahuatl is probably the best known of the “Nahuan Languages”, which is why my book regularly offers dialectal varieties.

 

Students of Nahuatl may be surprised with the amount of words that may be familiar to them in some context already—“Tomato”, “Avocado”, “Chili”, “Mexico” and “Chocolate” all have their origins in the language. Many place names of Mexico are similarly indebted, as are import words known to speakers of Mexican Spanish.

 

Like Greenlandic, Nahuatl is polysynthetic, as you could possibly guess from looking at the Nahuatl “Huiquipedia” : http://nah.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cal%C4%ABxatl

 

One thing that quite vexes me about learning Nahuatl, however, is the relative lack of multimedia material (e.g. the likes of the Greenlandic videos seen above). Maybe I just need to look in other places…

 

…but it is good to know that there are many universities throughout the world that are teaching it and that there are eager students willing to learn!

 

Will you be one of them?