Why you might want to consider learning a lesser-known language

Friday, March 27, 2009


Before beginning, take a quick look at this introduction to our planet Earth:
The Yird is the third planet oot frae the Sun. It is the lairgest o the solar seestem's stanie planets, an the ae bodie that modren science kens ti haud life. The planet cam thegither aboot 4.57 thoosand million year syne. Nae lang aifter (4.533 thoosand million year syne) it wis jyned by the Muin. The solar seestem is made up o aicht planets.
That's a paragraph written in Scots, a language (or a dialect, see the article for information on the debate over what Scots actually is) spoken in Scotland that as you can see is extremely similar to English. Assuming your English is fluent, thanks to this you were able to understand pretty much everything there.

Next, take a look at this sample sentence in a few Romance languages from Wikipedia's article on the Romance language family:

Latin (Illa) Claudit semper fenestram antequam cenat.
Catalan Ella tanca sempre la finestra abans de sopar.
French Elle ferme toujours la fenêtre avant de dîner/souper.
Galician (Ela) Pecha sempre a fiestra/xanela antes de cear.
Italian (Lei) chiude sempre la finestra prima di cenare.
Occitan (Ela) Barra sempre/totjorn la fenèstra abans de sopar.
Portuguese (Ela) Fecha sempre a janela antes de jantar.
Romanian Ea închide totdeauna fereastra înainte de cină.
Romansh Ella clauda/serra adina la fanestra avant ch'ella tschainia.
Corsican Ella chjudi sempre u purtellu primma di cenà.
Sardinian Issa serrat semper sa bentana antes de chenare.
Sicilian Idda chiudi sempri la finestra àntica pistìa.
Spanish Ella siempre cierra la ventana antes de cenar.
Translation She always closes the window before dinner/supper.

Though the amount of similarity varies from language to language you can see that all of these languages bear a fear amount of some similarity to each other, which makes sense considering their common ancestor. If one of those were your mother tongue you would be able to understand something written in another one to a certain extent without even studying it, and if you decided to actually learn it one day it would take that much less time to learn. In short, when studying one language (with the exception of a few isolates), this naturally brings about a certain familiarity with other related languages as well.

Now to the main subject: what reasons would lie behind picking a smaller language over a larger one? There are basically two benefits that studying a smaller language sometimes has over a larger, more well-known one:

1) Economic benefit (i.e. it's cheaper to learn than the other language)
2) Ease of learning, if one is easier than the other

Since even languages that are relatively easier to learn still take a long time to learn (they're still languages after all and languages take a long time to learn), reason #1 is probably the more important one. I'll take myself as an example.

A decade ago I was living in Calgary, had a few thousand dollars to my name and an interest in Finnish. Finnish, however, takes an English speaker a fairly long time to learn considering that it belongs to a completely different family of languages, and on top of that Finland is one of the most expensive countries out there so a few thousand Canadian dollars just wouldn't stretch far enough to give one enough time in the country to achieve fluency.

However, right across from Finland is a country called Estonia, and the language there belongs to the same language family (the Finno-Ugric language family). They're not close enough to be mutually intelligible, but close enough that learning one is great preparation for learning the other. On top of that, at the time Estonia was an extremely cheap country to live in (and it's still much cheaper than Finland), and I was able to spend a month there using only a few hundred dollars. There was a silly spat at the time with Canada over visas and so I was only able to obtain a month-long visa and my long-term plans came to naught, but with the money I had at the time I probably could have stayed for six months or so.

You can see an interesting forum post here on the similarity between the two languages. When staying in Tallinn (the capital), the father of the family I stayed with told me about how his son (whom I knew in Calgary as he had moved there) had picked up Finnish as a child during the 80s just by watching Finnish TV that came in over the gulf from Helsinki, as the two cities are very close. Suffice to say if you know Estonian you're already more than halfway there with Finnish, and a great deal of Finnish people visit Tallinn all the time so moneywise it might even be easier to learn the language by not even going to Finland.

(nota bene: a lot of the time Finns come to Tallinn for a day or two to drink because of the lower prices, so they'll often be quite inebriated. But then again sometimes that's the best time to talk to someone in their mother tongue)

So this is one example of how it might be a good idea to choose to learn one language over another, if the other language you intend to learn just isn't possible to learn at the moment due to financial reasons, or if that language happens to be that much harder to learn. And often you can pick up two languages for just a tad more than the price of one.

