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Minority Languages: The Bliss of Learning Languages Less Spoken


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“If you live with people and you share a life with them and you speak their language, they trust you.” – Peter Rohloff, MD, Wuqu' Kawoq (Maya Health Alliance)

I have always found languages to be beautiful.

Having learned to speak seven languages – some of them fluently, and others at a more basic level – I suspect that we all speak different versions of the same language. That is to say, I tend to believe that Mandarin Chinese, American English, Arabic and Lingala, for example, are not fundamentally different from one another.

But languages, although they seem to be surprisingly similar in their ability to articulate human thoughts, each tend to have their own flavour or personality. Let me give just one example.

Haitian Creole has a frankness, or a directness in saying things, almost to the point of being comical. I remember the first few months that I spent living in Somerville, Massachusetts when the neighbourhood was still inhabited by large numbers of Haitians. It was just after the massive earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince in 2010. One taxi driver (this was before Uber) explained that Haitians always “say things straight.” He gave an example. Instead of saying Il pleut (French for, It's raining), they say Lapli ap tombe (Rain is falling). “When you say it's raining,” he asked, “What is raining?”

I laughed.

Also, I was amazed at how effortlessly Haitians inserted English words into Haitian Creole.

  • L'ap vini kunye a. Li slow. (He (or she) is coming now. He (or she) is slow.)
  • Fe bak. (Go back.)
  • M vle achte kat. Yo buy one get one fwee.* (I want to buy four. They're buy one get one free.)

They say that Haitian Creole is a language which was created in order to be understood. There's an expression in the language – Kreol pale, kreol conprann. It means “Creole is spoken; Creole is understood.” There's no complicated grammar, no noun classes, no masculine or feminine, no verb conjugations, no adjective agreement, no distinction between infinitive and past participle. There are tense markers, but that's about it. It's a language that's built for communication. I found that even though I was far from fluent, if someone wanted to communicate something to me, they could do so easily. The language also lends itself to a certain kind of humour, the kind that is derived from saying things bluntly.

So I believe that when you learn a language and you get to know its personality, you also learn a lot about those who speak it. The people, collectively, have a certain personality which is reflected in their language. Even the metaphors that are used in a given language speak to what is valued in the culture. For example, in the United States, monetary wealth is highly valued. We use terms like invest in your future, spend your time wisely, don't sell yourself short and it will pay off, even when we're not talking about money directly.

What is a Minority Language?

All of this brings me to the point of this article. What is a minority language and why is it worth learning one?

I had never heard the term minority language until I submitted an article to Fluent in 3 Months (Fi3M) about learning Tz'utujil where I offered tips for learning indigenous languages. The term appeared over emails sent back and forth between myself and the Fi3M team.

Officially, a minority language is one that’s spoken by a minority of people within a given country or territory. For myself, I have come to think of a “minority” language as one that is spoken by a small group of people in a limited geographical area. There are many good reasons to learn these types of languages, but you will also be sure to find people to discourage you.

“Why Would You Want to Learn That?”

Let me tell you a story…

It was October 31, 2016. Guatemala was having its annual kite festival in Sumpango where beautifully woven kites larger than billboards were flying high on display. Around that time in San Juan La Laguna, smaller kites were literally falling out of the sky and landing into my bowls of chayote carrot soup. The open-air kitchen concept, popular in Guatemala, has its advantages and disadvantages. I had just turned 31 that morning and was set to embark upon an overnight voyage to the Republic of Nicaragua, my second two-week vacation in just over a month. I was excited, chatting about my love of languages with an artist named Jesi Jordan on the lancha to Panajachel.

Eighteen hours later, I arrived in Leon, Nicaragua, exhausted but happy to have arrived safely. The next day as I explored the scorching capital of the Sandinista Revolution, it struck me as being worlds apart culturally from Guatemala.

Comparatively, the people were more reserved, spoke only Spanish (no indigenous languages), had a certain degree of respect for their government (absent in Guatemala) and were more left-leaning. Already, I missed the warm smiles and the laughter of the indigenous Maya.

One day, while walking across the courtyard towards the Catedral de Leon past a large fountain adorned by ceramic lion figurines, I met an older gentlemen named Ernesto, a native of Leon, who loved traveling. He had been to San Juan La Laguna and shared my enthusiasm for foreign languages; he knew Spanish, English, French, Portuguese and Italian. I told him I was learning Tz'utujil, the indigenous language spoken in San Juan.

