Loving a language that plays hard to get: Studying rare languages

How do you connect when he's playing hard to get? Dialogues!
How do you connect when he’s playing hard to get? Dialogues!

As I’ve mentioned before, I love rare languages. From Swiss German to Oromo, their exoticness and unique characteristics draw me in. They’re like the strong, silent types of language: cute, mysterious, captivating. They do their own thing, and you need effort to work your way into their heart.

Since I recently started learning a little Portuguese for work, the difficulty of breaking into the rare set became acute. With Portuguese, I immediately found broad vocabulary exercises and podcasts on-line, all geared towards non-native speakers. Portuguese is unique in that its two main dialects, Brazilian and European, both attract large numbers of learners. I found materials for both dialects.

This situation brought into focus the main problems I have with rare languages, namely, a dearth of materials for non-native speakers. These rare languages assume you’re native or not interested (true, for most of the population).

I need help from my readers! What can you suggest I do? Here are the roadblocks I’ve run into, as well as the stop-gap measures I’ve employed.

  1. Graded readings. I have no problem finding greetings in almost every language. Then I find newspaper articles and podcasts aimed at native speakers. I can’t find anything in between that would move into the intermediate realm.
  2. Real speech. Without something like Pimsleur, I can’t find anything in these languages that approaches normal conversation, but with a vocabulary and pace designed for beginners. Texts and podcasts that one finds are generally monologues, often journalistic (eg, the news).
  3. Teachers. I try to find teachers of these languages. Granted, I prefer people who live where I live, but that’s nearly impossible to find. The nature of these languages signifies that few people have little interest in learning them. Hence, professional teachers with experience, methods, and training pretty much do not exist.
  4. Grammar. If I take what texts I can find, often articles, I need some sort of grammar to “extract” the words out of them. I understand that grammar gets poo-pooed by polyglots, as it can be dreary. When you’re trying to understand if this word is a verb or a noun, or if it really is the word you think with a couple of letters attached, grammar really comes in handy. Is it a noun in the dative? an irregular plural? Is this a verb, but in the reflexive? a verb used as a noun? Where’s the subject?
  5. Dictionaries. Ok, I guess this is probably the word. So what does it mean? Without a decent dictionary, I’m working a second-hand jigsaw puzzle. I’ll assume I’ll get 90% of the puzzle, but I’ll never see the complete picture. I depend on the kindness of crowdsourced translators and free dictionary apps.

Basically, I get stuck at a very basic level. This is where I stand on several of my languages. The book How to Learn Any Language (see my post about this book here) says to just work through a newspaper. It assumes that you can find a decent grammar and dictionary, though. I want to memorize vocabulary, but I need a way to cement the vocabulary to break through to the next level. And I have nothing.

As a result, I’ve had to come up with some of my own methods and resources, and the most effective method I’ve found is creating dialogues in the language, with an English parallel. I need a native speaker, who has a decent command of another language that I know. I’ve started using this method, but I need to develop it more. Let me know what you think!

  1. Graded readings. Since I’m writing these dialogues, I can make them at whatever level I want. I can talk about the present or the past, address a man or a woman, use the vocabulary I think is most important for me.
  2. Real speech. I chose dialogues because I want something resembling speech. It doesn’t have to be natives chatting and joking, but a very basic dialogue that can get me through a situation in a fun and gracious way.
  3. Teachers. The method doesn’t require a teacher, just a native speaker. I write out the dialogue in English, and then have the native speaker translate into their language. When I have them read through it, they tend to streamline it towards the natural form of their language, rather than some stilted, word-for-word translation. That offers cool constructions and vocabulary that come in handy.
  4. Grammar. With actual sentences from real speech, I have examples of the language in its “natural habitat.” The grammatical structures are real. Building grammar from the ground up is guaranteed to be clear and understandable when I’ve already decided that the sentences are useful. I can also test grammatical structures with my native speaker.
  5. Dictionaries. The native speaker can give the correct translation for the textual and cultural context. For example, “to cook” may be translated differently, but if we’re talking about our lunches and who cooked them, maybe I should say “prepared.” In another example, I asked my Somali friend how to say, “How’s your wife?” He looked at me funny and said, “You should ask, ‘How’s your family?’ Otherwise, they’ll ask you, ‘Why are you wondering about my wife?'” The best dictionaries won’t tell you these sorts of things.