Here are a few other possibilities depending on how good you are at languages or your financial position:

  • German: Let's say you want to learn German but the chances of going abroad for the next few years to use the language in person are nil. If you're in Pennsylvania though you should be able to learn Pennsylvania German. It's a regional variant and thus not the same as Hochdeutsch, but then again most people in Germany itself also speak their own regional variant too, so one could make the argument that it would make you even more German than someone that just learned standard German in class. One other option if you're interested in Germanic languages is to learn Norwegian (the language I consider to be easiest for English speakers to learn). Norway is also admittedly horrendously expensive, but given its ease of learning a lot of it can be done online ahead of time. Afrikaans is also fairly easy to pick up and if you know a number of people from South Africa (or Namibia) you might want to try to learn it from them.
  • Romance languages: There are a few options here. If you're one of those people that is not too bad with Spanish vocab but for some reason verb conjugation and grammatical gender doesn't stick, you might want to think about learning Papiamentu. If you don't have all that much money and just want to spend some time in another country learning any Romance language to fluency (and don't care that much about having an exciting time, just an educational one), you might want to consider Moldova. Romania is also much cheaper to live in than countries in the west.
  • Persian: If you want to learn Persian but aren't having much luck with / don't like the script or your country has diplomatic problems with Iran, another option would be Tajikistan. Tajikistan speaks pretty much the same language except that it's written with the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet, which means that you're able to read words without knowing them beforehand. With the Perso-Arabic script short vowels aren't written so when you see a word like بزرگ for the first time (bozorg), you have no idea whether it's bazarg or bezorg or bozarg or any other combination, because the letters alone just say b-z-r-g. (see romanization of Persian for more information) I've even read a discussion on the somethingawful.com forums on the subject before where one person has done exactly that - first spent some time in Tajikistan, learned the language (which is actually not that difficult a language) and then later on went on to standard Persian. The two are mutually intelligible but people told him that he sounded like a Tajik when he talked.
  • Turkish: actually, I wouldn't recommend using any shortcuts to learn Turkish. Turkey isn't that expensive a country and other Turkic languages are actually harder to learn because they're either written in a different script and are in a country much harder to visit (Kazakh, Kyrgyz), or in countries where Russian is still pretty dominant and thus people that don't look like locals are just as likely to be addressed in Russian. So the only situation where I would recommend it would be if you're Russian or Ukranian and have the chance to learn Tatar or Crimean Tatar, near or in Moldova and can easily make the trip to Comrat to learn Gagauz, etc. Otherwise standard Turkish is the only way to go. Luckily Turkish also has a large diaspora in countries like Germany so if you live there you can pick it up pretty easily if you're determined to do so.
  • Mongolian: European, interested in Mongolian and a chess fan? Check out Kalmykia. Much closer (and warmer) than Mongolia.
  • Slavic languages: Bulgarian and Macedonian (there's also some dispute as to whether these two are dialects or separate languages, but let's not get into that) are easier for English speakers to master given that there are no cases except for pronouns (yay!), they use the definite article, and the words are generally shorter than in Russian. The two countries are also way, way cheaper than living in Moscow and they're much warmer.
  • Arabic: this only applies if you're from Italy (preferably Sicily), but Maltese is spoken just a few hundred km away. Maltese is basically a Semetic language with a lot of foreign influence (apparently some 50% of it is Sicilian or Italian), and is written in the Latin script. Maltese and Tunisian Arabic are also very similar to each other.
  • Finally, as an IAL advocate I would be remiss if I didn't mention the idea of learning a constructed language for the propaedeutic value. The IAL with the largest community is Esperanto, Ido and Interlingua have a speaker base of perhaps a thousand each, and Occidental and Lingua Franca Nova have some activity too. I've spoken in Ido for a number of hours myself and it works just fine, and I can attest that knowing one of these languages makes Romance languages much easier to read (after learning Ido in 2005 I was suddenly able to muddle through articles in Italian, which I had never studied before).

...and so on. The above only scratches the surface of some of the methods by which one can go about learning one or two languages in the same family. You can see that all of these ideas are pretty unorthodox so they certainly aren't recommended for the majority, and not even a substantial minority. But if you only have a bit of money saved up or don't see yourself being able to make a trip abroad to an expensive or faraway country for a long time but still want to learn a language, then you might want to think about adopting an unorthodox strategy to make it happen.

Also, one last point: speakers of smaller languages are usually much, much more helpful in teaching their language to you if you are earnest about wanting to learn it, and that also makes it easier to get friends right from the start. Most of the time they can't even believe that anyone would want to learn their tiny language in the first place. With much larger and more influential languages you're often just one in the crowd.

2 comments:

Yankee said...

Norwegian? What about Frisian? Granted the Netherlands are more expensive than South Africa, if you wanted to pick up Afrikaans, but in comparison to Norway, it's downright dirt cheap. Furthermore, in comparison to the Randstad where most people go in the Netherlands, Friesland/Frysland is far cheaper and far less overrun by tourists. Finally, you'll be exposed to both Dutch and Frisian simultaneously wherever you go there.

If my experience with house mates from Leeuwarden is typical, you're more likely to find people who would rather speak bad Dutch than mediocre english there than you would in the Randstad too.

Mithridates said...

Frisian - that's a good idea. I don't know enough about Friesland to have included it in the post but always wondered if it could serve as a good bridge language too. If they're more inclined to use Frisian and Dutch than English then that's an absolutely huge plus.

That reminds me, ever seen a Frisian translation of Beowulf? I asked the people on the Frisian Wikipedia a year or two back to translate a short paragraph and they did:

http://fy.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf

but it would be great to see the whole thing translated. Or a Frisian version of the Canterbury Tales or some other famous piece from English history that one could compare.

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