When you’re learning a language, good resources can make all the difference. But what about resources for learning a minority language? That’s the focus of this first post in a new series on learning a “minority languages”. Just how different is it? Here you’ll find the low-down and actionable tips drawn from my own and what I’ve learned from many other learners and linguists in the field. But first, before we turn to minority language resources, what exactly is a “minority language”?
What is a minority language?
From a language learning perspective, we’re talking about languages that are traditionally spoken in a territory but co-exist under the shadow of one or more “dominant” languages and which aren’t the main language of any state (so excluding Swedish as a minority language in Finland, Danish in Germany or Hungarian in Slovakia).
There are other terms out there. Until 2010 the had a specialist bureau for “lesser used languages”. The glory of the French state looks down haughtily on its “regional languages” and the Council of Europe has a “Charter for Regional or Minority Languages“ (signed but not ratified by France and Italy and not even ratified by language bullies Russia or Greece). 2019 is the United Nations’ year of “indigenous languages”. Many, though not all of the languages are “endangered”.
There’s no neutral terminology here, it seems. I find the term “minoritised language” helpful, conveying, as it does, the sense of a language actively pushed to the margins by a more powerful group. It’s no coincidence that modern state-building, empire and colonisation are so often present in the mix. In such contexts, some languages can be spoken by massive majorities in some areas and still marginalised (take Welsh in Wales in the nineteenth century, some of the so-called “dialects” of China or Javanese in Indonesia).
In Europe, we’re talking languages such as Irish (Ireland, UK), Breton (France), Sámi (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russian Federation), Sorbian (Germany), Catalan (Spain and France), Corsican (France), Basque (Spain and France) and Galician (Spain), numerous languages in the Russian Federation.
There are examples all over the world. From the languages of Siberia, to Greenlandic, Native American languages, languages in India and Africa and aboriginal Australian languages, Maori in New Zealand and the languages of the Pacific like Chamorro on the USA’s Guam island territory. In fact, most of the 5,000 plus languages in the world fall under one or more of the definitions we’ve mentioned.
The availability of minority language resources: materials
As a rule, the bigger the language, the bigger the market. Ever noticed all the bookshop shelves groaning under textbooks for Spanish, Italian, German and French?
The same goes, to an extent with minoritised language.
They range from large language communities of hundreds of millions (Kurdish, Berber, Catalan), though hundreds of thousands (Welsh, Basque) to a handful of speakers and that, interplaying with the level of development of the territory, is a big determinant of what you can expect to find.
Commercial publishers have an admirable commitment to a some of the “bigger”, erm, “small” languages that are traditionally spoken in Western countries.
For Welsh, there’s a Teach Yourself book (Hodder Headline) and you can get Colloquial Welsh or Colloquial Basque (Routledge). Assimil publishes courses in Basque, Berton and Corsican (language of instruction – French).
As newer, electronic media, u-Talk does apps in a very wide range of languages, including lesser-used ones like Cornish, Manx and Maori. Glossika’s “mass sentence practice” courses include Welsh and Basque.
My friend Maureen Millward recently published an introductory course to Scots with Language Boost.
Sometimes, dedicated enthusiasts may have created online resources, such as the excellent SaySomethingInWelsh (which started as a labour of love but is now a full-grown language business and now offers intro courses in Manx and Cornish too). For Basque, there’s Buber’s Basque page which doesn’t have a full course, but has lots of useful information.
If your target language has some official support, you may find you may find materials created by language offices or broadcasters such as the S4C (the Welsh television channel) or the Māori Language Commission. Several of the official Scottish bodies have come together to make the LearnGaelic site.
Many minority language communities now have an online presence, from full-blown websites to downloadable apps and Facebook groups.
A good starting point for indigenous Canadian languages, for example, is First Voices.
Even if they do not have published books that you can order, or many materials on line, they may organise classes or otherwise be able to put you in touch with people who share your interest and can help.