Now I’ve explained why I base my rare-language learning around dialogues. They allow me to overcome several of the roadblocks I’ve encountered.

I already understand that this might not be the best way. First, they assume a native speaker. Second, I haven’t gotten past a really beginner phase with any of these languages, so I can’t guage how far it would get me in the long run.

Have you had to invent your own methods for learning languages? What have you come up with? Anyone interested in trying out the method I outlined and letting me know how it goes? Any suggestions?

I appreciate your help!
Photo credit: NeilGHamilton / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

10 thoughts on “Loving a language that plays hard to get: Studying rare languages

  1. I’m having similar difficulties right now learning Lao. There are a handful of resources out there with basic greetings, how to count to 10, and other stuff to keep you busy for a couple of days, but not a lot out there for the next level of learning.
    One thing I’ve tried, (and I’m still not sure how useful it is yet) is I’ve found a couple YouTube videos in Lao with English subtitles. I picked out a few words that showed up in the subtitles over and over again, look them up in a Lao-English dictionary, and watch the movie again, listening for those words.


  2. fsi-language-courses.org is a great resource – they have public domain courses from the U.S. governement with several less common languages, including Lao – most of the courses are a little dated, so you’ll still need Youtube and stuff 🙂 but it’s a **lot** better than nothing. So far I’ve used it to help me with French and Hungarian.
    And speaking of Youtube, try finding lyric videos of popular songs in the language you’re learning. It provides a medium-level set of vocabulary, with a theme, and having it set to music really fixes it in your mind!


    1. Thanks, Margaret! You’re right, the course is a little dated, but there’s still a lot of good stuff there, including audio. I browsed through the written stuff and some of the sentences they teach are kind of funny. Can’t wait to be able to say things like “The turtle is far from the forest” in Lao.


  3. Have you tried uTalk? It’s an iPhone app with 70 languages (will be 100 in the next update) and covers everything from basic greetings to technology, leisure, emergencies, adjectives… 35 categories in all with about 1,200 words and phrases per language, all translated and recorded by native speakers. I work for the company that makes it so I’m obviously a bit biased, but I love it, and it might help with some of those less common languages you want to learn. Somali’s definitely in there, and Lao will be in the next update.


  4. alice

    A few ideas:
    digitaldialect.com – basic level for less dominant languages, it has oromo and other languages i’ve never heard of;)
    italki – you can find teachers, community tutors, language exchanges
    endangeredlanguages.com – has some resources for rare languages
    http://www.foreignlanguageexpertise.com/ – site of professor arguelles, language expert and seems to be a nice person, who might be able to assist

    Hope this helps


  5. Hallo,
    Ich erlaube mir, auf Deutsch zu kommentieren, da ich gelesen habe, dass du Deutsch gut verstehst und ich auf Englisch nicht gut schreiben kann.
    Auch in meinem Leben gibt es eine Sprache, die mich sehr interessiert, für die es aber kaum Lernmaterial gibt – Okzitanisch. Bei mir ist es nun aber so, dass mein Interesse eher wissenschaftlicher Natur ist; ich habe nicht den Ehrgeiz, sie gut sprechen zu lernen, Lesekenntnisse reichen mir. Vor Kurzem habe ich eine Online-Tageszeitung gefunden, die ich lesen kann (http://www.jornalet.com/). Glücklicherweise gibt es auch ein Okzitanisch-Französisches Online-Wörterbuch. Sich dem Okzitanischen anzunähern, ohne Französisch zu können, wäre sicherlich schwierig, glücklicherweise kann ich gut Französisch und kann diese “Brücke” nutzen. Was die Grammatik angeht, stoße ich schnell an meine Grenzen, hier wäre richtiger Unterricht hilfreich, den ich aber nicht habe.


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