My Experience Learning a Minority Language (Guest Post by iguanamon)

Most people are on the forum to learn big, popular languages. There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re fun and quite useful, obviously- FIGS: French, German, Italian and Spanish. I ‘ve learned a couple of “big” languages (including Spanish) and I am quite happy with what I can do with them. So why would I learn two (and a half) small languages, one of which is spoken by less than 100,000 people? How does a learner go about learning a language when there are few to no popular courses available, few sources of media and sometimes difficult access to native-speakers? I’ll start by talking about why I chose to learn a minority language.

I learned Haitian Creole because I live in the Caribbean region and I know some speakers. I also sometimes travel to the US, and in particular to Miami, where Haitian Creole (HC) is the third most spoken language after English and Spanish. There are also large Haitian communities in Boston, New York, New Orleans, Montreal and Paris. HC is, to a large extent mutually intelligible with Lesser Antilles French Creole (LAFC)- spoken in Dominica and St Lucia (officially English-speaking), Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana (Overseas Departments of France). Remnant populations are in Northeastern Brazil, Northwestern Venezuela and Trinidad. So, I have access to over 11 million speakers.

Creole languages are less studied because they, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect. The only country where a creole language is official is Haiti and despite being spoken by 100% of the Haitian population, it is co-official with French which is spoken by only 5% of the population. On the French and English islands of the Lesser Antilles- Creole is not officially recognized and is often seen by its own speakers as a barrier to mastering the official languages. Combine this with the low economic status of HC and LAFC-speakers, and it’s a wonder the languages survive, but survive they do. They even thrive. There’s a resurgence in pride in the Lesser Antilles in learning and speaking LAFC in many Caribbean islands.

Ladino (Djudeo-espanyol- the language of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal over 500 years ago) is in a much worse position. The estimated number of speakers today is around 100,000. The speakers are spread all over the world, with the largest concentration in Israel. What Yiddish is to the Ashkenazi, Ladino is to the Sephardim. The Holocaust of World War II practically destroyed the Ladino-speaking populations of Europe. There was a time when Salonika (Thessaloniki), Greece was a majority Ladino-speaking city. What the Holocaust didn’t destroy, emigration took care of by dispersing historic communities in Turkey and the Middle East. Ladino, like Yiddish, is not an official language in Israel.

I learn these languages because, I am curious- curious about the cultures of the peoples who speak them. I am not of Haitian descent nor am I Jewish. Knowing these languages helps me to have access to the people and their culture in a way that I wouldn’t have without knowing them. I have yet to actually speak Ladino with a native-speaker. I have written it with native-speakers and, I am reasonably sure that I can have a conversation if the opportunity ever arises. The pronunciation is very familiar due to my Spanish and Portuguese.

When one chooses to learn a minority language the first thing that smacks a learner in the face is the lack of conventional resources available. Good luck finding a complete Assimil course for Ladino. There is an Assimil “de pôche” book for HC and the other LAFC’s. There’s also an Assimil Course with a French base for Guadeloupe Creole which is very similar but a different language.

When I decided to learn Ladino I already spoke Spanish, Portuguese and HC. I had two courses available- one good and thorough course and one not so thorough but both had their use. I was able to understand a lot of Ladino at a glance. As usual, the deeper one dives into a supposedly transparent language the more it rears its ugly head. Ladino is full of Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Italian and Greek words that may look Spanish but aren’t. There’s no Michael Thomas. Pimsleur only exists for HC and it only has 30 lessons. There are no “pop-up” dictionaries, no translations of the latest US bestsellers, no dubbed US series, no subtitles and no decent film libraries.

So where does one start? Beggars can’t be choosers. For Ladino there are two courses for English-speakers and that’s it. For Haitian Creole, there are courses. Two of which are free and legal to download. There is a very good DLI course available but a third of the audio is simply “un-listenable”. The rest is barely listenable and would be unacceptable to most people other than me ( I love the drills and practically monolingual nature). My desire and passion for this language led me to mega web searching. I used everything from twitter to government pamphlets. My best resource was a 17 page booklet intended for fifth grade kids about a fictional raindrop’s voyage to the Everglades National Park in South Florida. It was comprehensible because there are also Spanish and English translations available. I had the Old and New Testament of the Bible which was translated in 1999 in bilingual form (without and with audio, respectively). From Kansas University, I had a conversational course and a beginning reader of a condensed novel (written by a Haitian but translated from French) with audio. Also from KU, there is a series of intermediate/advanced readers of folktales. I had access to the Digital Library of the Caribbean which gave me parallel text pdf’s of interviews with Haitian Voodoo priests and links to the videos. There’s also a great blog for learners of HC written by a native-speaker. The 30 lesson Pimsleur course is quite good. Most importantly, I had a native-speaking friend I could practice with on a weekly basis.

