Endangered Languages: Tips for Learning & Using the World’s Minority Languages

Studying endangered languages sets you apart!
It’s easy to say how every language-learning journey starts.

You may hear a friend say it.

It may come to mind while daydreaming – namely, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to know (insert language of your dreams here)?”

Sadly, while a lot of very successful language journeys do start this way, many of them don’t go beyond that.

This is doubly true if the language in question is one that you may not hear spoken very often, or one that most of your friends have never even heard spoken (or have even heard of!).

I am proud to say that I am guilty of learning endangered languages on multiple accounts.

Some of them I speak very well (like Yiddish); others I have forgotten (like Northern Sami); and then further down the endangered languages list are others that, while I can speak, I engage with primarily in a passive manner (like Cornish).

I think more people need to start considering learning an endangered language.

Often you may feel discouraged, thinking that your peers or family members will believe you are making an “unwise investment” with your time that won’t “pay off.”

And honestly, I think that learning an endangered language may pay off even more than learning ones more commonly studied, given that you can join an “exclusive club” of speakers more easily and engage with a culture with greater depth and enthusiasm.

In truth, speakers of these languages, even non-natives, are highly sought after in the job market and in too many other ways to count.

After explaining to some people what these sort of languages are, it often follows that people want to know more about the process, and how different it is from learning a more politically powerful language.

Similarities Between Learning Popular & Endangered Languages

Though learning “popular” languages can seem easier thanks to the ease of finding materials, you may come to find that, through evolution and history, your endangered languages are highly influenced by bigger ones.

Often a lot of expressions will come from other politically powerful languages, such as hotel terminology and names of car parts in Hebrew coming from English, or the plethora of German loan words in Swedish alongside Norse equivalents.

It’s very common to find words from the language of the “dominant” culture found in many endangered languages.

If you watch the Irish television show, “Ros na Rún,” even if you don’t know any Irish, you can pick up a significant amount of “Béarlachas,” the name given to Irish heavily influenced by English.

In Yiddish, there is a similar term referring to Yiddish that overtly resembles German—“Deitschmeirish.”

If you page through a Northern Sami-English dictionary, you’ll see that a lot of Latinate words resemble Norwegian counterparts.

If you are seeking to learn an endangered language, this should be encouraging news.

And while in the books (as well as on many websites) there may be a more “pure” form of the language, you will notice that it is quite different from what people actually speak.

Often entire idioms are lifted from the dominant culture into the endangered culture’s language, something to think about when your new language feels so foreign that you feel inclined to put the book down or pause the podcast.

endangered languages list

Using an Endangered Language

The primary difference comes not in the learning process, but rather in how to engage with the material in the language.

A lot of technology developers, translators, etc. may not see profit in translating your computer interface or your favourite book into your dream endangered language, you may need to search for material more deeply.

Luckily Omniglot.com does have links that you can use to engage with your new “language buddy,” as well as many homegrown initiatives to promote usages of endangered languages through many aspects of media.

Wikipedia’s source lists may also come in handy for this.

In some cases, especially in bigger cities, you may be able to find friend groups that get together and speak the language, as is happening with Yiddishists in New York City and many other places.

It is groups like these that often form the heart of an endangered language movement, but there are other ways to learn if you can’t find such groups.

For example, for me, alongside spaced repetition software and learning materials with audio (such as Gulahalan for Northern Sami and Dan Prohaska’s introductory lessons for Cornish), I found the funniest TV show I have ever seen (in Northern Sami) as well as my favourite podcast (in Cornish).

Rest assured, thanks to the internet and what-have-you, that you can engage with enough of almost any language out there to the degree that you can get a good grasp on the pronunciation.

Great! So how do I begin?

You can begin with various language learning forums such as UniLang and the How to Learn Any Language Forum.

Furthermore, you can use your favourite search engine in order to find out what sort of revival efforts are at hand and how you can get involved, listen to media, and support the project.

At the opening stages, it will be very much like any other language – learning how it works, basic greetings and phrases, putting sentences together.

It gets different down the line when you realise that you may not have the means of using this language, much less actively, than you would have for popular languages.

Your journey through an endangered language may be slow.

You may even never achieve fluency to the same degree that you may speak other languages, but the key element is to be hopeful and realise that as long as you choose to engage with something, you will improve.

