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What’s the best way to learn a rare language?
The truth is, rare languages aren’t the easiest to learn. As soon as I started learning a rare language, Hiligaynon, I was confronted with questions I’d never even thought of before:
- How do you translate a word when your language isn’t supported by Google Translate?
- How do you learn on the move with no Duolingo?
- How do you get listening practice with no podcasts?
I’ve been wrestling with these – and many other questions – for several weeks now. For the past 90 days I’ve been learning Hiligaynon – a minority language of the Philippines – in the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.
I made this video of me speaking Hiligaynon at the end of the 90 days:
As you can see, the conversation went on for 25 minutes!
Why Learn a Rare Language?
I wanted to learn Hiligaynon because it’s my mother’s language, and that of my many aunts, uncles and cousins who still live in Iloilo City, Philippines.
Learning Hiligaynon helps me to understand my heritage and connect with my Filipino family.
The problem? Like other regional Filipino dialects, Hiligaynon (colloquially known as Ilonggo) is not recognised as an official language of the Philippines.
As Benny has explained, the “Filipino” language is a standardised version of Tagalog – the language spoken in the capital, Manila. When the Philippines became independent, it was adopted as the country’s official language and is the only Filipino language taught in schools or used in TV shows.
This means that many language resources that we take for granted – films, apps or even books – just don’t exist for Hiligaynon. It’s an endless source of frustration, though it has also yielded unexpected rewards.
Based on my experience of learning Hiligaynon, these are my tips for learning rare languages.
I’ve also recruited two other rare language learners: Anne Szustek Talbot, who’s learning Uzbek, and Jonty Yamisha, executive director of the Nassip Foundation, who learned conversational Circassian.
Jonty has this advice for those taking on the challenge of learning a rare language: “Remember that it can be done, and that it’s no different from learning any other language, the only variable being that you just have to hunt harder to find the resources.”
The Problem with Rare Language Dictionaries
Aside from the lack of Google Translate, the most frustrating thing about learning a rare language is that the dictionaries that do exist are… less than useful. Often when I look up a word in the dictionary and then try it on one of my family members, I get a weird look: either the word belongs to a different dialect, or it’s so old that only my grandmother uses it. I’m afraid the only way around this is that you need to ask a real, live native speaker – so you had better get over your fear of speaking!
Something else to bear in mind – spelling is often inconsistent from one text to another. This is because many of these languages are used more for speaking than for writing, with people switching to the country’s “official” language for formal communication.
Jonty shared his experiences of trying to learn from a Circassian dictionary with his Circassian-speaking father: “The words in the dictionary were different from the ones he used growing up in the village. There’s a lack of standardisation.”
In the case of Hiligaynon, words were imperfectly translated to the Latin alphabet from the original Badlit script, resulting in certain vowel pairs being used interchangeably. For example, “big” in Hiligaynon is written as “dakû” by some and “dakô” by others. Once you learn the quirks that are unique to your target language, recognising different spellings of the same word will become second nature.
Let’s Go on a Treasure Hunt!
“Focus on comprehensible input,” says Jonty. “For me, comprehensible input are phrases, dialogues, stories, songs – stuff you enjoy, stuff you’re going to use.”
The issue for rare language learners is that any input is hard to come by, let alone input that’s comprehensible. I found changing my attitude to be helpful here: I’m not “trawling the internet for resources,” I’m “going on a treasure hunt!” This small adjustment turns frustration into excitement over every new resource, however small.
These are some of the nuggets I’ve found on the way:
Get Out the Mic
You’ll find songs in just about any language on YouTube or Spotify. It’s a great way to pick up some fun, creative vocabulary and assimilate grammatical structures. Recently there’s been a revival of Hiligaynon-language music in Iloilo, resulting in wonderful pop songs like this one.
Social Media is Your Friend
“Follow and engage with key influencers who post content in your target language,” says Anne. “I've found and made friends with people based in and covering Uzbekistan. This can also be a good way to source teachers, whether remote or for in-person meetups.”