For Ladino I had only two courses, a daily15 minute Ladino newscast and musical program on Kol Israel Radio (not downloadable), and a half an hour weekly broadcast on Radio Nacional de España. I had no Pimsleur, no government pamphlets and no native-speaker nearby. I did have a passion for learning and the internet. I discovered sources via a forum for Ladino-speakers called Ladinokomunita, a Sephardic community website in Argentina and Belgium, an oral corpus (some with transcripts and translations in French) from France. These led me to twitter accounts to follow and the links within these resources then led me to more and more resources. I now have plenty to keep me occupied and enjoying these languages.

The difference in learning a minority language is that one must make much more of an effort to find things and a learner must compromise on what their ideal resource may be because, basically it ain’t there. Do you only like certain genres of Western music? Forget it. Do you only tolerate certain genres of books? Forget that too. Do you have an aversion to speaking the language with actual people? (If that were my case, I could not even attempt to learn St Lucian Creole). Do you have to have a series of courses and don’t want to use native materials early on in the process? If that’s the case with you, stay far away from minority languages. You have to take what you can get and be happy with what you can get, or at least learn to appreciate it.

I don’t consider this a hardship at all. What I can do with these languages makes me very happy. Understanding HC gives me entry into a vibrant and colorful culture. Though I can’t read popular world novel translations or watch original TV series and top notch cinema (because there isn’t much available), what is available is the people. Haitians are, without doubt, some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, in my experience. If Haitian music can’t make you move… I don’t know what will. There is so much wisdom in Haitian proverbs and folktales.
I can’t begin to tell you how cool it is to read from right to left, in Hebrew Rashi script, a language that evolved from 15th century Spanish and despite all the odds is still alive today. In the five centuries since the Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, they have left a rich legacy of literature, folktales, music and food- a Mediterranean cultrue that is truly unique. Most of this legacy has never been translated. I have more than enough to enjoy in the language. Thanks to Ladino, I have access to it. So, I could despair about what isn’t available, but I choose to revel in what is available.

If you want to learn a minority language, you could pick one that is related to one you already know-

French: HaitianCreole; Lesser French Antilles Creole; Seychelles and Reunion Creoles; Occitan
Italian: Corsican; Sicilian; Venetian and other regional dialects
German: Plattdeutsch; Yiddish; Swiss German; Mennonite/Amish German; Alsatian
Spanish: Chavacano; Catalan; Papiamento
Portuguese: Cape Verde Creole; Mirandes; Galician; Papiamento; Tetun
Dutch/English: Sranan Tongo; Afrikaans; Papiamento; Frisian; Krio; Saramaccan
Scandinavian: Icelandic; Faroese
Irish: Manx; Scots Gaelic
Mandarin: Cantonese; Shanghainese
Russian: Byelorussian

Or you can pick one that is totally unrelated to anything you know.

  • Georgian
  • Uzbek
  • Latvian
  • Lithuanian
  • Estonian
  • Quechua
  • Mayan
  • Guarani
  • Hawaian
  • Romansh
  • Breton
  • Albanian
  • Amharic

The list goes on and on. You don’t have to justify or explain to anyone why you are learning a minority language like, say Georgian, Estonian or Karelian. You just have to really want to learn it and be prepared to take what you can get along the way in order to make it happen. You have to be able to learn “outside the box”. There’s also a nice side effect to learning a language with less than optimum resources. It can make you a much better language-learner overall. If you can do things the “hard” way, then when you have an abundance of resources it is much, much easier. If you want to learn a minority language, tell us about it on the forum. Someone will be able to help you to get going, if not specifically, then at least generally. Start a log and start having fun taking the road less traveled.

This guest post written by senior forum member iguanamon who speaks: English (Native); Spanish (advanced); Portuguese (advanced); Haitian Creole (basic fluency); Ladino (basic fluency) and also Studies: Lesser Antilles French Creole
You can read iguanamon’s own language log here: http://forum.language-learners.org/viewtopic.php?t=797