Why learn a minority language? In the final post in the series on learning minority, lessor used or endangered languages, let’s look at the rewards on offer.
In the first post, Minority language resources: a guide, I introduced the term “minoritised language”. That conveys the sense of a language deliberately pushed to the margins by a more powerful group. We looked at the range of materials that might be available to help you learn (and what to do if there aren’t very many).
Article two was all about how to find minority language native speakers.
Next came the question of how to cope with dialect differences in less standardised languages.
In the most recent post in this series, we saw that native-speaker attitudes towards their language and learners can be rather complex.
Some native speakers may be initially puzzled as to why you’re learning their language. True, members of some language groups may not be used to dealing with learners. Yet most will be very encouraging of your efforts if they see that you’re sincere and committed in your desire to learn and use their language.
After all, learning their language is a huge compliment to pay your hosts.
A unique connection with the people
The power of that compliment is a great start in the process of connecting with speakers or any language.
Human connection, after all, is a powerful driver and reward for learning any language.
When there are fewer obvious utilitarian benefits, your investment may be seen as even more of a sincere compliment. That can get you off on a very good footing in your new community of speakers.
By the way, it would be a mistake to think that smaller language communities are necessarily more closed to outsiders than larger ones.
If a community of speakers have been labelled as different and have experienced marginalisation, they can be more tolerant of diversity and appreciative of the complexities and fluidity of identity.
Is it an accident that many of the more Welsh-speaking parts of Wales voted against Brexit while many areas where the language is much weaker voted remain?
The Basque even have a concept: “Euskaldun” which means Basque speaking, whether or not you’re a native. It’s an inclusive identity, open to you too, if you learn the language, wherever you’re from.
In Wales at the moment, the British state provides financial support to refugees migrants who arrive in Wales to learn English. It refuses to offer Welsh lessons on the same terms. Nevertheless, some migrants have been learning the language and feel that this is helping them integrate. For many Welsh people, their efforts are something to celebrate.
Wales’s home grown anti-Welsh dinosaurs often decry Welsh as a useless dead language while at the same time moaning that Wales is controlled by a privileged elite of Welsh speakers who grab all the best jobs. They’d do better to stop complaining and get learning. If this is an exclusive club, it’s one that’s open to all who make the effort.
The chance to make a cultural contribution
Once you get fluent in a minoritised language, you might well find that it’s “all hands on deck” to help protect and revive use of the language. Whether a language community feels under siege or is in the middle of a vibrant process of revitalisation, every contribution to the culture is likely to be really appreciated and there will be a chance for you to get involved directly.
In Wales, a surprising number of teachers of the language to adults are themselves former learners.
When I was a beginner Welsh learner, I did an intensive summer course that had been established and was run by Chris Rees, a Welsh learner who’d become an innovative teacher.
He taught our group for a week. Another week, our teacher was Helen Prosser, another learner from Wales who, thirty years later, is still in the field is the Strategic Director of the National Centre for Learning Welsh.
Learners often go on to play a significant role in culture, too. In Wales, Professor Bobi Jones was a Welsh learner who became Professor of Welsh in Aberystwyth and was leading novelist, poet and literary critic. Later leading Welsh writers include Tony Bianchi, a learner from north-east England. Others are the cultural critic Jerry Hunter (an American), the historian Marion Löffler (a German) or the art historian Peter Lord (English).
Unexpected career benefits
Minority languages will often open more career doors than you might expect.
Whatever language you learn, your chances will be increased if you combine it with another marketable skill. When I was looking for my first post as university lecturer (assistant professor) in Russian history, the stars aligned and I netted a job to teach the subject through the medium of Welsh in Aberystwyth.
There were only a handful of people in Wales who were fluent Welsh speakers and Russia specialists and I soon found that this combination of skills brought side opportunities commentating on current events in Russia on Welsh radio and television. I was even flown to Latvia to translate from Russian to Welsh for a BBC current affairs show crew and was interviewed myself on their programme.
Linking up with the landscape
The extra connection you get from learning the language may not just be with the people but with the geography.
In Wales and the Basque Country, most names of natural features such as hills, rivers and field and place names are in Welsh or Basque (sometimes there are two names: English or Spanish as well). In Ireland or much of Scotland, many places have an Irish or Scottish Gaelic names.
