Learning Less Popular and Minority Languages When Resources Are Hard To Find

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.

Connecting With Australia's Yugambeh Aboriginal People.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Ask yourself:

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.

Grammar material 

Forget grammar.
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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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

Be sure and stop by and visit Donovan at The Mezzofanti Guild, at his Facebook Page or on Twitter.

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"Aaron consistenly pumps out top quality language learning advice and motivational posts,
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-Donovan Nagel, The Mezzofanti Guild 

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23 Responses to Learning Less Popular and Minority Languages When Resources Are Hard To Find
  1. Rick
    July 3, 2012 | 4:04 pm

    This is a timely post. I’ve just been asked to round up some of the resources I’d found for Piedmontese that I’d used for the last 6 week challenge on HTLAL. There’s actually a really good selection of free resources scattered around the web, but in the span of a mere two months, a couple of the sites I’d bookmarked are no longer available.

    Luckily, there are ways around it. One is using Wayback. The other, which I tend to prefer, because I tend to do a lot of my reading and listening offline, is to save webpages as PDFs. Every modern browser supports this, or there is an add-on available.

    To download audio media from webpages, there are also add-ons (I use Download Master for Chrome and Snapfish for Firefox).

    • Donovan
      July 3, 2012 | 4:57 pm

      Good advice, Rick.

      If I see an article or post that I like I usually copy it straight into LWT to read later in case I forget where it is.

      Curious – have you managed to find any native Piedmontese speakers online to practise with?

      • Rick
        July 3, 2012 | 6:20 pm

        I have indeed found people to converse with, and have even made a good friend of one in the process.

        I think this is where putting yourself out there and letting people know you’re trying to learn the language is important, whether it’s through a site like lang-8, busuu, livemocha or your own blog. Most people, particularly minority language speakers, are THRILLED to see someone take a genuine interest in their language and will try to help in any way they can.

  2. Andrew
    July 3, 2012 | 4:14 pm

    Good lord that was a hell of a post, Donovan, not just in length but quality as well: I agree with nearly everything you said and there was even some stuff I’d never have thought of there (e.g. contacting University language departments). The only minor quibble I would take is about grammar: no, it’s not necessary, you’re right, but in my opinion it can (not necessarily will, but can) make things go a bit quicker if you’ll just suck it up and learn some grammar, particularly the most important stuff (e.g. in Spanish, how to conjugate the most common irregular verbs like ‘ser’, ‘ir’, and ‘ver’).

    I especially liked the section on motivation: yeaaaup, that’s the one thing people like to ignore, it’s the bloody severed elephant head in the room when it comes to language-learning in general and especially when dealing with really difficult-to-learn languages such as those here that have very, very few resources available for them. It requires far more motivation (because it requires far more effort) to learn an oddball minority language with few available resources than it does to learn a language like Spanish or French and therefore there will inevitably be a good number of people who will want to learn said oddball minority language who simply won’t be able to because they want it that much but who would be able to learn a more common majority language with the same level of motivation and who would therefore be best advised to ‘give up’ on their initial choice of language to learn and select another, easier one. And this is what people really don’t want to admit or talk about: the reality of the situation, the practicality of this. They want to just say “Oh well if you want to learn that language then go for it and to hell with what anyone else says about how hard it is!”–ehhhh, it’s not quite that simple. Yes, you really would be better off just forgetting about that obscure indigenous language you want to learn that’s only spoken by the members of this one tribe in Central America that only has a few hundred members, and just going with Spanish or Russian instead…yes, really, you would.

    Anyway, good article, I’m consistently impressed with the quality of your writing.


    • Andrew
      July 3, 2012 | 4:16 pm

      Edit: should be “because they DON’T want it that much”

    • Donovan
      July 3, 2012 | 5:05 pm

      Thanks very much, Andrew :)

      It doesn’t take long for people to realize that their heart wasn’t really in it to begin with. I’ve heard stories of people working for organizations like SIL who spend 10-20 years on a single language because the language has never been documented. Serious, life-long dedication is needed for something like that.

  3. Donovan
    July 3, 2012 | 4:54 pm

    Hope my advice is helpful to some of you! :)

    Thanks again, Aaron.

    • aarongmyers
      July 3, 2012 | 10:12 pm

      No, thank you Donovan for such a fantastic post! Extremely helpful for all of us.

  4. [...] site: Learning Less Popular and Minority Languages When Resources Are Hard To Find Tags: else-load, typeof-add, var-load Posted in Uncategorized iLive – A Devotion » [...]

  5. Cade DeBois (@lifepostepic)
    July 4, 2012 | 10:43 am

    A lot of really good stuff here. Thank you. I’ve done the full spectrum: I’ve learned modern, majority languages (German & French) and dead languages, both self-taught and college courses (Latin, Ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew) and now mostly studying minority languages (Scottish Gaelic, Breton, MikMaq, and in the near future most likely Occitan).