He looked at me like I was crazy.”Why would you want to learn that?” he asked.

Many people ask the same thing.

Ernesto learned languages to broaden his world, not to narrow it down. Like many others, he believed that learning an indigenous language spoken by a very small group of people (Tz'utujil has fewer than 100,000 speakers) was, to put it bluntly, a waste of time.

Many others gave me similar advice. “Focus on improving your Spanish,” they said, “Because once you leave San Juan La Laguna, your Tz'utujil will be worthless. But your Spanish will serve you across all of Latin America.”

They were right. But I already felt confident in my Spanish, and I knew that the more time I spent in Latin America, the more it would improve anyway. I wanted to connect with the San Juaneros.

6 Reasons I Love Learning Minority Languages

Which language or languages you choose to learn depends on your objectives. Learning broad, sweeping languages spoken by millions, or billions, is a great thing. Languages like Mandarin Chinese, English and Spanish are international and if you can speak them, they open up opportunities for business, pleasure and cross-cultural understanding through vast segments of the entire world.

But there's something cool about indigenous languages, and minority languages. The world is becoming more globalized, and increasingly cultures are becoming more homogeneous. International cities have more in common with one another across borders than they do with the rural countryside surrounding them. The wisdom embedded in “minority” languages is dying as more and more people switch to speaking dominant or mainstream languages.

In my experience, learning these languages has been a great source of bliss. Here are the reasons why:

1. People Open Up to You and Trust You

When I began working as a maternal and child nutritionist in Somerville, Massachusetts, a devastating earthquake had just struck Haiti. Haitian refugees were arriving in the Boston area by the thousands, and my French was of little use among the majority of them, who spoke only Haitian Creole. I wanted to communicate with them in that language, and I was determined to learn it. I found a textbook in the Somerville Public Library entitled “Ann pale kreyol”. At the time, I thought it meant Anne speaks Creole, but later on learned that it means Let's speak Creole.

After months of independent study and three weeks of intensive language courses at UMass Boston's Haitian Creole Summer Institute, I started using Haitian Creole with clients at work. When I began to do so, everything changed. Clients who had previously acted cold towards me and refused to answer any questions were now opening up to me. Instead of looking down or away when I spoke, they sat close and listened intently. Many were shocked that I'd taken the time to learn Haitian Creole, a language that, for the most part, is spoken only by Haitians. Some thought I'd spent a significant amount of time in Haiti, or was born there.

In the end, it boils down to trust. When you learn a language that is spoken by so few, people will begin to trust you almost immediately. Learning a language with a limited number of speakers proves your commitment to those people. If you weren't sincere, you would never have bothered. Even in Rwanda, if you just say a sentence or two in Kinyarwanda, people will say Uri umunyarwanda (you are Rwandan).

2. You’ll Find People are Eager to Help You Learn

Sometimes people complain about learning languages like French, because they go to Paris and no one will speak French with them. The French just respond in English as if to say, “Why are you even trying to speak my language?” In the same way, when immigrants come to the United States, few people give them credit for trying in English.

By contrast, it's been my experience that when learning “minority” languages, you're encouraged and pushed forward by native speakers every step of the way. People’s eyes light up when they see you're even trying, and they will go out of their way to help you learn whatever you want to know. I've been studying Kinyarwanda in Rwanda now for three months, and haven't had a teacher, though many people have offered to teach me for free. Instead, I go up to people and talk to them, and when I don't know how to say something, I ask. While riding the bus, I pull out flashcards and converse with people near me using the vocabulary words I'm learning. Rarely do other passengers not get excited about my learning process and try to help as much as they can.

I've had nearly identical experiences learning Haitian Creole and Tz'utujil.

Note: I don't know whether it's fair to call Kinyarwanda a minority language, as it's spoken by millions, but nevertheless it is a language whose speakers are concentrated in one specific, relatively small geographical location.

3. You Will Make People (and Yourself) Laugh

Especially the indigenous Maya. It seems they never stop laughing. In Rwanda, I've found, one of the best ways to engage with people and get them laughing is through singing. You can either ask Rwandans to teach you songs in Kinyarwanda, or offer to teach them songs in English. Either way you'll build rapport and share a good laugh during the learning process.

