For years, linguistic anthropologists have been trying to get the two men to communicate in order to aid their Ayapa Zoque preservation efforts. But the men would rather let the language die than look each other in the eye. Why? No one knows.
Unless Manuel and Isidro decide to shake hands, it might be too late for you to learn Ayapa Zoque. But there are still hundreds—no, thousands—of fascinating languages out there that are worth looking into. So put down your French flash cards and close your German grammar book, and think about going off the beaten path.
What counts as a less common language?Mandarin Chinese has over one billion speakers. Spanish and Hindi have over 500 million each. Arabic has over 400 million, and French, Malay/Indonesian, Bengali, Portuguese and Russian each count over 200 million. These languages are the most common languages in the world.
In the middle are lesser-known languages that fly under the radar. For example, Igbo, spoken in Nigeria, has 24 million speakers. Khmer, spoken in Cambodia, and Haitian Creole, spoken in Haiti, each have over 10 million—that’s more than Swedish (9 million). Interested in Iran? Consider Balochi, spoken by 8 million. Headed to Peru? Consider Quechuan, used by 25% of Peruvians, or 8 million people.
And then on the very end of the spectrum are languages like Cherokee in the United States (12,000 speakers), Kapingamarangi in Micronesia (3,000), Istriot in Croatia (400) and Arha in New Caledonia (170). These languages definitely qualify as less common. In fact, they’re severely endangered.
But there’s also another way to look at the term “less common,” judging not by the number of native speakers but by academic popularity.
For example, 77% of college students in the US who studied languages chose Spanish, French and German. Those three languages combined, plus English, are spoken natively by less than 13% of the global population.
In comparison, Javanese and Bengali have more native speakers than French and German, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone studying Javanese and Bengali in school. Other languages in this category include Telugu, Vietnamese and Punjabi, each of which has more speakers than French.
Clearly, if you choose to focus on just European languages, you’ll be leaving out the vast majority of the world. It’s time to look elsewhere.
What are the benefits of learning less common languages?But there has to be a reason that so many people study “popular” languages, right? Javanese might be more widely spoken than French, but you’re more likely to vacation in Paris, France than Shah Alam, Malaysia.
That may be true, but picking up a lesser-known language has more benefits than you think.
Less common languages make you more competitive. Picture yourself at a job interview. These days, every candidate has taken two semesters of high school Spanish or studied abroad in Europe. But tell a Fortune 500 company that you specialize in Persian (Iran) or Amharic (Ethiopia), and they’ll see a prime opportunity to expand their business into new countries.
You can often learn less common languages for free. You can enroll in a $1,600 German class at your local college or take out a second mortgage to afford a six-week Italian Intensive. Or you can have the US government pay for your studies. The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program will cover courses in Azerbaijani (26 million speakers), Turkish (88 million), Korean (76 million) and many more.
Less common languages expose you to new cultures. Due to a little thing called colonialism, European culture is everywhere. Most of us have grown admiring French painters (Monet), German composers (Beethoven) and British writers (Shakespeare). But have you read the Montenegrin poetry of Jovanka Uljarević or the Catalan short stories of Najat El Hachmi? Being able to understand art in another language opens you up to unheard-of cultural masterpieces.
Less common languages can help you learn more common languages. Learning a lesser-known language can actually help you study more popular languages down the road. If you pick up Catalan first, Spanish will be a breeze. Haitian Creole will help you transition into French. And because Swahili draws thirty percent of its vocabulary from Arabic (including the word “Swahili,” from the Arabic “sawahil”), learning the former will give you a leg up with the latter.
Less common languages can supplement your specific interests. In college, a friend of mine was especially interested in the Gullah Geechee people of South Carolina, so he learned Gullah (550 speakers). Another friend dedicated herself to fighting female genital mutilation in northern Kenya, so she learned Maasai (1.3 million speakers). If you’re interested in something—be it international food, art or social justice issues—consider picking up the language of the people surrounding it.
Less common languages can teach you about your heritage. Do you have an Irish great-grandfather or Curaçaoan mother? Why not look into Gaelic or Papiamentu? Even if none of your living relatives speak natively, just knowing the language that your extended family once spoke can open up new cultural avenues.
And then, of course, there’s my #1 reason for learning lesser-known languages:
Less common languages are just plain interesting.If you’re tired of diagramming Spanish sentences or practicing Chinese tones for the sixteenth hour straight, then… just don’t. Jump into a language that is infinitely more exciting.
Esperanto was invented in 1887 to be a “universal tongue,” combining elements from languages across Europe. Oddly enough, while it borrows most of its vocabulary from Romance languages, it’s pronounced as if it were Slavic. Although it never quite took off, it still has two million speakers worldwide.
Archi is spoken by 970 people on a remote island in Southern Russia. It’s not an easy language to learn—each verb has up to 1,502,839 possible conjugations. Yes, you read that right. Over one million, five hundred thousand conjugations. And you thought French verbes irréguliers were difficult.
Pawnee isn’t just the Indiana town from Parks and Recreation. It’s also a Native American language where nearly every word has over ten syllables—and many words have thirty.
Yupik, a group of polysynthetic languages spoken in Siberia and Alaska, takes pride in specificity. And I mean specificity. For example, the word “tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq” means “He has not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer.” Oh, and none of the individual parts of that word mean anything unless they’re specifically used in that particular word. Good luck.
Silbo will put your whistling skills to the test. The language takes place entirely through whistling, due to the need to communicate across ravines and valleys in the Canary Islands. While some languages may sound like music, Silbo actually is music.
Less common languages aren’t easy, but they’re worth it.Of course, learning any language isn’t a walk in the park, and endeavoring to learn lesser-known languages comes with its own challenges. Resources are harder to find. Conversation partners are scarce. It can be hard to see the immediate payoff, so it’s easier to get discouraged and walk away.
But you can do it, and it’s worth it. You’ll open up more job opportunities, learn about the things you care about and expose yourself to parts of the world you’ve never imagined. And, if you learn Silbo, you’ll come out an expert whistler.
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.