Nahuatl: How I Learned a Language With Few Native Speakers
Have you ever had the crazy idea of studying a minor language or an endangered language?
In 2014 I decided to study Nahuatl, an endangered language from Mexico. When I decided to do this, it seemed like a great idea. But only for a moment… until I realised how much work it was going to be. A seemingly innocent and well meaning decision began to feel like the beginnings of a permanent headache…
I was diving in, full speed, towards a language with relatively few speakers (and therefore, fewer people who teach it), even less fellow learners and EVEN less learning resources. If you've learnt another language before embarking in this daunting task, you'll know these are precisely the things whose existence you appreciate when learning any language!
Studying a language with relatively few speakers sounds like something people in their right mind don't do. However, if you know how to do it, it can become an incredibly rewarding activity, as well as your tiny contribution towards keeping a weakening language alive.
Believe me, I'd know. Learning Nahuatl was all I'm telling you and more…
Wait, Wait. What's Nahuatl?
I thought you may ask! You know those people everybody (somewhat mistakenly) calls the Aztecs? Well, their actual name was the Mexica (not that you care, but they were called Aztecs before founding Mexico—after that point, they became known as Mexica).
Now, the Mexica were my country's first founders, and this beautiful language called Nahuatl was their main language and lingua franca when Mexico was an large, undiscovered empire. If you're interested in knowing more, there's lots to be read on the subject.
I started learning Nahuatl for several reasons. The most important was that my best friend speaks it quite well and his hard work inspired me to start learning it. Equally, I felt sadness and embarrassment at not knowing even the tiniest bit of the language that is essentially the foundation of my national culture and identity. I'd been looking outside my own country for so long that I'd forgotten what was inside it.
In spite of Nahuatl being 100% a Mexican language and me currently residing in Mexico, finding resources and teachers with whom to learn this language, even within my country, was actually really hard. Although Nahuatl has a bit over a million speakers, in urban settings Spanish is favored and preferred, and since native speakers are often discriminated if they don't speak Spanish, they don't speak it much if they live in the city. Thanks to this, the descendants of natives are losing the language bit by bit, which means that teachers are far and few between. To make things more difficult, due to the nature of my work I usually study on my own and then use italki and language meet-ups for speaking practice. To my chagrin, I realized very early on these wouldn't be available to me!
What had I left to do… except hack my way through this language?
How to Go About Learning the Unlearnable
It took me a while to find a way to work around the little (but at the time, seemingly insurmountable) issues I had found in the early stages of learning Nahuatl. As a matter of fact, the first few weeks after deciding to start learning Nahuatl were pure, venomous frustration because I couldn't study this language the way I wanted. Keep in mind that until that point, I was very used to following a rigid progression that went a little like this:
- Gathering resources (textbooks, dictionaries, websites)
- Studying the basics on my own for about a month, then hiring a tutor through Italki for early conversational practice
- Continued tutoring mixed with listening to and reading native media and literature.
Since steps 1 and 2 were essentially unavailable (step 3 isn't: media and literature in Nahuatl do exist), I realized I'd have to carve out a new step one for myself. This is how I came to realize that minor languages aren't impossible to learn (not even on one's own)—they just need more preliminary work.
Here’s what worked for me.
Become the Indiana Jones of Languages
Start out by doing a little detective work. Consider the global position of the language you want to learn, and investigate a little. Where is it still being spoken? Is it in danger? Being protected by one particular organisation or committee? Is there an expert on the matter? Is there any really old material written about it? Where was it printed? Are the natives known to have emigrated? Where? Don't be afraid to ask around, even to people you think may know nothing about the subject. One of my best clues came from a family friend who knew close to zero about Nahuatl, but had seen a sign for an editorial house dealing in Mexican languages close to her home.
Researching all about a target language with few speakers and learners might sound like a boring task, but it can get really interesting. It feels a bit like you're an Indiana Jones of languages, opening yourself a path to a place not many people know about. It's quite thrilling, actually!