    I do have one thing to add and that’s to the “Forget grammar” part. This works for some people, but not all. It doesn’t work for me. Different people have different learning styles, and often you find among language lovers people who are excellent auditory learners, which you appear to be one. However, not all of us are, and it can be pretty intimating for people who are not strong auditory learners to have auditory learners say to them “Learn like I did–it’s not hard!” Actually, it’s not only hard for people with a different learning style–it can be impossible for them, by no fault of their own.

    I’m primarily a visual learner. I am atrocious at auditory learning. I need to see things written down and visualize them in my head. So I need resources that can help me associate a new language to written languagee and images. I’m also a very analytical learner so I need to put things into context as well as understand their parts. Once I understand the parts, I can actually use context to learn more. But to do that I need grammar. Otherwise I feel very blind and lost when learning a language and that’s very frustrating and ultimately discouraging. It’s why the first time I tried to learn Scottish Gaelic, I quit. The second time around, I purposefully focused more on grammar and the written language, and now I’m at C1 level.

    None of this means I spend a lot of time memorizing tables and lists. And naturally, my writing and reading skills outpace my conversation and listening skills. But I am just someone who needs to practice using the grammar. It is a slower way to learn a language, but it’s the way that best lets me succeed.

    Last note: regarding finding resources, UniLang.com is a good place to go. there’s often threads there devoted to resources for lesser studies language, and if not, you can always asks. There’s people there who love hunting down a and collecting resources–it’s like a hobby for them. And they’r happy to help if they can. (You can also find me there–my username is ceid doon.) (Also, UniLang’s been having some server issues in recent days–if you have some problems with site, be patient. They’re working on it.)

    • Donovan
      July 16, 2012 | 12:18 am

      Hi Cade.

      I’m very much a visual learner too myself and I wrote about how I dealt with this here:


      The no-grammar method that I’ve mentioned doesn’t mean I take an auditory approach to language learning at all. Like you, I can’t learn like that.

      It means that when I visualize what’s written, I visualize it as whole chunks rather than verb tables and so on.

      I also didn’t mean to come off as saying that everybody should take my approach. If something works for you and produces excellent results, then by all means stick with it.

      Thanks for recommending Unilang. I’ll check it out.

  6. Mae
    July 6, 2012 | 3:03 am

    Wonderful post!!! Thanks for your advice!
    I saw myself standing in front of the huge, wide bookshelf thinking: “Great, 90% of all these books are for learning English, German, French, Italian and Spanish!”
    Guarani is a language I really like, but I’ve been struggling with for years, due to the fact that there is almost no decent material to learn it!

  7. Susanna Zaraysky
    July 11, 2012 | 7:33 pm

    Donovan, thanks for bringing some light to endangered languages.

    I am learning one now myself and it does take a lot of motivation as I have no one with whom to converse. I’m learning Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and because it’s similar to modern Spanish, I can understand most of what I hear and read in Ladino. The problem when one understands but doesn’t speak, or in my case, have no one with whom to speak, is that it’s easy to get lazy and not study the language and do the exercises in the book. I read the grammar book at the gym. (Yes, leg exercises and conjugation charts can go together but not for a long duration!)

    I found some podcasts online and some radio programs in Ladino from Spain and Israel. What I was missing was visual content. I found the You Tube channel of the La Autoridad Nasionala del Ladino i su Kultura (http://www.youtube.com/user/autoridadladino?feature=results_main ) which has interviews with Ladino speakers and other videos. They also have some instructional videos but they’re aimed at Hebrew speakers so they don’t work for me as I don’t speak Hebrew.

    As I am so music and media based, I have to get creative with Ladino because I can’t just flip on the TV and watch a myriad of programs in the language.

    I’ll be speaking about Ladino at a panel about the Endangered Languages Project at Google in September in California. I hope I remember to send you the video. If not, please email me.

    • Donovan
      July 12, 2012 | 4:19 am

      Hi Susanna,

      Yes, please do send me the video. I’d love to see it.

      Ladino’s fascinating. You’ve inspired me to learn more about it.

      Have you spent time abroad with a Ladino-speaking community at all?

  8. Allison
    July 13, 2012 | 4:01 pm

    Thank you so much for this sensible, practical, and proactive guide. I am interested in endangered language revitalization and am studying Applied Linguistics, so this is something I think about quite a bit (I wrote a blog post about this very thought: http://polyglossic.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/what-if-theres-no-there-there/ )

    I do disagree with the no-grammar-ever approach, both for personal reasons and sociological reasons, primarily having to do with literacy. Reading texts, like it or not, requires at least some modicum of grammar comprehension, not just vocab parsing. As a language learner myself I’m very interested in reading texts, but I also understand the importance of literacy to endangered language communities in their work to revitalize their native languages. As David Crystal (and many others) have pointed out, in a world that is overwhelmingly text-based (taking the internet into account), not being able to read a language is a very negative signal for potential learners of small languages.