4. You Will Gain Insight Into a Different Worldview

There's something fascinating about Mayan languages. People are still speaking them. Despite centuries of Spanish influence and despite repeated attempts to eradicate Maya people and civilization, and unlike elsewhere in Central America, these pre-colonial languages are still thriving. Primarily, speakers of Mayan languages reside in Guatemala and Mexico, but they also extend into other neighbouring countries. This means that the worldview of a people who inhabited the Americas long before the arrival of the Spanish is still intact and alive, embedded inside indigenous languages. Many of these are at risk of becoming extinct as the younger generations are adopting Spanish for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are employment opportunities.

By learning such a language, spoken by so few, one can begin to appreciate other ways of framing and seeing the world, beyond what the framework of a Western language such as English or French provides. Granted, widely spoken majority languages throughout the world can provide insight into worldviews that differ significantly from a Western point of view. However, there is a richness in the sheer diversity of minority languages spoken by small groups which are dying out at a rapid rate globally.

In Tz'utujil, there are unique grammatical features that are deeply intriguing. The relationship between subject and object places less emphasis on distinguishing between the agent of the action and the recipient of the action. It reminds me of Michael Pollin's book Omnivore's Dilemma. Did we cultivate corn or did corn cultivate us? In fact, corn and humans rely on one another for their propagation. By refusing to make a hard grammatical distinction between the doer and the doee, Mayan grammars emphasize the interconnectedness of all things. At least that's what the academics say. And in the time I spent studying Tz'utujil, I began to understand this to be true.

The linguist Daniel Everett wrote a fascinating book called Don't Sleep, There are Snakes. In it, he describes his journey of learning to speak the language of the Pirahā in the Amazon rainforest over the course of a decade, referring to their grammar as the “grammar of happiness.” He claims that the Pirahā have no numbers beyond three, no way to speak about the past or the future and no recursion (no way to embed sentences within other sentences). His argument is that the language itself shapes the worldview of the Pirahā, forcing them to live in the present and to rarely think about the past and future, if at all, because they have no tenses to articulate such thoughts. Some question the validity of his work, but I am fascinated by it.

Being able to see the world in a new way, for me, is one of the major motivating forces for learning an indigenous or minority language.

5. You Will Be a Bridge Over Massive Cultural Divides

This goes back to building trust. In many cases, the language barrier is what separates one group from another. Once you start speaking the language, though, a lot of walls come down. People feel they can trust you. This is what happened to me with Haitian Creole. If I'd made an assessment of “what Haitians are like” before speaking Creole with them versus after, it would be entirely different. It's hard to really understand culture as an outsider. You only learn how people treat you, someone who doesn't belong to the group.

Sometimes learning an indigenous or minority language can allow you to get a more inside view, just as it can when you learn a more widely spoken, but culturally distant language.

6. Work Becomes More Meaningful – and You’ll Open Yourself Up to New Opportunities

In late January, I received an email from a former dietetic internship director informing me of a research fellowship in Kigali, Rwanda. Three weeks later I was flying out of Logan Airport on Ethiopian Airlines headed for the land of a thousand hills (an underestimate by my count). On the plane, I wrote out my main objectives for the year. The two big ones were: pour my heart into the fellowship and learn to speak Kinyarwanda fluently.

The non-government organization that I work for, which promotes nutrition-sensitive agriculture as a long-term sustainable solution to malnutrition, is comprised of 90% local Rwandese. The majority of them do not speak much English. The key people that I work with on a day-to-day basis are fluent in English, but without knowing some Kinyarwanda, I would be effectively cut off from a large proportion of our staff. Through my efforts learning Kinyarwanda, I'm able to communicate with everyone in the organization, from kitchen staff to farm workers to field educators to the mothers who utilize our program. In this way, I feel much more connected to what we do, and the work is also a lot more fun.

author headshot

Stephen Alajajian

Nutrition Consultant

Stephen Alajajian is a registered dietitian/nutritionist, language activist and author of The Languages Blog.

Speaks: English, Spanish, French, Haitian Creole, Tz'utujil, Kinyarwanda, Kaqchikel

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