There’s a strong case to be made for learning languages like English, Spanish, Mandarin and French when they are clearly useful in international business, demographic popularity, and global reach. “More bang for your buck” is not an insignificant factor in the journey to find a language to call home (at least for the few months or years that you’ll be studying it). But what a minority language lacks in global utility, it can certainly deliver in other ways, especially if your views on learning tend toward the philosophical.
A minority language is a language that’s spoken by the minority of a given population, meaning that it’s often highly localized and specific to one relatively small community in the world. Though many people who speak minority languages also speak the lingua franca of their country, minority languages account for the vast majority of languages spoken in the world today — and they are also rapidly dwindling into extinction.
If you’re intrigued by the prospect of speaking Cornish, Garifuna, Scots or Yiddish, but you’re not really sure whether it’d be worth the effort, here are a few arguments that may just sway you.
It’s Kind Of Like An Intellectual Dare
When you endeavor to learn a minority language, you’re flexing a certain amount of brainy bravado. First of all, there’s less literature and fewer learning resources available to work with. Spanish learners will never have a dearth of study tools to work with. As a relatively more isolated student of Haitian Creole, you’ll have to dig a bit more to find learning materials, and you’ll probably have to be resourceful with what you do find. You’re less likely to find readymade course material, and that can sometimes mean creating your own, or using books and recordings to puzzle it out yourself.
Additionally, it speaks to a different set of priorities. If you’re merely looking to get ahead financially or increase your job prospects, then it may not make sense to learn a minority language. There is truly something to be said for targeting specialized, niche opportunities, however. If you’re the only candidate in the job pool who can speak decent Basque, guess who’s getting the job?
But if you’re someone who is merely here to engage with learning for learning’s sake, then the path less traveled is one that’s likely to delight you with more surprises and personal growth. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that there’s more for you to discover on your own.
You, Too, Can Help Prevent Minority Language Extinction
Not all minority languages are necessarily thriving, or even in “stable” condition. There are currently hundreds of languages in the world that survive through just a handful of speakers, and many, many more that are steadily dying out. The Endangered Language Alliance says that many of the estimated 7,000 languages in the world are due to disappear completely by the end of this century.
Though there are many separate revitalization efforts currently underway to help ensure the continued longevity of some endangered languages, the best way to support the survival of minority languages is to have more people speaking them, period, regardless of whether their ancestors spoke the language, or whether they’re merely in it for the intellectual adventure.
When you learn a minority language, you also play a small (but not insignificant) role in making bilingualism more available to people from those cultures.
Additionally, you’re indirectly helping preserve biodiversity and linguistic diversity. A World Wildlife Fund study found that when languages die, they take a lot of other things with them beyond the cultural, historical and anthropological knowledge contained within. They also take entire biological ecosystems with them due to the extinction of the associated ecological knowledge.
It’s Just More Special
The opportunities associated with learning a minority language may be less obvious, but they are thoroughly pleasant and often unexpected.
If your work — or if life — happens to take you to a new location, learning the native language of the local community is kind of a given if you’re hoping to assimilate. Sure, you can probably use the local language of business or government and get around okay, but there will still be a certain amount of linguistic distance between you and the locals. By taking the time to learn their language, you are demonstrating an earnest willingness to connect with people from a certain culture, and more often than not, those people will be pleasantly surprised and more willing to open up to you. The connections you form with them will feel more intimate because you’re connecting in a language that is not only more intimate to them, but also intimate in the sense that not many other people know how to speak it.
Additionally, you will be joining the ranks of a fairly intimate community of language learners. As a student of French, you’ll be but a drop in the sea of French students seeking community online (or even in your city). But as a student of Occitan, you may find that you’re soon welcomed as family among the niche community of Occitan fans, learners and speakers you encounter in your studies. And there’s something pretty special about that.