    Of course there are varying techniques for teaching and learning grammar, some perhaps more effective than others, but ultimately I believe a grammar-less language pedagogy is incomplete at best.

    Other than that you and I are in total agreement :)

    • Donovan
      July 13, 2012 | 5:33 pm

      Hey Allison!

      Thanks very much. Glad I found your excellent blog too. Subscribed.

      Reading is a huge part of my learning as well but my attitude toward grammar in the early stages still applies to literacy as much as it does to listening and speaking.

      I’ll go into more detail about my approach on my own blog rather than this comment section, but I focus on acquiring whole lexical chunks rather than individual words and morphemes.

      For example, I’m reading The Hobbit in Irish Gaeilge at the moment and I just came across the sentence, “The tunnel went on and on” (Théadh an tollán ar aghaidh is ar aghaidh).

      Now, I could break that down and say “Well, ‘théadh’ is ‘went’, ‘an tollán’ is ‘the tunnel’, ‘ar’ is ‘on’, etc. but apart from being unnaturally robotic, I’d run into trouble with ‘ar aghaidh is ar aghaidh’ which literally translates as ‘on forward is on forward’.

      Ask me to explain why it translates like this and I’ll tell you:

      I don’t know. I don’t care. I just use it as it’s used in context elsewhere.

      It’s much better to learn ‘théadh….. ar aghaidh is ar aghaidh’ as a whole, complete lexical chunk “went… on and on” because it’s a pattern that I’ll no doubt encounter in many other books and places in future.

      This is how we acquire language patterns in our first language too (why a collocation like “fish and chips” sounds right, but “chips and fish” is wrong even though it’s grammatically 100% correct).

      Anyway, keep in touch Allison! Would love to hear more about your interests and research sometime.

      • Allison
        July 15, 2012 | 5:29 pm

        I understand what you’re saying, but I’d like to point out two things:
        One – the examples (“went…on and on” and “fish and chips”) you gave are not really grammatical forms but are rather idiomatic expressions, which are excellent candidates for lexical chunking. I don’t think individual inflections behave the same or work the same for the learner. “Chips and fish” is grammatically correct and makes sense, it’s just not idiomatically correct; similarly, “went on and on” would be idiomatically correct, but not grammatically correct if it wasn’t a past tense event. So those are two different operations you’re talking about.

        Two – it’s a long way between the statements “don’t memorize grammar charts” and “forget grammar.” Memorizing grammar charts is not the only way to study grammar, not by a long shot. And I completely agree with Cade DeBois above about learning styles, and I think she and I must learn very similarly.

        Poor grammar! I’ve long thought about writing a defense of grammar on my blog but I fear people throwing rotten internet tomatoes at me if I did.

        • Donovan
          July 16, 2012 | 12:46 am

          Hey, I’m not attacking grammar at all and as I said to Cade above, if a grammar-first approach works for you then by all means keep doing it.

          Part of the reason why I said ‘forget grammar’ above is that grammar study is, in many peoples’ opinions including my own, the reason why 12 years of Irish taught in schools results in Irish young people unable to communicate.

          I learn individual inflections exactly the same way as idiomatic expressions.

          All of the verb forms that I’ve learned up until now (and that you hear in that video), are forms that I’ve learned in context as whole chunks.

          When I talk (even at this low level), I’m not conscious of grammar. I’m just mimicking what I’ve heard from native speakers.

          When I studied Russian years ago I tried the grammar-first method and after 6 months I could barely communicate although my knowledge of Russian grammar was quite good.

          If you asked me to conjugate any of these verbs in Irish I probably couldn’t do it. I simply use them as I’ve heard them being used repeatedly through listening and reading material.

          With our L1, grammar is something we learn when we’re already fluent speakers. I adamantly believe that the L2, L3, and so on can be learned in a similar way.

          When I’ve beaten the hurdle of being able to verbally communicate in Irish, then I’ll actually sit down and study grammar (to perfect writing skills).

          I’m an ESL teacher too so I have to find ways to teach aspects of grammar (mandated by the schools/universities) without actually teaching grammar.

          People in my classes just want to be fed grammar rules because they think it’ll help them speak but it doesn’t. I see students all the time who know English grammar better than I do but can’t even produce or understand the simplest introductory sentences.

          No rotten tomatoes! I love discussions like this.

          Thanks for your feedback :)

  9. [...] really an issue for more mainstream languages (I talked about some of these challenges in this guest post at The Everyday Language [...]

  10. [...] a demand, etc. and although you can theoretically learn a language in isolation (sometimes with minority, endangered or dead languages you have no choice after all), there eventually comes a time where fluency will only come when [...]

  11. [...] while back I reviewed his Guide To Getting Started and I also guest posted for him on how to learn endangered and minority languages. He’s always been a constant source of encouragement and support for myself and [...]

  12. [...] Learning Less Popular and Minority Languages When Resources Are Hard To Find [...]

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