Jonty runs a Facebook group for the global Circassian community and recommends joining several such groups to boost your practice. “My group is multilingual, some are wholly Circassian, some are for Russian or Turkish speakers of Circassian. Through those, there’s around a half-dozen WhatsApp group chats that people use as well.”
My personal recommendation is to follow pages that interest you or make you laugh. My favourites for Hiligaynon are KAON TA, ILOILO (Let’s Eat, Iloilo), which posts delicious food pictures; and ORAYT Bacolod, which posts funny (and punny) wordplay images.
If you have friends or relatives who speak your target language, chat with them online. Keyboard apps like Gboard and SwiftKey have recently added many rare languages, so check whether yours is on there to avoid getting stuck in autocorrect purgatory.
I also recommend following the Facebook pages of local radio stations. Hiligaynon speakers typically use a mixture of Hiligaynon and English, which limits opportunities to learn new vocabulary. Local Philippine DJs, however, are proud of their heritage and will tend to avoid using Tagalog or English words. You can also try listening to the stations themselves, though I only recommend this for advanced learners.
“Hack” italki Using the Location Search to Find Rare Language Tutors!
Although italki is a fantastic resource for language learners, it still doesn’t list many rare languages, which caused years of frustration for me.
After I started the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge, I decided to give italki another shot and discovered a useful feature: the ability to search by location.
Curiously, you can’t find this feature under the “Find a Teacher” tab – it’s only available under the language exchange partners directory, which lists both exchange partners and tutors.
You can use this to “hack” italki in the following way:
- Enter the official or majority language of your target language’s country. For me, this was Filipino (Tagalog).
- Click “Living In,” and type the name of a city where you know a large number of people speak your target language (I entered “Iloilo”).
- Hopefully, a list of tutors will appear. Send each of them an email asking whether they’re able to teach your target language.
Sadly, many tutors on italki don’t list their exact location. If you don’t find a teacher using the method above, you may need to take the more difficult approach and email every tutor in the country until you find someone who speaks your target language. It’s a massive pain, but it’s so worth it in the end.
Learn a Rare Language the Peace Corps Way
The American Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) were once known for becoming fluent in the language of the communities they were placed in. Travel writer Paul Theroux, a former Peace Corps volunteer, learned to speak Chinyanja while stationed in Malawi.
Sadly, this practice seems to have died out (I recently met a PCV in Cebu who was taught Tagalog despite all the locals speaking Cebuano!), but the old Peace Corps resources are available on Live Lingua. There are over 100 courses there with textbooks and class notes for languages such as Wolof and Aymara.
Bear in mind, though, that some of these lessons may be outdated. Ask a native speaker to look over them to make sure that the phrases and vocabulary are still in use today.
Go on a Rare Language “Mission”
No, I don’t mean mini missions. I’m referring to the enormous number of (mostly Mormon) missionaries who are stationed in all corners of the globe right now. Whether you agree with this or not, it’s a real boon for rare language learners.
Why? In order to connect with locals, these missionaries throw themselves into learning the language – not some government-ordained “official” language, but the one people are actually speaking on the streets. They’re often paired with a native “companion” who helps them to do this.
Where will you find these missionaries? On YouTube, of course, where they continue to spread their message after their tenure is up. The Friends in all Nations – Filipino page has videos of missionaries speaking Hiligaynon much slower than native speakers do. Try searching “Friends in All Nations” plus your target language and see what comes up.
What if – like me – you’re not particularly interested in Mormonism? Fortunately, many of these missionaries also created fun vlogs about discovering the local culture. My favourite channels are Ilonggo Boyz and Bryce and Nikki Hillman, which talk about food, music and language quirks. Once you’re comfortable watching vlogs made by foreigners, challenge yourself with videos by native vloggers.
Some missionaries become so passionate about the language that they create resources to help everyone learn it. The Speakin’ Ilonggo app that I use for Hiligaynon was created by a former missionary, Paul Soderquist, who runs the Learn Ilonggo with Paul YouTube channel. Early on in my three-month challenge, I set up a Skype call with Paul and we chatted for half an hour about Hiligaynon and its grammatical quirks. It was a huge help – not only because of Paul’s great tips but because it gave me confidence that what I was attempting was achievable.
