The off-putting attitudes of others don’t help us language learners at the best of times. What are the particular negative attitudes you might encounter as a learner of a minority, lesser-used or endangered language and how can you overcome them? This is the latest in our learning minority languages series.
Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that the discouraging attitudes towards learning minority languages that we’ll explore below will be the main mood music when you learn your minority language. My experiences learning Welsh and Basque have been overwhelmingly positive and yours are likely to be too. I bet you’ll come across some or all of the following now and again on your journey to fluency, though!
Majority hostility and incomprehension
It’s common for majority groups to denigrate minority languages and – by implication – their speakers and communities – as primitive, backward, worthless, gobbledygook, of no use, dead, a hobby….The list of insults goes on.
This attitude is still rife in Britain, for example where anti-Welsh speaker quips or attacks on the Scottish Gaelic community are common among some on the “progressive left” as well as on the Brexity right.
Throughout the World, many minority language communities have survived centuries of official policy aiming at marginalising or even wiping out their language and identity.
In Wales it was state policy for over four hundred years that English should be the sole official language in Wales. Even today Welsh people do not have a legal right to use Welsh in their dealings with officialdom.
In Spain, the use of Basque was outlawed in the public domain in Spanish Basque Country until the death of Franco.
Many on the Spanish nationalist right still identify Basque speaking with support the now-suspended violent struggle for independence. As recently as 2003 the Spanish state closed down the Basque language newspaper Egunkaria.
In France, indigenous languages other than French are still heavily discriminated against by the French state.
The week I write this trumped-up French mini-Napoleons have been hobbling attempts to advance the cause of education through the medium of languages whose communities with as good – if not better – claims to respect and status in France than the official dialect of degenerate Vulgar Latin 😉
Small wonder, even in relatively benign settings like Great Britain, you’ll told by “dominants” that in learning Gaelic or Welsh. You’re wasting your time. Much less benign is Northern Ireland. Is the repulsive arrogance of blockhead unionists rivalled anywhere in the world?
In some parts of the world, it is – or has been – far worse.
Against this background, it’s hardly surprising, then, if , in some places, some of the time, some native speakers buy into the negative narrative.
Conquered elites such as the Welsh gentry from the sixteenth century onwards and lower-status social climbers often become among the most enthusiastic grave diggers for their own language.
Dic Siôn Dafydd is Wales’s own “Uncle Tom”-type. The fictional Dic is eager to suck up to the English. He moves to London and claims to have forgotten his native language. When he returns to Wales, he insists on speaking to his mother in English, even though she speaks only Welsh.
With the growth of an active language movement in Wales since the 1960s, there’s much less of this sort of thing about now.
Nevertheless, old attitudes linger, if in milder form. They can be discouraging to encounter when you’re trying hard to learn the language.
The complexes can be, quite, erm, complex.
I remember a conversation in a pub in Wales with a highly educated Welsh-speaker who, as a member of the very imperially British Conservative Party, identified strongly with Union Jackery.
During our conversation he at once boasted that even the worst Welsh poetry was better than anything in English whilst also professing that he would be unmoved if the Welsh language died out.
Confused yet? I was!
During my year in Aberystwyth, I also gave some history revision tuition to an eighteen year old preparing for his school leaving exams.
When I arrived at the house, his parents were at the door saying farewell to a visitor in fluent Welsh.
Our lesson, though, was in English.
Why? The parents had chosen to send the boy to English-medium high school. As they saw it, this would maximise his chances of “getting on” in life.
Given that children completing a Welsh-medium education finish up very fluent in Welsh and English, that’s pretty bad miscalculation. It’s one that deprived their son of his ancestral language.
Still, that the parents sincerely felt that way maybe reflects their own, real experiences of discrimination or feelings that their language was in some sense less valuable than the dominant language.
Hundreds of thousands of families Wales, including my own, abandoned the language this way during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In minority language communities the practical reality that the you need the dominant language to function in many domains can nurture among some native speakers the belief that there’s something inherently limited and limiting about the language itself (unless, that is, their language is a biggie elsewhere, like Swedish in Finland or Russian in Estonia).
A negative attitude from the “natives”: Why bother learning our language?
In some language communities, even people who quietly and confidently love and nurture their language may, at least at first, be reluctant to use it with outsiders.
If the language community knows or has known severe state repression, the driver may be raw fear of using it with people they don’t know and trust.
In more benign environments, people may just be a bit perplexed as to why you would want to learn their “losers’ language” (I coin this term with irony).