At the most basic level, as a learner of the minority language you’ll be able to have a good shot at pronouncing the names correctly and understand where the often now more widely-known heavily Anglicised versions come from.
When I was on an intensive Basque course a few summers ago, one of the other students explained to me that the beauty of Basque place names had been one of his reasons for learning the language.
In Wales, place names often turn out to be rather prosaic geographical descriptions but they can also be colourful and evocative. Open that book with the language and you’ll have an immediate connection to the landscape.
Power play insights….and passion for the cause?
Learning any additional language opens your eyes to a new dimension of human culture. That’s just as true when you learn one of the Celtic languages of Britain and Ireland or one of the minority language of the Russian Federation as when you learn English or Russian. You discover a world that the majority media is probably misrepresenting at best, ignoring at worst (or is that the other way round?).
It’s not just the a new culture you’ll learn about. You’ll get insights into the dynamics of political, social and economic power as played out through language.
You’ll see how the playing field is anything but level when one language is constantly pushed by the state as the main language of serious affairs and communities and individuals who prefer to speak the other language, still tax-payers all, are “othered”. They’re supposed to feel grateful for crumbs of subsidy or even just for being tolerated (“I’ve nothing against people speaking Welsh but I object to [fill in any practical attempts to make a real difference]”).
You’ll feel the forces working to subordinate and marginalise, to keep speakers of your new language firmly in second place.
You might suffer consequences if you try to challenge norms around when it’s conventional to use the language. It still happens in Wales that people who try to use Welsh in work are subject to attempts by employers to ban it, here, for example, or here or here….
You’ll start to notice relentless narratives of ridicule from the dominant group (including supposedly progressive, internationalist public figures such as the fashionable lefties who routinely have a go at Welsh speakers).
How, you may wonder, is this a “benefit” of learning a minoritised language?
For one thing, the insights will increase your empathy with other marginalised social groups. You’ll maybe become a more enlightened individual.
You may even find yourself feeling ever more strongly about the “cause” of your language, which might just give a new drive to your life.
Just as many learners wind up as teachers, learners often end up getting involved in wider language campaigns to “save” the language.
Whether you feel that and take action…or not…the individual act of learning helps maintain diversity in a small way.
There may be a ripple effect too from your individual example. You’re saying “Yes! This is worth learning and it can be done!”. Who knows whom that might inspire.
Recover your heritage
Learning any language broadens your view on life but it you’re relearning the language of your ancestors, it’s also about a very personal identity.
Maybe your forebears didn’t pass on their minoritised language because of fear of persecution. Had the language had become a mark of lower social status that they thought would hold their children back?
If the language has been been lost as part of such a sad picture of marginalisation recovering it can become even more of a mission than ever.
I think for example of inspiring learners I’ve met such as Jonty Yamisha from the USA. He hasn’t stopped at learning Circassian, the language of his ancestors from the north west Caucasus. He’s gone on to create the Optilingo language learning app. The platform offers Circassian on a level with much more widely spoken languages. It’s not only a practical contribution to language revival but a great boost to the international visibility and, therefore, self-image of the Circassian people.
I first met Àdhamh Ó Broin at a language meet up in Edinburgh. He has not only learned his ancestral Scottish Gaelic to an advanced level. He focussed first on the barely surviving Argyll dialect. By day, he’s a Gaelic teacher and translator and a consultant on Gaelic in TV and film dramas. By night, he’s researched and “reawakened” lost Caithness dialects of the language that was once spoken by another branch of his family.
Your recovery of your family heritage may not take you to such heights, yet very many of us “rank and file” learners of our lost family heritage still experience the recovery as a very fulfilling and quite emotional transformation.
Why learn a minority language? What’s your motivation?
If you haven’t yet started learning a minority language but are thinking of having a go, I hope that this series has helped to prepare you for the journey ahead. If you still have questions, drop them in the comments below.
Learning any language is hugely enriching. There’s no doubt, though, that if learning a minority language you’ll have an extra special experience with additional rewards. That, at least, is how it’s been for me. What about you? Have you started learning a minority language or already got fluent? What’s been your motivation? If you’ve learned majority languages as well, how did the experience….and the rewards differ? Let us all know!