A good starting point at least to hear lessor used languages is the Wikitongues YouTube channel, which has contributions from speakers of many languages, including lesser-used ones. For the Lakota language (from Dakota, USA) there’s the Language Conservancy YouTube channel (this also has some videos on some other language such as Crow).
Don’t forget that materials may not use English as the language of instruction. Knowing French gives me a couple more options for Basque textbooks. If you know Spanish or Portuguese, there’s likely to be more stuff you can use for learning the indigenous languages of Central and South America.
Even if there isn’t much in your language aimed specifically at learners, you may be able to profit from stuff created for native speakers (including children), especially if you have a tutor or exchange partner who can help you navigate it.
The ultimate proactive approach is to make your own resources. This can be a great, interactive way to learn.
Can you get in among the speakers, take recordings and make transcripts of them, for example? You may be able to do this on your own if materials such as dictionaries and grammars are already published.
If not, this may sound like the ambitious preserve of professional documentary linguists How about, then, finding out whether there are projects run among your target community (perhaps led by the local university). Are there opportunities for you to get involved with attempts to preserve an endangered language or revive a “sleeping” one?
Classes teaching minority languages
There are a range of view on how useful group language classes are for adult learners. The key is to take responsibility for your own learning and you’ll get out what you put in. Even highly-motivated independent adult learners often enjoy the structure and camaraderie of the group experience.
In both Wales and the Spanish Basque Autonomous Region, there are a wide range of physical classes (weekly or intensive).
The Basque Country are ahead, thanks to organisations such as the “euskaltegia” – Basque language centre. There are a number of municipal euskaltegiak and other organised by private bodies, such as AEK. and in Wales, Learn Welsh co-ordinates locally organised courses. Many such courses will be weekly “night-class” type (or “extensive”) classes and it might only be practical to attend if you live in the area.
However, if you want an intensive, immersive experience you can get it at the Basque “barnetegia”. These centres have classrooms, dining facilities and accommodation. I spent a month at Maizpide in the Basque Country 2016).
Have a good search for what is available in your target language.
Physical classes are most likely to take place within the territory (unless the community is oppressed, when it may be an exiled community elsewhere that offers classes).
Outside the territory, it’ll probably be the capital city or another major centre of the host country that has classes.
World cities such as London and New York may also have classes: for three years I attended the London Basque Society’s weekly class, for example. Maybe even better, the biggest cities are more likely to have communities of speakers. There you could find a teacher or exchange partner and find community activities and a new network to help you.
Even if you live in an “unpromising” area, you may strike it lucky. The SaysomethinginWelsh website has spawned many local meetup groups, for example, some far from Wales.
Always keep your eyes and ears open for class opportunities and don’t forget you could create your own. Try using a site like meetup.com to get together a group interested in your target language. Failing that, form a Facebook group.
One of my favourite methods of practising my language is with one-to-one tuition through online student/teacher exchanges like italki.com. There are a handful of Welsh and Basque teachers on there. There maybe teachers or exchange partners for your language, too.
If there isn’t, try and find somebody online whom you can engage as an informal tutor or set up an exchange with.
In short, don’t assume that just because a language has fewer speakers, there won’t be classes or online courses out there.
Even with the most endangered languages, you may find a community group or university linguistics department that has set up classes or summer schools. They may be mainly focussed on encouraging language transmission to the younger generation within the community, but you might also be able to get involved, not only as a student, but also with language documentation and creating materials.
That’s the end of our exploration of minority language resources. just because your target language is not a majority one, doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t be a range of great materials on offer or that you won’t be able to find a tutor or a class. Yes, you may have to look harder than somebody who wants to learn Spanish or Japanese, but you may still be surprised just what you turn up.
In the same way, don’t assume that you’ll never find a class. It may not be local, but you may find intensive classes, including full immersive experiences out there. Then there may be professional teachers online or people you can persuade to become your informal tutor or language exchange partner.
If all else fails, that might be just the spur you need to get out into the field, maybe armed with a notebook and a tape recorder. That could be the most rewarding experience of all.
Check out Part Two in the series: “How to find minority language native speakers“.