Of course, a certain awkwardness when engaging with learners can also be found when you’re learning a majority language.
When I was living in Finland, people often expressed surprise that I was bothering to try to learn Finnish. English was widely known in the country and Finns occasionally expressed the view to me that learning their language would be “no use” outside the country.
Lack of familiarity with learner speech
Utilitarian arguments aside, native speakers may just not be used trying to decipher our bad pronunciation and garbled syntax of foreigners if they aren’t used to foreigners trying to learn the language.
If there’s an alternative, dominant “lingua franca” in common between you, the natives my just switch out of panic.
They may switch because they mistakenly think they’re trying to help you by switching to English, Spanish, Turkish…whatever.
It may be that they just don’t have the patience or the time to engage with your stuttering efforts when an easier alternative is on offer.
These frustrating behaviours aren’t limited to speakers of minority languages, of course. They’re also found among speakers of dominant languages where encounters with non-native speakers are not common.
Native “lack of confidence”
Sometimes the native speakers may be reluctant to use their language with you because they feel a lack of confidence in their own abilities in the language.
On the one hand, this may be because they are not as conversant in the standardised form as you’d expect from educated native speakers of majority languages.
That’s maybe because they’ve had their education, work lives and mass culture through a different language.
Perhaps they somehow feel inadequate or threatened because you’re learning a more elevated literary standard register (what in Wales used to be called “college Welsh”) or a deliberately “constructed” standard such as Unified Basque.
Or they may just feel that the way they naturally speak is not the “proper language” and they fear that it might give you bad habits or simply confuse you.
Whatever the cause, if you both speak the dominant language, with its hegemonic standardised form, they can easily switch to that, leaving you frustrated.
The problem may be less about how they feel about their language and more about the context in which you’re speaking.
Sometimes speakers of minority language may use their mother tongue only in certain contexts, such as family and social life or religion. It might feel strange to them to use the language for something else, or they may not have the vocab.
As a Welsh learner, I lodged with a Welsh-speaking family.
On one occasion I remember overhearing a phone call between my hostess an electrician. She knew him quite well and had called to book his services.
The conversation switched back and forth between Welsh and English. They chatted in general in Welsh, catching up about the weather and family. He kept switching to English when the conversation turned to the job to be done, fixing up the time and agreeing costs.
If there’s a language revitalisation campaign in train, you may see differences here between the generations.
When shopping in Wales, for example, I noticed that older shop assistants, who’d had an English-only education used English for numbers when I was at the check-out. Younger assistants had often had a Welsh-medium education and said the numbers in Welsh.
Your winning attitude
We’ve seen that when you’re learning a minority language, attitudes to your target language may be more complex and off-putting than when you’re learning the language of a community that feels itself on the winning side of history.
How can you steel yourself for potential discouragement when you’re out and about trying to use the language?
You could forearm yourself with arguments against the derision of the anti-minority language bigots… Then again, you may simply choose to leave them to stew in their own bile.
It pays to find out as much as you can about the political and social history of your target language community so that you can get a sense of the baggage that speakers may be carrying and develop a sensitivity to it.
Yes understand any discouraging negativity you find among native speaker but try to get involved with positive and energetic speakers of the language. Discover things in the culture that you love and you’ll have a ready answer – in conversation and in your heart – to the question: “why bother?”.
If you encounter a shy reluctance to speak to you because native speakers not used to using the language with outsiders, be patient!
It may take time to demonstrate that you’re serious about investing your time, energy and emotion in learning.
And if people keep switching to English?
Well, much that I’ve written in my overview post about that particular joy will help.
In short: keep speaking; explain you want to learn; get as good as you can before you launch out and…if all else fails: change the people you’re speaking to 🙂
As to the minority language-specific dimension? That’s to say, if natives are switching to English, Spanish, Russian…whatever…in certain contexts or to discuss certain topics?
Observe when they use the majority and minority languages. Don’t be afraid to mix in words and structures from the dominant language and even to weave between the two languages if that’s the done thing. It could actually help you to take off towards fluency and it won’t stop you polishing a “purer” style of speech in other contexts.
It’s all worthwhile!
At the top of this post, I said that I’d be happy to bet that you’d come across some of these attitudes on your journey to minority language fluency. Let me know in the comments below whether you have and how you’ve dealt with them.
As I also said up top, my learning experiences with Welsh and Basque have been overwhelmingly positive.
In the final post in this series, we’ll look at the special rewards of getting fluent in a minority or endangered language.