The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

How To Learn Minority and Endangered Languages With Little or No Resources


There are almost too many sites and resources for big languages like French, Spanish and German.

When you’re learning a language like these, the problem is usually deciding which resource to use rather than not being able to find one.

But what about those of us who want to learn a less popular language (minority or endangered)?

Often times it’s a real battle to find even one solid resource for a minority or endangered language.

I can’t possibly cover every single language in a post like this so the advice that I could offer for say, Australian Aboriginal languages, could be useless to someone learning a native American language.

But I’ll keep this as general as possible.

Since I put this post together several years ago, awesome sites such as italki have popped up which offer a glimmer of hope for many learners of minority languages.

It doesn’t help everybody however.

Now, because of the difficulty and higher level of frustration involved in learning a minority language, it’s really important that you have the right level of dedication to learning it in the first place.

This is important for all languages but I say even more so for a minority language where there are hardly any resources.

I say this because:

  • The lack of resources can be incredibly frustrating, discouraging and downright boring.
  • Very little or no opportunity to practice with other people. You’ll spend most of the time reading and/or listening without much-needed practice time.
  • Minority languages in nearly all cases don’t offer any financial incentive. In other words, a big language like French or Spanish can help you find employment or get a raise but if you speak the Nyulnyulan language, it’s highly unlikely you’ll make a living out of it.
  • Minority speakers are often harder to find even in their home country. If you learn Irish for example and travel to Ireland, it’s not always easy to find Irish speakers because there’s another dominant language.

Why do you want to learn a minority language and is your determination strong enough to persevere despite these points?

Here are some steps you can take:

 

Find out what resources are available first

Pretty obvious starting point.

Since minority language resources are so scarce, it makes sense to take note of and collect all the material at your disposal first.

When I started out learning the Irish language for example, I literally made a list of all available resources both free and paid before I even got started just so I knew what I was working with.

I took note of every decent site, YouTube channel, blog and so on that I could find so I had a really good idea of the kind of stuff out there for learning Irish.

This is also a very good time saving strategy for later because you’ll know where everything is.

 

Is it enough material though?

So looking at that list of resources you’ve put together and knowing where everything is and what’s available to you – is it actually enough to learn the language?

There is surprisingly a lot available for some really obscure languages.

Take a language like Igbo for example from Nigeria in Africa.

You can find some amazing resources (such as this one) and YouTube channels for learning it which is more than adequate for learning the language to a reasonable level of fluency.

However there also languages like the Jingpho language of Burma which have hardly anything to work with.

So if you do want to learn a language like Jingpho, what do you do without resources?

 

Get in touch with those who have gone before you first of all

In the case of Jingpho, let’s say the only online resource you can find is a Bible translation site (usually the case for a lot of obscure languages).

This is a helpful starting point.

It means that you know for a fact there are people out there who have already done what you’re trying to do.

And they’re probably the best people to ask off the bat.

Get in touch with them straight away and ask for advice on where you can find resources or who you can contact.

I recently got in contact with some people out in the Northern Territory of Australia to ask about indigenous languages out there and they were super helpful with information so I know this works from experience.

 

Next stop: Professors and linguistics departments

This is kind of the same advice as above.

Experts on minority and obscure languages are often found in linguistics departments of universities.

My semantics lecturer at university was a fluent speaker of an Australian aboriginal language of which there are no available online resources currently.

He’s one of only a few non-aboriginal guys who know the language and if I wanted to learn it he’d be the guy I’d call.

Google Scholar is awesome for this.

If you go to the Scholar search tool and look for the language you want to learn, you’ll usually get a bunch of journal articles written by experts in it.

You can then take the name of the professor who wrote the paper, do a Google search of him or her and it’ll bring up the department they work for along with their contact details.

There’s no way to be sure how helpful they’ll be until you contact them but it’s definitely a good place to start.

 

NGO’s, interest groups and government organizations

With a lot of minority and endangered languages around the world you’ll often find government programs or non-profit work being done to revitalize them.

Examples of these are the Aboriginal Resource And Development Services (ARDS) in Australia, Our Mother Tongues in the US, Korero Maori in New Zealand, E-Skuvla in Norway and Gaelchultúr in Ireland.

Also try community and religious groups in your area.

The important thing is that you put yourself out there and try every avenue.

 

When you have limited video and audio material

You can actually learn a heck of a lot from very limited audio and video material. More than you realize is possible in fact.

The Irish I learned in 8 months back before I traveled to the Gaeltacht was mostly learned from watching just a handful of the same videos repeatedly.

It actually doesn’t require a whole lot of audio and video material to pick up the structure, phonetics and the general rhythm of the language.

Cardinal Mezzofanti for example reportedly gained most of his insight into the 39 languages he learned by listening to people say the Lord’s prayer in their language. From that little bit of information he was able to learn a lot about how each language worked.

You can pick up a lot of the language just by listening to the same audio or video repeatedly.

Sometimes having tonnes of resources deludes you into thinking that you’re making more progress but of course there’s a limit to how much you can actually use anyway.

 

Finally: be a trailblazer

If you are learning a language with extremely limited resources then be part of the solution.

People coming after you who want to learn can benefit from your progress.

This is how you can do it:

  • Create a blog like this one. Document your progress learning the language (as I did with Irish for example) and offer advice to help the next person.
  • Further to that, be the only resource on the Internet with material for that language. All the resources you discover and create yourself should be shared and made available to benefit others. New learners will love you for it.
  • Of course if you have the money and time then travel. Learn the language while making a difference in their community. Help raise awareness if it’s an endangered language by letting the world know about it.

