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5 Reasons to Learn an Endangered Language

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

While I continue my train travels through Japan with updates coming next week, today's guest post is from long-time Fluent-in-3-months reader and travel enthusiast Myles.

When he was 20 years old, he could only speak English, but after three years of living abroad, and immersing himself as much as possible, he now speaks fluent Dutch and Mandarin Chinese. He is currently learning Spanish, French and Iñupiaq Eskimo, the language of his hometown in northern Alaska. He is also an advocate for endangered languages, especially for those in the United States and Canada.

I can appreciate his words, because I myself tried to learn a language native to the Americas, Quechua, and speak my own country's language, Irish. I really feel there are many reasons more people should consider giving less popular languages a try!

Read more of Myles' stuff over on his blog From Alaska to China! Over to you Myles…

When I tell people that I am trying to learn Iñupiaq, the native language of my hometown in Northern Alaska, invariably I hear a long, drawn-out, “Whyyyy?” “Not many people speak the language, so what's the use of learning it?” “Almost all the people who can speak English anyways, right?” “I thought you were a white guy?”

All these questions are of course ridiculous and to prove all the naysayers wrong, here are 5 reasons why learning an endangered language is not only a supremely gratifying endeavor, but it's one that can be done more easily than you think! I have experienced this by attempting to learn Iñupiaq, but these reasons can apply to any endangered language!

1. Learning an Endangered Language Helps Preserve Our World's Heritage

You may be thinking, endangered languages aren't spoken by many people, right? So what's the use? In fact, about half the world's approximate 6,000 languages are endangered and are spoken in communities, both rural and urban, in every corner of the world. Some of these languages, such as Mayan and Coptic, were once spoken by great empires.

When a language dies out, often a lot of aspects of culture are lost with it. Poetry, songs and myths don't transfer easily to another language, and a lot of scientific knowledge can't be accessed by the larger languages. Most estimates predict that at the current rate of language loss, 50% of the world's languages will be extinct by 2100, and with it, a lot of the world's culture and heritage will be lost too.

Although this may sound like a lot of bad news, lots of promising news for endangered languages is coming in fast. Communities all around the world are stemming the tide and creating new generations of speakers. Success stories include Maori, Cornish, Hawaiian and Massachusett, the latter of which went extinct 200 years ago, and now has hundreds of first and second-language speakers, accumulated in just the last few years. Even in my home of Alaska, the Alutiiq language has recently reported a rise in the number of speakers of the language.

By investing in an endangered language, you can help to preserve the world's diversity, which is a pretty exciting concept to think about when you start learning!

2. Learning an Endangered Language is Just Like Learning Any Other Language

Many language learners complain that many endangered languages have unfamiliar grammar and vocabulary. Iñupiaq, for example, is a highly agglutinative language, which is fancy linguist way of saying that it uses very long words that have sentence-like meanings. For instance, the word niġpalugniaŋitchuŋa means “I will not eat too much.” This, coupled with the fact that Iñupiaq vocabulary looks nothing like English vocabulary, makes learning the language seem like a daunting task.

However, this approach to the language will guarantee that you never learn it. Like Benny Lewis says with his “Speak From Day One” approach, no language is inherently harder to learn than any other. Indeed, he has shown that learning languages with notoriously “complex” grammar, like Turkish, German or Czech, or languages with completely unfamiliar vocabulary for English speakers, like Chinese or Hungarian, can be easy with the right attitude and a willingness to get out of your comfort zone.

Learning Iñupiaq is about finding people who speak the language or are learning the language and speaking from day one, just like with any other language. And like every language, Iñupiaq has aspects to it that would make European language learners jealous. (For example, it has no irregular verbs and just three vowels!) Like Benny says, learning grammar is for mañana, so just get out and talk to some new people!

3. Literally Anyone and Everyone Can Learn an Endangered Language

A lot of people who are not heritage language learners, might think that learning an endangered language is only for those whose ancestors spoke the language. This is patently untrue.

In 2008, when Mary Smith Jones, the last fluent speaker of the Eyak language passed away, many expected the language to be gone forever. However, a young French teenager, using materials he obtained from the Alaska Native Language Center, learned to speak fluent Eyak and is now working with linguists to revive the language in Southcentral Alaska. Despite the fact that he is a Frenchman and had no previous knowledge of the language or culture, he was able to learn this endangered language fluently. The great thing about our globalized world is that everyone can learn from anyone; it's really just about reaching out.

Personally, I am learning the Iñupiaq language by just putting myself out there, and the fact that my parents are not from the community doesn't deter me one bit.

4. Learning an Endangered Language Can Bring Back the Dead

Well, not literally, obviously. But learning an endangered language can teach you things about culture from the past and present that you might never have known. Let me give you an example from what I've learned from Iñupiaq.

I remember being told as a kid about the Iñupiaq origin story, which involves Raven as the creator of the earth and all the celestial bodies. Light only appeared when Raven stole it from an old man and his wife, but Raven dropped it as he was fleeing. Suddenly, it exploded and was dispersed in units of light throughout the universe. When I learned that siqiniq, the word for sun, was made of up the stem siqi-, “to splatter, to splash outwards” and -niq, which signifies a completed action, I was immediately able to draw the connection to the Iñupiaq origin story (which seems to be similar to the theory of the Big Bang interestingly). Learning an endangered language can teach you so much more about your past and present culture.

5. Learning an Endangered Language is Easier Now Than Ever Before

If you are still not convinced that learning an endangered language is worth your while, let me tell you that learning an endangered language in today's world is easy.

Many people think the spread of technology is bad for endangered languages. I disagree. Never before in history has there been such a wealth of resources for those wanting to connect with other language learners and speakers.

Young people are texting in their native tongues. iPhones have keyboards in Cherokee and other native languages. Young people are posting raps on YouTube in their own languages. Modern technology has given us the opportunity to access information and connect with people like we never could before.

Although there are likely no other Iñupiaq speakers on my continent (I am currently living in Belgium, of all places), I can learn the language much better today than in years past. I'm using all sorts of online resources including Facebook groups, Youtube videos, Skype sessions, and iPhone apps to tap into a vast network of fellow language learners and teachers. Learning an endangered language is just like learning any other language, and there are people one click away who are eager and willing to help you out.

For those interested in learning an endangered language, whether it be because it is part of your heritage or simply because you want to learn more about our world, there are endless resources online that you can access. italki.com has a great number of languages to choose from, and Duolingo recently announced that their new “Language Incubator”, that may soon help to preserve endangered languages like Basque and Maya. To find an endangered language near your community, you can consult UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger.

In short, there are resources out there, you just have to seek them out. If you are serious about learning an endangered language, don't start tomorrow. Start today. Learning a language is about getting your feet dirty, whether it's Iñupiaq, Mandarin or Silbo Gomero. Together we can work together to help thousands of languages across the globe become stronger again.

If you have any thoughts, please share them in the comments section below, check out my blog, or see some more links underneath for further reading!

About Iñupiaq:
There is even a wikipedia in Iñupiaq!: http://ik.wikipedia.org/
About endangered languages:
Endangered Languages Fund: http://www.endangeredlanguagefund.org/
Endangeredlanguages.nl: http://www.endangeredlanguages.nl/
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