That something may be being able to understand your favourite song (which may not have the lyrics posted online anywhere!) or being able to give a tour of your house in your endangered language.

But the same process of mini-goals exists, the only difference is that immersion may be slightly harder to obtain.

Don't be afraid to start learning an endangered language.

Why should I learn endangered languages?

Taking the road less travelled, especially if there may be some discouragement from the outside (sometimes even from fellow polyglots!), will make you distinctive in every way.

It will show that you are willing to engage with something for its own sake and for the sake of discovery.

Your endangered languages will bring you to the heart of cultures that have influenced popular culture in hidden ways.

Furthermore, it will inspire you in your other tasks, and the resilience and ongoing struggles of those who come from these cultures will inspire you, especially if you perceive hard times to be ahead.

The revived media culture, including the music, of these languages, is very refreshing.

For those endangered languages that used to be very politically powerful (such as Yiddish and Breton), there is a wealth of literature that people are on the verge of forgetting, and maybe you will be the one to bring a masterpiece to light!

If you meet fellow speakers of these languages, you may be rewarded in surprising ways, and friendship and even gifts may even be bestowed upon you as a matter of course!

And if you meet someone from the community who doesn’t speak the language, you may just pique their curiosity!

Smaller languages endow something like kinship privileges, a bit like being members of an exclusive club.

The entry fee for that club is choosing to begin your language journey.

And you can do that right now!

Languages mentioned in this post:

  • Yiddish – a Germanic language with a lot of Slavic and Semitic
    influence, spoken originally by Jews in Eastern Europe and now by Jews
    throughout the world, mostly very religious ones. There are also
    secular Yiddish speakers.
  • Breton – a Celtic language spoken in Brittany, the area of France right
    across from the English Channel. A bit like Welsh spoken with a French
  • Cornish – another Celtic language spoken in Cornwall, died (as in
    “having had no native speakers left”) and was then revived as a result
    of a book and then homegrown efforts. Small but active.
  • Northern Sami – a language that resembles Finnish as closely as English
    would German, spoken by the Sami people that inhabit Northern
    Scandinavia and the nearby area of Russia.
  • Irish – I think this may need no introduction, actually…but just in
    case…a Gaelic Celtic language spoken throughout Ireland but most people
    who speak it natively are in the western coastal areas. There are some
    who are very concerned about its future.

Jared Gimbel is a polyglot of mixed Ashkenazi Jewish and Swedish-American heritage. When he heard at a dinner table in Stockholm that he could actually learn a language to fluency as an adult, he realised he could have the world. He now lives inNew York City where he is developing a video game set for release in 2017 / 2018, “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”, an RPG set in contemporary Greenland.

English (Native), Yiddish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Tok Pisin, Bislama, Solomon Islands Pijin, German, Spanish, Hebrew, Finnish, Breton, Cornish, Irish, Polish, and some Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), French and Icelandic.

Do you have experience learning an endangered language? Let me know in a comment below! If you enjoyed this article, why not share it on Facebook or Twitter!

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  • Tadeusz Mollin

    Great post. I consider Breton, anybody else?

    • Aza Makher

      Breton was among the hardest languages to come to bearings with at the beginning that I’ve encountered, feel free to message me with any advice you may need…

      • Tadeusz Mollin

        Thanks! I’ll be in Brittany this summer 🙂

  • Eugênio Hemilena Brito

    Great Article!

    I have just started a project for helping people learn some endangered languages. Besides that I have considered learning two indigenous languages from my country, Brazil, and have just came from a quick talk with a native leader who promissed to help me.

    • Aza Makher

      Wow, wow, wow! I’m curious how much (or little) technical support there are for languages like these, in any sense.

  • Alberto Gil

    Amazing article!

  • Irish is next on my to-learn list. I didn’t realize it’s endangered!

  • dandiprat

    I have studied some semi-endangered languages (certainly much less endangered than other languages, but losing status in their heartlands) like Taiwanese Hokkien and Cantonese, but I studied them after learning the dominant language (Mandarin), which really helped my studies a lot.

  • As a native Welsh speaker, it’s heartening to know there are people out there who see beyond the ‘glossy languages’ to find depths and beauty in minority and endangered languages.

    • Aza Makher

      Yr wyf yn cytuno’n llwyr!