Hope that helps!

Are you learning a minority or endangered language? What resources have you found?

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  1. Thanks for this! I have a few languages on my list, some of which have been there for a while mainly because of this reason and not really being sure where to start. Some great advice here! I’ll bookmark this for later! 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing this article Donavon! I have a few minority languages I really want to learn as well on my list! I’m totally bookmarking this!

  3. Great article, it’s one I’ll be filing away for later this year. I’m wanting to learn Shona, from Zimbabwe, and then Sara from Southern Chad. Sara seems to need a lot of research as it’s unclear who speaks which dialect in what area.
    You’ve given me some new places to start looking.

  4. Another great post! Compared to European languages, Chinese and Japanese, Thai just isn’t a popular language to learn. And seven years ago there was barely anything available online for Thai.

    Online resources back then were old-fashioned, scattered, many with many links going nowhere. That’s just one reason why I started my site. To pull everything together on one page (it grew, obviously). Next up Lao and Issan? Hmmm ….

  5. Another excellent post!! Actually, your site was what encouraged me to start mine, so not only have you been part of the solution, you’ve inspired others like myself to be as well. You’ve definitely been a pioneer in this regard and it’s much appreciated.

  6. You can add “Learn the nearest big language” to the list. Let’s say, you want to learn Kikuyu (a tribal language in Kenya) for which there may or may not be many pedagogical resources available in English. You can counter this scarcity of books and audiovisual material by learning Swahili first because many Kikuyu speakers also know Swahili.

    And by “nearest” I mean the closet cultural language. French may not be native to Africa, but you can find some excellent courses of Lingala, Berber, and other African languages in French. Here in India, English will help you learn Indian languages more than Hindi because the Central Institute of Indian Languages publishes nearly all of its manuals (they are 800+-page tomes!) in English. It can be Russian for Central Asian languages and Spanish or Portuguese for Native American languages.

    The route is longer but there are more chances of you reaching a high level of proficiency in your exotic language, at least that’s what I think. 🙂

    An excellent blog, again! ^_^

  7. Indeed a great post! It’s the first post of this kind I’ve encountered. I’m trying to learn Samburu, a mostly unwritten language spoken in northern Kenya (related to Maasai). I am planning to set up a blog and possibly make a podcast to document my way to learn the language, and link to all resources about learning Samburu that I have encountered.

    I’ve set up a Facebook group to start with, where friends and others who speak Samburu can join in. And I’m trying to adapt methods like Glossika, image flashcards with SRS based on Fluent Forever, and Growing Participator Approach, to create my own learning material to learn the language in an environment where only my wife speaks the language.

  8. I’ve been learning Oromo on and off for a while. It is the fourth most widely-spoken mother tongue in Africa, but resources are hard to come by, as you describe. I tried out some of the more common language-learning techniques on this particular language, and I described the process here: https://lovinglanguage.wordpress.com/2016/05/19/do-language-learning-tips-work-for-oromo-i-was-surprised-pt-1/
    and here:
    https://lovinglanguage.wordpress.com/2016/05/23/do-language-learning-tips-work-for-oromo-i-was-surprised-pt-2/

  9. Great post. I’m thinking about putting together a page with some of the material I find (or create) for Algerian Arabic. It’s not exactly an endangered language, put I think that the fact that it is not written poses a great challenge. Which Arabic dialects have you studies, and how did you go about it? (you probably already wrote about it on your blog somewhere!)

  10. I’m learning Cherokee, so I know just what you mean! Here are by far the most helpful resources I’ve found for the language:

    Cherokee Reference Grammar – by Brad Montgomery-Anderson. This is the first and only reference grammar for the Cherokee language. Thankfully it’s a good one. It claims to be a bit more practical than many reference grammars, since it really is the one source where you can find the grammar stuff all in one place (so is useful for teachers). The only other reference grammars I’ve read are Mark Rosenfelder’s, so I can’t really compare it to others. Highly recommended.

    Cherokee-English Dictionary – by Durbin Feeling. The only print dictionary I know of that represents tone, vowel length, and the writing system. Published in 1975, and no-one’s come close to beating it since. Also has a small mini-reference grammar in the back, although I prefer the Cherokee Reference Grammar itself. Has vocabulary holes, the binding isn’t the sturdiest, but it’s worth its weight in gold. (And you can fill in some vocabulary holes with the examples from the Reference Grammar.)

    Lastly, an online source: Unite for Literacy. A native Cherokee speaker recorded Cherokee translations of some children’s books and gave the recordings to this website. The text is in English, but you can hear it spoken in Cherokee. Children’s books are pretty repetitive, so it’s good for figuring out which word is what.

    Actually, Unite for Literacy has some recordings in several endangered languages. Check them out.

    Hope that helps.

  11. Sup I wanna learn Suena bu nothin online gives me enough info just where it originated from and this tht aint even related to it or im readin things wrong either way I wanna know how to get ancient PDFs of the language or pics. I wanna learn alphabet first bu haven’t found anythin. Anyone have suggestions. Plz tell me soon as u can cauz there is only one person alive that speaks Suena

  12. i’m currently learning the khoe language, and I’ve found that there are ten or so short videos on youtube and one webpage with a short list of simple phrases and words….

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