Why Learn Rarer Languages?

A lot of people with whom I have interacted online wonder why I devote time to rarer languages rather than the big languages of the UN.

It’s interesting to ponder because now matter how I think about it, learning rarer languages is a move that isn’t only justified but a possible moral imperative.

Allow me to explain:
(1) Rarer languages are usually spoken in marginalized areas. This enables you to see narratives that are more readily hidden when you only know powerful languages, in which corporate interest tends to dominate.

When I use languages like Spanish or even Swedish online, it’s clear that a lot of what I read is stuck to a capitalistic system, one that secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) revels in destruction of the planet and the enrichment of a handful of people on it.
Even in places where social democracy is present and higher degrees of equality, there is an underlying complicity in a system in which entire countries and cultures are being destabilized and destroyed.

These countries and cultures speak languages that people barely learn, and by learning these languages you bring their stories of injustice to light.

“The oppressed are always on the same side” (so I remember from a play called “The Irish Hebrew Lesson”, that featured Irish AND Yiddish [both endangered languages]).

By learning to identify with places that may be weaker economically because of imperialist meddling, you’ll be a better human and be more conscious about the destructive patterns that the system so desperate tries to hide or to get people to not think about.

(2) Rarer languages will get you red carpet treatment more easily.

Its interesting that even for a language like Danish in which the Wikitravel page explicitly discourages people from using the local language (saying you’ll “get no points” for learning it), I HAVE gotten red carpet treatment (granted, it’s because I’m fluent rather than dabbling a few words, so there’s that to offer).

Truth is, the rarer the language you learn, and the fewer people from your demographic learning it (e.g. white Jewish guys like me usually don’t learn Burmese), the more “favors” you’ll get. Free drinks. Contact information. Invitations to parties. VALIDATION.

It’s a pity that this remains a well-established secret because most people are convinced by “the system” that learning rarer languages isn’t worth it. Again, this is another diversion tactic designed to get people to ignore the areas of the world being harmed the most by contemporary capitalism.

(And it is interesting because Arabic dialects are somehow deems “useless” despite the fact that, y’know, it’s what people actually SPEAK. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of officialdom and it has its place, but the informal varieties most people never, EVER try to learn. Well I’ll be going forward with Sudanese Arabic later this year. Very well, that means more honor for me!)

(3) When you speak a rarer language, the ability to stand out among its learners is higher.

A lot of people have reached very high levels of languages like Spanish. There’s no denying that and it is an accomplishment. But because of that, you will have to be AMONG THE BEST of L2 Spanish speakers to stand out.

Meanwhile, with Finnish and Hungarian I was already standing out even when I WASN’T FLUENT. And when I, visibly non-Asian that I am, used Burmese in public in restaurants in Mandalay and Yangon, tourists STARED at me in amazement.

A word of caution: hanging on your laurels too much and / or taking the praise too seriously (even when it isn’t deserved) means that you MAY lose the motivation to improve!

 

(4) You may get untouched cultural masterpieces and influences that will stand out and make you stand out in turn.

A lot of people may be influenced by the artwork, music or culture of Western Europe or the United States, but I looked elsewhere in the world for deep inspiration and I found it in the museums of Nuuk and in the Oceania wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I found it on Pan-Oceanic music YouTube channels and in the music collections of the North Atlantic. In Melanesia, Greenland, Iceland, Southeast Asia, Polynesia and in the songs of my ancestors. And WAY too many other places.

The art you consume becomes a part of who you are.

Venture into art that a lot of your circle doesn’t know about, and your intrigue will EXPLODE.

(5) Those Who Think Different Have Every Imaginable Advantage

If you’re in a place like the United States, you live in a world in which conformity is the path of least resistance and a lot of people believe EVERYTHING they hear on mass media.

By doing something different, you’re emboldened to become a hero, to become a peacemaker, and to go in while myriads of people are thinking “why bother?” or “who cares?”

The conformity and the dumbing down, as things stand, is on route to continue…

…unless, maybe, YOU will be the hero to stem it back. And only those who think differently will have the courage to stand up to the system that has hurt so many. Could it be YOU?

Dysgu Cymraeg

Welsh dragon versus yours truly.

NOTE: PLEASE don’t interpret this as discouragement from wanting to learn popular languages at all, if that’s what you want! I wrote this article because a lot of people wondered “why” I focused on languages like Greenlandic, Lao, Fijian and Gilbertese for months at a time. This is why. And I hope that it will inspire you to chase your language dreams, whether they be with global languages or ones that are significantly smaller.
Onward!

A Step-by-Step Guide to Learning the Language YOU WANT to a Level You Can be Proud of!

