How To Learn Minority and Endangered Languages With Little or No Resources
- Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW
Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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.
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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