  • It’s amazing to read your post and the resources provided in the article are too useful for us. http://www.selectmytutor.co.uk/subject-khmer.html

    • Aza Makher

      What’s more, later on this year I’ll be using the power of cartooning to make endangered / regional / minority languages more accessible to curious people like you!

  • Jonesy

    It isn’t often that I read an article that changes my view of something so drastically. I don’t think I will learn an endangered language, but I have new respect and appreciation for those who do. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Very interesting. Do you go to the Polyglot bar? I’d love to grab a conversation with you when I’m back home in NYC.

    It’s funny because i hesitate even learning living languages. My grandparents speak Javanese, and my cousins speak Sundanese. I’m discouraged by family members telling me that it’s much more worth my time to learn Mandarin instead of a local language.

    They also like to bring up the fact that Javanese/Sundanese have register differences so it’s very easy to insult an elder or stranger by using the wrong words… I do speak Indonesian though so at least I can carry conversation, but I’d like to understand all their jokes as well…

    • Aza Makher

      Truth be told, I actually tried learning Javanese for about a few days. If it weren’t for my current projects of maintenance and general improvement (apart from learning Welsh and Tajik right now), I’d definitely continue with it! Sundanese also grabbed my attention once but I think resources on Memrise are scarce at the moment…

      And yes, I did frequent the Polyglot Bar quite often, and no, I don’t run it, it seems to be in hibernation at the moment but I’m gladly up for the conversation offer. I’m on Facebook, friends with Olly as well.

      • Haha… After reading this post I can only believe you! Resources for either are pretty scarce. Even when I was visiting relatives back in Bandung, I asked for books to learn Sundanese and all they could give me at the book store were dictionaries…

        I met Kevin and Miguel the last time I was there. They had an event earlier in the month.

        Cool! I can shoot you a message!

      • Tadeusz Mollin

        I can’t find you on Facebook. Would like to follow you. https://web.facebook.com/tadeusz.mollin

  • Alex Gentry

    I’m passionate about language revitalization and really want to learn several minority languages (particularly from the Americas) and I really want to advocate for endangered languages. I don’t care about popularity or marketability when it comes to learning languages, as I’ve always learned languages purely for their own sake. Thanks so much for this article!!!

  • Aza Makher

    I should make it known that, lest it not be entirely clear, that I am the author of the guest post commenting on your comments. Wow, I’m so glad that it has opened so many doors and caused many of you to rethink language learning!

    I write and I teach and I work every day for you in mind, remembering the days when I was told that effective language learning simply wassn’t possible.

    No one should ever have to go through that.

    To your successes,

    – Jared Gimbel

  • Excellent post! I love minority languages, especially ones that do not have political power. I realized recently that “endangered” and “minority” languages are complex concepts.

    I’ve been working on Oromo. Oromo is a minority language in Ethiopia, but it is far from endangered. The Oromo people have no political power, but 16 million people speak the language. No fear of language death there.

    At the same time, languages are dying in the US all the time. And I’m not just talking about Native American languages. Somali is a dying language in Minnesota. While over 70,000 Somalis live here, the language will likely be gone after two generations. So it’s endangered here, while it’s thriving in its homeland. Oromo is in the same boat, as well as Hmong, not to mention Lakota and Ojibwe.

    Somali and Lakota are both dying in Minnesota. The difference is that Somali is thriving somewhere else (Somalia and even Kenya), while Lakota does not have any “somewhere else.” Nevertheless, the same American process that is killing one is killing the other.

    I think if we can save Somali in Minnesota, we can save Lakota. If we can’t save Somali within such a big, thriving community (we even have Somali-speaking politicians who give public speeches in Somali), what hope does Lakota have?

    • Jessica Ruach

      I think the difference between saving Somali & saving Lakota is cultural identity. Generally, when people immigrate to America, they assimilate into mainstream American culture within a few generations. However, there is a sort of cultural revival taking place across Native America.

      Lakotas (and Native Americans in general) have assimilated into US culture mainly by force. Most people didn’t adopt new American ways because they wanted to live in a new country. Instead, people have been fighting for their sovereignty for centuries.

      It’s a little like Irish Gaelic in Ireland — most people speak only English, but, from what I understand, that was forced upon the Irish people. So, some people want to help reclaim their Irish identity by speaking the language of their ancestors and their people.