(Yesterday marks the half-a-year birthday of this blog)

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  1. A desire to learn a language cannot be forced. It must land on you, and it can land on you for all sorts of reasons, ranging from the professionally pragmatic to just plain silly.

 

Don’t force this desire to learn something and, when you get this desire or find yourself wishing that you knew Language X, proceed to the next step without hesitation!

 

  1. If it is a language whose sounds are familiar to you, proceed to Step 3.

 

If not, go online, find media, and familiarize yourself with the sounds of the language.

 

Entertain the thought that, one day in the future, you will be able to speak and understand this language to the degree that you can understand some or all of what is being said to you.

 

Throughout the entire learning process, get some music in your target language and play it regularly.

 

You won’t understand almost any of it at the beginning, but you will ease into it and your desire to learn the lyrics to your new favorite song in the target language will be a powerful motivator.

 

  1. Find out if the pronunciation of the language is fairly regular and intuitive (Finno-Ugric Languages and Esperanto are the easiest, some like Spanish and Dutch may be a tad harder) or has more “historical” pronunciation (English is the biggest offender, but any language with short/long vowels [Russian, Latvian, Cornish] or complicated but vaguely regular pronunciation rules [Danish, Irish, Faroese] may qualify).

 

If it is in the former category, find a pronunciation guide (online) and familiarize yourself with the sounds. Then, find an online phrasebook for free (Omniglot, Wikitravel, and their ilk) and practice saying these things out loud.

 

If it is in the latter category, find an audio phrase book or one with phonetic pronunciation. Recite things out loud and get used to some of the patterns. Remember, if your language is in this category, the pronunciation will grow on you as a result of the immersion which you will encounter later.

 

YouTube tutorials are also tremendously helpful at this stage, if they exist for your language.

 

For languages that have new characters, or have a set of characters that is impressively large (Chinese Character, Japanese Kanji…), use the same principles to ease into the new system, one letter or character at a time.

 

  1. Now what you want to do is build basic vocabulary. Flashcards can do, Anki, Memrise and DuoLingo are good candidates. I would suggest using a combination of these methods.

 

Your primary goal is to ensure that you can engage with material for native speakers as soon as possible.

 

Throughout this step, regularly check on native-language material (preferably for younger age groups) and see how you engage with it. Keep on building your vocabulary to a degree that you can understand some of it.

 

In the event that there is a certain film or show that you know so well that you practically know all of the lines by heart, even better. Use this to augment your vocabulary.

 

Don’t expect to understand everything.

 

  1. Once you have some passive understanding of the language, your goal is twofold:

 

5a. Gain an active rather than just a passive understanding of the language (by means of writing and speaking). Say things out loud to yourself, find a friend and write messages to him/her in your target language, set up a meet with said friend if possible.

 

Don’t be ashamed to use translation services—these are “training wheels” of sorts (and even when you speak a language fluently enough so that you can teach college-level classes in it, expect to use a dictionary / online translation sometimes!).

 

5b. The grammar…familiarize yourself with the verb forms via the programs listed in Step 4. Adjectives, verbs, declensions…know them to a degree to which you feel comfortable with, but don’t obsess.

 

My Finnish textbook has 34 different paradigms for nouns in declining. Greenlandic has 10. Don’t let it scare you, just note basic patterns and then, when you feel more comfortable with your abilities, return to the tables and the like and polish them.

 

  1. Now that you have both some active and passive understanding of the language, your goal is to perfect grammar even more sharply and to keep on using the language.

 

Keep on collecting words, keep on collecting idioms, keep on collecting songs, make the language a part of your life. Sideline a bit of your Native-Language entertainment / free time with that of your target language…

 

Keep on using your language to build friendships and maintain connections.

 

At this stage, expect embarrassment, mistakes, and sometimes even explicit discouragement (although hopefully you will encounter this one rarely).

 

You will note that others will respect you and your efforts and some may even show more than a hint of jealousy, but let no emotions dissuade you from doing anything further.

 

This is the step that actually never ends, and there is only one alternative: to forget the language by means of disuse.

 

But even if you do, the passive knowledge remains within you somewhere, waiting for you to come back to it. The verb forms are still there, you still have an anecdote or a song or a cool fact here and there…but, remember, the entirety of this project depends on Step 1: having that desire. If you don’t have it anymore, that’s okay. Don’t force it. Follow your heart and let it lead you somewhere else.

 

Whenever you think to yourself “it would be cool if I could learn language X”, think of this list, and return to it. Think of what acting on that thought could do, and think of what you will gain.

 

I haven’t regretting studying any language at all during my entire life. Chances are that you won’t either.

 

Good luck!