In addition, the internet can be an incredible help in this regard.
Barring that terrible situation where your target language is the very one that no linguist or researcher has ever heard of, for the most part somebody will have done the hard work for you. Keep your antenna up and aim your periscope in the particular direction of colleges, universities and language research institutions. Unless the one person that can give you the valuable information you're looking for happens to be an absolute grinch, the people that spend their lives documenting and protecting these languages really enjoy knowing there's public interest in them.
Embrace Low-Tech Study
Language study has become incredibly easy with the advent of the internet and app-based learning. However, do you know the kind of time and money that goes into developing the kind of programs and systems that are truly global? They're usually not cheap to create, and oftentimes the groups and organisations keeping minor languages documented and alive do not have the resources or connections to open the language to a broader, internet-based audience.
If you're like me and enjoy learning over the internet, then count yourself absolutely lucky if you find a tutor who teaches a minor language online. If you don't, look into immigrant groups on the internet, as well as off it. With some luck, you might find a native of your target language willing to tutor you in it.
Libraries may lay slightly forgotten in today's just-Google-it mindset, but you'll find that they're very helpful in finding clues to where and how to study your language. If you don't know where to start, ask the librarian; their job is not only to place the books back in their place, you know?
Keep your expectations humble and realistic. Always remember that before the app-based dictionaries and online chat tools of our times, there were paper dictionaries and mail correspondence. Above all, be patient if you don't feel you're progressing as quickly as you're used to!
Get Your Backpack On – Go Travelling!
Whether your language is a minor one or the lingua franca of the world, travelling has always been one of the best ways to learn a language. However, in the case of minor languages, you really have to be willing to go into the unknown, to stay in towns that may not even appear in a travel guide, and to live an adventure that probably very few people will be able to relate to. Let me tell you a little about mine.
At some point during my Nahuatl mission, my best friend and I decided to visit Cuetzalan del Progreso, a small town built in the mountainous northern terrains of Puebla state, in Mexico. This is a place that's far removed from just about everything, and maybe thanks to this they've managed to preserve Nahuatl as an important secondary language—indeed, Nahuatl-Spanish bilingualism is very high in Cuetzalan (sadly, this is a very uncommon situation in Mexico).
Although I'd heard rumours about the degree to which Nahuatl is still used in this town, I only realised just how wonderfully bilingual Cuetzalan is when my friend had to draw some money from the local ATM. He came back apologising, saying that he had taken so long because two women had stood in front of the ATM for a short bit, while one taught the other how to use the machine in Nahuatl.
Because of my low degree of fluency then, I didn't get to converse much during this trip, but I did hear a lot of the language being spoken, and was able to better understand the culture on which the language is based. In fact, I believe I learnt more about Nahuatl during this short trip than during the five months I had been learning it before then. In an incredible stroke of luck, we were invited to a school where Nahuatl is taught from kindergarten, and where the children only start learning Spanish in first grade. As they're bilingual by grade two, learning English as a third language in middle school apparently doesn't come too hard to them. Although this is an experimental system, unrecognised by Mexico's education authorities, seeing this new generation of Mexicans actually speaking the language I‘d had so much trouble finding textbooks and teachers for gave me hope for the future.
Be Creative, Flexible and Above All Inquisitive
The truth is that in practice, learning a language with few speakers and resources isn't too different from learning any other language; it just requires better planning and more patience. I think there's also a major motivational component in learning these languages. By actually going through with learning a language with very few speakers, you're helping to keep them alive. “But I'm just one person”, you say. Your contribution may feel like a drop of water falling into a drying lake, but that's still one more drop of water than the lake had before.
Never consider that the language you want to learn is unavailable or impossible to learn. You live in the same planet as another seven and a half billion people. Insist enough, and you'll find people who speak your target language (or at least, know of it), and who can direct you to places where it's spoken.