“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
The above quotation from the late Nelson Mandela perfectly expresses my motivations to focus on learning minority languages. We take it for granted that a few super languages dominate dialogue in the modern world, but we only need to go back 100 years to bear witness to a much more varied language landscape. For example, Welsh and Irish were much more widely used languages than they are today; Breton soldiers fought side-by-side with their French counterparts in the trenches, struggling to breach the language barrier; and the Basque language was experiencing a resurgence as an expression of ethnic identity. Due to a variety of factors including but not limited to prohibition, discouragement, migration, educational systems, military service, and globalization, these languages have now found themselves labelled as “minority languages.”
Minority languages have always interested me. A minority language is spoken by a minority of the population in a territory, and is often overshadowed by the national language. In comparison with today’s “super languages”, there tends to be less literature on the subject and learning resources. Although this may put some people off, I personally consider it to be a fascinating challenge. Imagine trying to find courses in Occitan compared to trying to find courses in Spanish or Mandarin Chinese, for which there are tons of material readily available.
I like to attribute my love for minority languages to a certain intellectual rebelliousness and penchant for the countercultural. Languages with low media representation or social status become immediately more attractive in my eyes. A lesser-spoken language implies that less is known about it, and so there is more to discover for oneself. One becomes something of a pioneer, deciphering the codes like Indiana Jones without the unclear and ever present danger of thundering boulders. Proficiency in a language is a necessary step toward fluency in a culture, and the notion of being able to function in an environment completely foreign to me just months previous is enormously exciting. More importantly the death of a language is not just a crying shame for linguists and language enthusiasts, but for anybody interested in other cultures. While many of the so-called minority languages are reemerging as a reaction to the homogenizing effects of globalization and a pronunciation of identity, others are threatened with imminent extinction. By choosing to learn a minority language, I help preserve it, and, most importantly of all, the cultural knowledge encapsulated within it. This knowledge may include the medicinal characteristics of native plants or simply evoke a new way of looking at something.
There have been many cases of Irish and Breton speakers opting to educate their children in English or French because of the belief that their own language’s importance was fading in the modern world. But this attitude is changing drastically. In such regions, the youth of today, who would have been taught in the hegemonic language in years gone by, are now rediscovering their native tongue. A language’s current standing in the world has always been of secondary importance to me. If the culture and the language interest me, then it is ample reason to learn it. Chinese, Arabic, Russian and Japanese – “learn these languages and prosper” toll the bells of mainstream media – and yes, they are all languages that I would like to learn in the future, but when I choose to learn them it will not be due to the economic imperatives that these media promulgate.
Besides the exciting challenge that learning a minority language presents, there are many other reasons. It breaks the ice with native speakers who appreciate the effort made. To return to Mandela; “without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their songs.” Taking the effort to learn a minority language is an acknowledgement of the value of a subordinated culture, and an implicit display of respect. Not everyone will want to take their place under the umbrella of a super language, and will be in their comfort zone in the language of the culture they inherited. Therefore, if you really want to get your views across, or bring your ideas and opinions to the table, the safest way of earning someone’s trust and attention is through their language. The death of a minority language is a loss for everyone. If you want to draw the world’s attention to a culture and ensure its preservation, the best way is by learning its language.