Let’s face it, if you’re learning a minority language your main problem may not be the grammar and vocab but finding some native speakers to practise with. This post will get you clued up to maximise your chances of a great experience using your “lesser used” minority or indigenous language on the ground with some real, live native speakers. It’s the second in a series on learning minority languages.
If you’re learning French and go to France, you’ll expect to speak French. If you’re learning Breton and go to Brittany, the odds are on that, erm, you’ll still be expected to speak French. You might even spend a few days or weeks there and never hear Breton.
I’ve spoken to Basque or Welsh learners, though, who have felt disillusioned on their first visits to the Basque Country or Wales by the seemingly illusive nature of speakers of those languages. (In this series, I’m drawing mainly on my experience learning these two languages, but I’ll pull in other examples and references wherever I can.)
Visit areas with a high concentration of speakers
When you’re in search of the natives it all depends where…and sometimes when you go.
The key is not the absolute number of minority language speakers in the area, it’s the percentage of speakers.
Go to a city of a hundred thousand, which has ten thousand speakers of your indigenous language and your first impressions will probably be that the “dominant” language has conquered all before it. Go to a small town of three thousand, with two-thousand speakers of your target lingo and you’re likely to hear it all around and have chance to use it when you’re out and about.
For just this reason, I chose to spend my month in the Basque country in Lazkao (80% Basque-speaking), rather than a great Basque city like Bilbao, Donostia or Iruñea.
When I visited one of Scottish Gaelic’s supposed “strongholds”, the Island of Skye for the first time, I failed to hear a word of Gaelic (though I did find some limited usage on various signs).
I wasn’t discouraged, though. I already knew that the concentration of speakers is higher on the Outer, rather than the Inner Hebrides. I’d done my homework in advance and knew what to expect. Try to make sure that you’re in the same position. Don’t just swallow what other outsiders have told you. Check what you’re likely to find from multiple sources.
Creating your luck in areas with fewer minority language native speakers
Once the number of speakers falls below about 70%, a minority language will often cease to be the “community language” that is used on first encounters about the town or village or in public events. I know that there are strong Gaelic networks on Skye, if you look for them.
If you’re going to an area where the language is spoken by fewer than 70% or so of the population, you may need to make all the more effort to get exposure.
If you’re on a short visit, make sure your grasp on “transactional basics” are good (e.g. please/thank you, conversation openers) and have a go at using the language first, even though you may be greeted with blank stares of incomprehension or even mild irritation if you’re challenging the social convention that the language belongs “under the hatches”.
If you’re staying for longer getting to know some speakers will be on your agenda. It’ll help if you can plug yourself into networks within which the language is used.
All language learners need to do that anyway (witness the many English-speaking “ex-pats” who live for years even in a majority foreign culture and fail to integrate into the language community).
When I was a 21-year-old university graduate, I took a “year out” (as we than called a “gap year”) to learn Welsh.
I went to the town of Aberystwyth on the mid Wales coast.
It’s only 50% Welsh-speaking. That makes it one of the more Welsh-speaking parts of Wales and the chances of hearing the language on the street or in public life are relatively high. Still, I could have found other places with more speakers. I was going to be staying for an extended period, though. That meant that I had to balance that against other concerns: accessibility by train, the chances of finding a job and a vibrant cultural life.
I ended up working in an office where English was the only language spoken. That was discouraging but the other major pillar of my life, accommodation, worked out well. I was able to lodge with a Welsh-speaking family, which as a huge win. Not only was I speaking Welsh with them all the time, but I got to know some of their friends and learned a lot from them about Wales and Welsh culture.
I then also attended a Welsh-speaking chapel service on a Sunday morning and one in an Anglican church on Sunday evening. That was one of the few places where you could get regular passive exposure to rich, sophisticated Welsh. I kept studying the language and getting as much input through radio, television and reading as possible.
I also used the language whenever I could out and about. By trial and error, I worked out which clerks in the bank, which assistants at the supermarket and so on spoke Welsh and which pubs had more Welsh speakers hanging out in them.
You may not fancy attending a chapel but you can use shared enthusiasms such as sport, singing, whatever, can form a good basis for getting to know people.
This can work even if you’re just going for a long weekend, if you plan in advance. In the Basque Country, Bilbao and Gasteiz (Vitoria) are not nearly as Basque-speaking as Donostia (San Sebastian) or many of the smaller towns or villages. On my short visits to both cities, though, I’ve found cafés, bars or cultural centres that I could patronise for a bit more of a Basque experience.
Two decades after my first stay in Aberystwyth, I spent a year in Swansea, Wales’ run-down but characterful second city. Only 10% of the population there speak Welsh, but nearly all the people I knew did. I’d deliberately “put myself in harm’s way” once again. I was running the Welsh-speaking bookshop in the city and that plugged me into the Welsh-speaking community.
Come to think of it, even when I lived in Moscow, I knew four or five Welsh speakers, as well, all of whom I’d met during my time there.
Building networks before you arrive
Today the internet makes connecting with people of whatever stripe easier than ever before.
Create you own opportunities to use your minority language on line as part of your “arm chair” language learning. Don’t just find learners’ groups on Facebook. As soon as you know enough of the language, start connecting with people who follow the same football team or pop group or share the same hobbies as you, in your target language. Then, if you get the opportunity to visit the country, you can put word out to your network and you may have people you already “know” online to meet up with. Yes, this may be more difficult with lesser-used languages, but have a look what’s out there. You may be surprised.
Even if you aren’t a member of an online community of people using your target language, you can still put word out via social media before your visit and maybe you’ll find somebody willing to meet you for a coffee (perhaps for a language “exchange”) or to show you around.
Visiting events held in the minority language
In the first post in this series, we suggested that you could attend an immersive residential course in the language. What about finding out whether there are any notable events that are central to life in your language that are aimed not at other learners, but at minority language native speakers?
During my month at a Basque residential school, I travelled up to Donibane Garazi (St Jean Pied de Port) in the northern part of the Basque Country (that’s to say, the part that’s in the French state).
This town is the traditional capital of the Basque Province of Lower Navarre). Thanks to centuries of hostility from the French state, Basque speakers are now only a minority there. All the same, hundreds had flocked in, like me, to attend the 2016 “pastorale” (traditional Basque-language outdoor morality play) that was staged there in September 2016.
Try and find out whether there are events that you could attend. If an event is a few months in the future, that gives you a great goal to structure your study around in the coming months.
If the event happens annually, you could make attending part of the long-term interaction with the language, as I have done with the annual Welsh National Eisteddfod (cultural festival), which happens in the first week of August and is held in a different part of Wales each year.
No, finding minority language native speakers isn’t always easy but we’ve seem some steps that you can take to avoid disappointment. Remember:
- to experience the language as a default community language, go somewhere with a a concentration of speakers (don’t just fixate on the absolute numbers).
- in places where the language isn’t so dominant, seek out contexts where you can use it and, if you’re there for longer, get involved in promising networks.
- if there are big events in which your minority language is used more than usual, plan your trip to coincide with them.
- use the internet to try to form contacts with individuals who may be ready to meet up, perhaps for a language exchange.
As always in language learning, making the first move and taking responsibility for your own exposure to the language can make all the difference. It’s just that with minority languages it may take a bit more conscious planning than usual. Good luck and let me know your experiences in the comments below.