Today’s guest post is written by Donovan Nagel, the author behind The Mezzofanti Guild. Donovan continualy impresses me with his great writing, creative and fun ideas to learn languages better and his own language learning journey. I would encourage anyone interested in learning languages better to stop by The Mezzofanit Guild as soon as you finish reading today’s great post.
When Aaron asked me to share some advice on this issue I was delighted to do it as this is a topic that really stirs me and something that I plan to focus a lot of my energy on in my own writing.
This is for those of you who are attempting to learn a less popular, minority or endangered language when little or no resources are available.
Have you ever had thoughts similar to this?
Oh great. Yet another website for learning French, Spanish, German, Mandarin…
What about people who want to learn languages like Pirahã, Yolngu, Manx or Cherokee?
There are dozens of good websites for the popular languages and here I am struggling to find at least one decent site for this less common one.
Of course, it’s impossible to cover every language in a single blog post like this and they’re all going to widely differ in terms of what’s available and how much support for them already exists. Advice that I give for Australian aboriginal languages for example may be totally irrelevant to people wanting to learn minority Chinese or African languages.
Some countries have fantastic, well-funded programs in place to preserve and promote their smaller languages (e.g. Gaeilge in Ireland) whereas other countries allow the oppression and/or neglect of theirs to continue (e.g. Coptic in Egypt).
For many of you the language that you’re trying to learn isn’t necessarily a minority language either but in terms of its limited or completely unavailable resources it may seem like one.
I say this time and time again: Assess your reasons for learning the language first of all.
Every language requires plenty of motivation to ensure success but uncommon languages require a significantly higher level of dedication.
There are several reasons why I say this:
- The most obvious reason: limited or no resources. Unless you’re truly dedicated then this can be extremely discouraging and cause boredom when you’re forced to use the same materials repeatedly.
- Less opportunity to practice means longer periods without output. You tend to spend lots of time reading and listening but meeting people to practice with is often a rare luxury and this can have a severe impact on your motivation to continue.
- Little or no economic benefit. Unless there’s a demand for specialist translators or interpreters somewhere then there’s never going to be a financial incentive for learning the language.
- Even if you do travel to the country chances are there’s a majority language or several dominating the social landscape and native speakers of the language you’re learning can be difficult to find.
This is not at all meant to discourage anybody. If indeed you are dedicated to learn a language like this then these factors shouldn’t deter you at all.
Usually people who learn these kinds of languages do so for humanitarian reasons, academic research, missionary work or ancestry.
What are your reasons for wanting to learn a less popular, minority or endangered language?
Is that reason enough to help you persevere despite the negative factors I mentioned above?
Stockpile your material
Resources are scarce so work hard right from the beginning to accumulate as much language content as possible.
Just before I started learning Irish I scoured the internet for hours and typed up a list of every available resource I could possibly find online so I knew exactly where to find it. This included YouTube videos, podcasts, target language blogs and news sites, Google Books and other random sites with phrases and audio samples.
Fortunately in my current situation with Irish there’s quite a lot available compared to many other languages which may have only a few resources online or none at all.
If I was to put all the language content of my accumulated material together would I have enough to learn how to effectively communicate in the language?
It surprises me just how much actually is available for languages that are quite uncommon. For example Igbo, which is a Niger-Congo language has some really good websites (e.g. this one) and YouTube videos which people have made available for anyone wanting to learn. I’d say based on what I’ve found doing a few quick searches that Igbo can certainly be learned online with the amount that’s available.
On the other hand, the Jingpho language of Burma and Southern China yields very little material to work with – I was only able to find one useful site for this language which is a Bible translation site.
So what are your options if you’re learning a language like Jingpho?
First of all: Contact those who have already learned the language
So let’s say that the Bible translation site mentioned above is the only resource you’re able to find.
At least you know that there is someone or some group of people out there who have already achieved what you’re trying to achieve.
These people could be able to point you in the right direction.
Contact them by phone or email, tell them about your determination to learn the language and concern over lack of resources, and then ask them if they can suggest people or organisations you can get in touch with.
Contact university language departments
For some languages, particularly those like indigenous Australian languages, some of the best places to get in contact with are the linguistics departments in universities.
For example I had a university lecturer who’s an expert in and fluent speaker of a Central Australian aboriginal language that there aren’t any online resources for (none that I’m aware of). He’s probably one of a handful of non-aboriginal people who know that language and would be my first contact if I decided to learn it.
Use Google Scholar to search for the language and you can find links to papers and articles that have been written by people who have spent time living with the community documenting the language.
