Give Unusual Languages a Chance!

Photo: Transparent Language.

I’m always glad to hear someone ask « What language should I learn? » Learning a language, modern or classic, is great for a number of reasons that include the ability to communicate with other groups of people, to read good literature in the target language, to listen to music and watch TV in the language and to find out more about a culture. Sometimes people decide to pick up a new language for specific reasons, such a businessman picking up one of the world’s most spoken languages to reach a broader base. If you’re an expat in a country, it’s in your best interest to learn the local language, too. A lot of people, on the other hand, are just happy to pick up a new hobby and see where language learning takes them. It’s to them who I write.

If you decide to learn Spanish, French, Mandarin or Arabic, I applaud you. You’ll have a plethora of resources available on and offline as well as tons of potential conversation partners everywhere in the world. If you went for a less widely distributed language, I also congratulate you. That speaks highly of your intellectual curiosity.

Many people attempt to dissuade potential language learners to forget about ever mastering some less common languages because of their difficulty and less-than-stellar demographics. Think, for instance, of Icelandic: more people live in Chicago than in the entirety of Iceland, and Icelandic is notorious for having changed little for centuries, retaining complicated grammatical features like cases. Any time spent studying Icelandic wouldn’t be thought as fruitful by critics unless you were planning to settle down in Reykjavik soon.

These critics neglect the fact that Icelandic has a rich history. The Viking sagas were written in Icelandic, and Icelanders are proud to be able to read them with as little difficulty as we read Shakespeare (or perhaps less). I don’t know about you, but reading about the adventures of Vikings in the Northern Seas sounds pretty exciting. Thanks to the wonderful world wide web, you can get to know other Icelandic aficionados and access learning resources quite easily. It will also make you a more interesting person. Don’t act as if the phrase « I can speak Icelandic! » wouldn’t provoke surprised stares at parties or meetings.

I’m not trying to sell you just Icelandic. Any language beyond the major European and Asian ones is worth study time, even if its structure is quite different from that of English. If anything, that ought to motivate you more. Complex grammar will also make Indo-European languages related to English, like the Slavic languages, easier to tackle in the future should you decide to give them a try.

Among the languages people overlook are, for instance:

Afrikaans. A South African language descended from the Dutch spoken by colonists, it is also the native language of actress Charlize Theron and rap group Die Antwoord.

The zef fashion of South Africa’s Die Antwoord has gone global and helped put Afrikaans on the map.

Nahuatl. Spoken by at least 1.5 million people in central Mexico and by Mexican immigrants in the United States, it was the language of the Aztec empire.

The Aztec empire was to Mesoamerica what the Roman Empire was to the Mediterranean.

Frisian. The closest relative of the English language that is still spoken today in the Netherlands. Frisian, like many regional European languages, is at risk of disappearing. Learning it becomes then more important.

Quechua. Spoken by millions of people in Peru and Bolivia, and once upon a time by the mighty Incan empire.

Macchu Picchu.

Guaraní. The story of Paraguay’s main language is one of triumph. The Jesuits learned Guaraní to convert Paraguayans to Catholicism, and the language never subdued itself to Spanish in the territory. In no other Latin American country does a native language hold as much prestige as in Paraguay. Words like jaguar and piranha have arrived to us via Guaraní.

Navajo. The most spoken Native American language in the United States played a vital role during WWII, when speakers of Navajo sent messages in the language so that these would not be intercepted by the Japanese.

Navajo soldier decoding a message in WWII.

Swahili. The lingua franca of Eastern Africa is a language of immense cultural richness.

If you ever visit East Africa and show people you’ve made an effort to learn their language, you’ll make a better impression.

There are many more less commonly taught languages whose learning can be enriching despite their low numbers. If you’re curious, go ahead. You won’t know where it’ll take you until you try.