Find Your Community
If your hometown is big enough, you can find a community for any language – even rare ones. “Here in New York, we're fortunate enough to have large communities of Uzbek speakers in and around the Sheepshead Bay neighbourhood in Brooklyn and in Rego Park in Queens, which has been nicknamed “Queensistan” for its large immigrant community of Bukharan Jews,” says Anne. Use Facebook, Meetup or Couchsurfing to find these local meetups.
For truly rare and endangered languages, however, be aware that you may encounter some resistance – especially if you don’t have a family connection with the language. “There’s a lot of scepticism that speakers of small languages have for a member outside their ethnic group who wants to come in and learn it,” says Jonty. “You have to convince them to give you the time and effort to teach you.”
Overcome Motivational and Organisational Issues with a Course
Despite already knowing about a lot of these resources, my Hiligaynon learning stalled for years because I just couldn’t get organised. Every time I visited my family in Iloilo, I would resolve to “finally learn Hiligaynon” – but that resolve would fizzle out again when I got home.
Aside from having a ridiculously vague goal, I just didn’t have a framework on which to build my learning, or anyone to tell me what I should be studying and when. This is where learning a “better resourced” language such as Spanish or French (or even Esperanto) for a few weeks can be useful – you learn to build an effective routine that works for you. In other words, you “learn how to learn.” Once you’ve figured that out, transfer those skills to a language with fewer resources and you’ll find it much easier to progress.
Better yet, join a non-language-specific course like the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge. I was nervous starting out in the Challenge, as I worried that the assignments would involve resources that excluded me, such as maintaining a streak in Duolingo or listening to a certain number of Innovative podcasts. Fortunately, the challenge assignments are achievable for any language, so long as you have access to native speakers and the internet.
The Challenge also helped keep me accountable, so that I turned up every day and pushed through the hurdles that would normally defeat me. In rare languages, there are many – and it’s worth remembering that on days when you see other people making big strides in more popular languages. I turn the situation around and say, “Well, I’ve come this far – and I don’t even have Google Translate!”
Recruit Friends and Family
I’ve left my best tip for last. Unless you’re a linguistics professor, chances are you’re learning a rare language because of a personal connection – a parent, partner or close friend. Use them! Not only are they easily accessible (and free) speaking practice, speaking with them will reinforce your reasons for learning and keep you motivated through the inevitable frustration.
The Unexpected Bonus of Rare Language Learning: Say Goodbye to “Analysis Paralysis”
You’d think that, given the lack of resources, you’d be better off learning a well-resourced language such as Spanish?
Well… not necessarily.
You see, when I was learning Spanish, I probably spent more time trying to decide what resources to use than actually learning. I flipped between dozens of different books, read hundreds of app reviews, and scroll through thousands of tutors on italki.
By contrast, this is what a typical morning of Hiligaynon study looks like for me:
- Review my Anki flashcards. There are no pre-made decks online, so every card is one that I made myself, with words that I’ve actually used in real-life conversations.
- Set up next week’s lessons with Ann and Kurt, my two Hiligaynon tutors – who, as far as I know, are the only Hiligaynon tutors on the whole of italki.
- Decide which of my two Hiligaynon Peace Corps books I’m going to study today.
- Review some phrases in the Speakin’ Ilonggo app. No more flipping between Duolingo, Mondly and Memrise.
- Watch some videos from my personal YouTube playlist: American missionary vloggers if I’m taking it easy, native vloggers if I fancy a challenge.
- Head downstairs and chat with my Mum in Hiligaynon.
Over to You!
If you’ve always wanted to learn a rare language because of a family connection or some other burning passion, I hope I’ve convinced you that it is possible. You just need to get creative: treat it as a treasure hunt, have the courage to speak, and always, always remind yourself of the reasons why you’re doing this.