For example, the Pirahã language I mentioned above (a native language in the Amazon rainforest) yields a search result of papers written by Professor Peter Gordon from Columbia University, which I then did another Google search on and found his staff profile page with email contact and other articles written by him.
He may or may not be a fluent speaker of the language but he no doubt has contacts who are native or fluent speakers and may be able to advise you.
Government and non-profit groups
More and more government-funded and non-profit groups are being established in the former colonies to help promote, preserve and revive indigenous languages.
The Aboriginal Resource And Development Services (ARDS) in Australia, Our Mother Tongues in the US, and Korero Maori in New Zealand are just a few examples of excellent places to begin making inquiries.
You may even be fortunate enough to find community and/or church groups in your area with native speakers that you can connect with.
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and network with as many of these people/groups that you can.
I don’t need to write about Glovico because Aaron did a fantastic job introducing it here – Language Learning Resource: Glovico.
Though still limited in the amount of languages available, Glovico is without doubt one of the most exciting projects I’ve seen and it has enormous potential, not only for helping teachers in developing countries but also for us learners unable to find native speakers.
This is contentious for some people but you don’t need to study grammar to learn to speak a language. At the bottom of this post you can see a video of myself speaking Irish Gaeilge after 6 months of learning at home over the internet with zero grammar study.
I’ve never picked up a grammar book for Irish or memorized conjugation tables. Ever.
I’m not quite fluent yet and still make a lot of mistakes but you can see what can be achieved in a short time at home without going anywhere near grammar.
Focus on obtaining conversational material – material full of dialogues and real language.
If you want to become a grammarian – fine – but if you want to be a fluent speaker of any language then focus on natural, useful chunks of language.
I have and will explain this in greater detail on my blog.
When you have limited video and audio material
You’d be surprised how much you can actually absorb from a single video or audio dialogue with a transcript.
After 6 months of learning Irish at home over the internet with very few opportunities to practise I can honestly say that a huge amount of what I know so far has come from watching just a handful of (less than five) video streams repeatedly.
You don’t need a lot of video or audio material to learn structure, phonetics and the general rhythm of the language. Cardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti for example (who my blog is named after) used to gain most of his insight into languages just by listening to people say the Lord’s prayer in their own language.
Don’t assume that because you only have one episode of a series or a single childrens’ cartoon that you don’t have enough to learn with. You can extrapolate an enormous amount out of that limited content by lots and lots of listening, note-taking and parroting (repeating exactly what the speaker is saying and how he/she is saying it).
Having plenty of books and resources doesn’t necessarily equate to more successful acquisition. In fact I’d argue that sometimes all it does is give the illusion of progress.
Endangered languages: Get involved
If you’re intending on learning an endangered language then I’d encourage you to focus your efforts not only on learning the language but contributing to national and global efforts to preserve it.
Here are some ways you can do this:
- Blog about your progress. Seriously. Spend time writing about your progress with the language, issues that the community is facing and source donations to help community groups.
- Remember how I said stockpile your material? Consider putting together flashcard stacks, LWT texts + audio, YouTube instructional videos and so on, and make them all available on your blog. Be the only blog on the internet with resources for that language and people who come after you will be really thankful for it!
- If you have the financial means and the time, get in touch with humanitarian groups and do short-term trips to lend a hand (while learning the language of course).
It recently came to my attention that Rosetta Stone produced a version of its software for the Mohawk language which is available here.
While it’s excellent to see a commercial giant like Rosetta Stone taking an interest in indigenous languages I’d like to see them and other commercial products cover more languages in future and for lower or no cost. It’s still far too expensive to charge $150 for a language that needs to be protected.
What better way to discourage people from learning a threatened language than by making it beyond their means to afford?
Anyway, my challenge to Rosetta Stone is to make Mohawk (and other minority languages in future) either free of charge or low-priced to encourage natives and non-natives to use it.
Make sure to keep an eye on The Endangered Languages Project
Like Glovico, the Endangered Languages Project is one of the most exciting ideas I’ve heard about and I’m hoping to do my bit over time to contribute to it.
At present it still doesn’t have a lot of material for many languages but gradually as more and more people like yourselves contribute your own discoveries it could potentially become a very useful resource.
Finally: Here’s me speaking Irish Gaeilge after 6 months of learning at home on the internet with no absolutely no grammar study and very little practise with native speakers
Ready to get serious about learning another language?
"Aaron consistenly pumps out top quality language learning advice and motivational posts,
and is probably one of the best sources of encouragement you'll come across."
-Donovan Nagel, The Mezzofanti Guild