Guest post on less commonly taught langauges

This week we are having a guest blogger, Pat Goodridge, who has just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and is now studying for a Master’s degree at Stanfod University.

Less-commonly-taught languages present learners with less-commonly-experienced challenges

By Pat Goodridge, Stanford University

In American language education, there is a clear system of favoritism. A small group of languages, out of the nearly 7,000 spoken around the world, dominate the pedagogical landscape. These languages represent some of the most widely spoken in the world (Chinese and Spanish), but also extend to include those particularly relevant to major domains like technology (German and Korean), business (Japanese and French), cultural heritage (Greek and Italian), and religion (Arabic and Hebrew). Other languages receive attention for the political positions their countries hold in relation to the West (Russian). These languages are the most studied because the countries associated with them are those we know the most about, the ones we see most often in the news, the ones we (or most of us) would like to visit. As a result, their languages are the ones we care about the most. But they are not the only ones out there and not the only ones worth learning.

While such languages retain the lion’s share of funding, enrollment, and other forms of sponsorship, another group of languages lies beyond the bounds of mainstream language education—the less-commonly-taught languages, otherwise known as LCTLs for short. As with major languages having identifiable reasons for their popularity, LCTLs vary in the reasons why they are rarely taught in schools and universities; some have limited necessity by virtue of being spoken in countries with very high populations of English speakers (Dutch and Finnish), some have sizable speaker bases but are overshadowed by larger languages surrounding them (Tamil by Hindi and Cantonese by Mandarin), and some are spoken in developing countries that have limited relevance to most in the developed world (Twi and other African languages).

In spite of these limits, one particular subgroup of LCTLs has received positive attention since the turn of the century: the endangered languages. This group refers to those languages with the fewest living speakers, including especially those with fewer than 100 speakers. Media, academia, and industry have all rushed to the aid of these language communities: National Geographic began the Enduring Voices Project to “bring wide attention to the issue of language loss”; Transparent Language began the 7000 Languages Project as an initiative to create resources for endangered languages like Ojibwe, Balinese, and Kurdish; and prominent academics have embarked on high-profile research ventures, such as the case of Dr. Mark Liberman, a professor of mine at Penn who in 2012 received a $100,000-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a method of gathering data on endangered languages.

Furthermore, the fact that there are so few speakers of these languages makes linguists and anthropologists all the more eager to study them now, while time is of the essence. Just ask one of my linguistics professor at Penn who wrote about Warlpiri (an indigenous Australian language with 3,000 speakers) for her MIT dissertation, another who wrote an entire dictionary on dialects of Huave (18,000 speakers), and a classmate of mine who has now spent three summers in Montana studying the Salish languages (less than 2,000 speakers total). The language community is clearly dedicated to the cause of saving the rarest of languages, and rightfully so. Unfortunately, not all LCTLs are as fortunate to have such attention.

Despite these efforts in support of endangered languages, there are countless LCTLs that lie in the obscure area of being too small in terms of speakers to gain institutional support from universities and resource publishers, but too large to garner the attention like that of endangered languages. These languages include those spoken in Central Asia (Tajik, Kazakh, Uygur, etc.) and those of smaller, isolated countries such as Hungary, Cambodia, and Somalia. It is these languages that are the most difficult to learn not for the particular difficulty of their grammars, but for a number of factors entirely external to the languages themselves. The major implication of LCTLs being taught at a limited volume is that learning them becomes significantly harder for those who are interested in doing so. Below, I describe a few of the challenges arising from this truth.

There are very few effective resources for LCTLs

The first challenge facing LCTL learners is that resources for the languages are sparse, especially quality ones. When I first set out to learn Kazakh on my own, I was limited to Peace Corps packets from decades ago (scanned and put online) and old textbooks, many written in Russian. Some of the textbooks even still had Kazakh written in the Arabic script, which was replaced in 1927! There is also a lack of apps or other high-tech resources that for the major languages have existed for years. Cutting edge websites like FluentU, along with software companies like Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone, have foregone expanding to rarer languages, most likely due to the limited income potential of offering them. Luckily, a few high-end language app makers, such as Nemo, have begun to expand to LCTLs. Though app giant Duolingo’s language options remain conservative, mobile apps may still be the future of learning LCTLs, with much less overhead cost involved in their production. This lower cost is, in turn, transferred to the consumer. Buying one app for $4.99 is, after all, more cost-effective than 300-dollar software, taking a course, or even buying a textbook, which brings me to my next point…

Resources for LCTLs can be pricey

Another challenge is that the resources that do exist for LCTLs tend to be more expensive than those for other languages. Even books are more expensive, since there is a smaller demand for them and to make production profitable, prices must be raised to compensate for smaller sales. For example, Colloquial Languages by Routledge does have books available to teach a number of rare languages, but one finds a Kazakh book for roughly $70, while whole books in the same series, of the same length, for other languages are only $20!  Furthermore, the fact that it tends to be smaller publishers who focus on LCTLs means that logistical costs boost prices more than they would for larger, more optimized resource companies like Rosetta Stone. For learners who prefer to learn languages directly with native speakers instead of electronically, other challenges exist still…

Native speakers of LCTLs can be difficult to find

Fortunately, it is easier now than ever to connect with speakers of other languages; social media websites like Interpals are a godsend and have my personal seal of approval. However, some learners will find that meeting and practicing with native speakers online is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. can be a reliable means of finding native speakers with whom to acquaint in person, as can simply researching organizations dedicated to groups of speakers. For example, the Uzbek American Association of Chicago has a large picnic every year, with thousands in attendance. You may notice, however, that all of these options involve the Internet in some fashion. Without the web, it’s easy for me to imagine how impossible it would be for me to meet Kazakhs, Hungarians, or even speakers of languages with a large diaspora in the US, like that of the Turkish people. One type of native speaker is especially hard to find, which poses a particular barrier to learning LCTLs…

There are few teachers available

One side effect of there being so few native speakers of LCTLs is that it can be hard to find not just speakers, but speakers with teaching skills. Learners will find that even tutors are difficult to find, let alone university-level lecturers dedicated to pedagogy in an LCTL. In fact, the Turkish teacher at my university was only part-time and was a banker by day. I was lucky enough, however, to have a bona fide scholar of Hungarian literature as my Hungarian teacher, so certainly there are exceptions. When domestic teachers are scarce, programs may look abroad to fill teaching positions for summer programs or temporary semester-long stints. This practice is for the most part very beneficial to students, since it exposes them to a native speaker who comes directly from the culture they are seeking to discover, though there are a few issues that can arise. For example, teachers that come from regular positions in the target countries could have a limited knowledge of English, leading to confusion in class when questions are asked. This is especially relevant at the beginner level, where students rely on a teacher with at least some knowledge of their native language in order to pose questions and communicate difficulties they’re experiencing. This is less of a problem at the higher levels, though by that point many students are already prepared to travel to the target language’s country without further instruction.

As we’ve established, the difficulties of learning LCTLs go beyond the mere fact that they tend to be fundamentally different from English and other Indo-European languages. Though there are challenges facing even the most enthusiastic of LCTL learners, progress is on the horizon. The University of Minnesota has a LCTLs Project sponsored by its renowned Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA). The program’s initiatives include a listserv of LCTL teachers, a book on developing LCTL curriculum materials, and a summer program. Other world-renowned summer language programs are available at the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University and the University of Michigan. The most positive news of all is that it only takes one excellent resource, one inspiring teacher, or one unforgettable trip to make an indelibly positive mark on learners that catapults them to success in their language studies. The challenges surrounding learning an LCTL are numerous, but are no match for dedication.





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