The Joys of Studying Less Commonly Taught Languages

Lets include more diverse languages in our world

It’s interesting that my current job title should be “inclusion analyst”, I never wanted anyone or anything for that matter, to feel left out. My linguistics professor once said Ernestine collects languages like they are stray puppies. I do enjoy collecting languages, but it is more the protectiveness I feel for “esoteric” languages. They, at one time at the turn of the 20th century, have been termed Critical Need languages by the US Department of State. Other sources call them less commonly taught languages. The range from languages like Pashto, Russian, Turkish and Azerbaijani to Hmong, Korean and Xhosa. They may have huge populations of speaker both native and second language or they may be on the endangered language list.

It is often an oversimplification to merely call languages like the ones mentioned “exotic” and a bit eurocentric. If it isn’t French, Spanish or Italian why is it exotic? Because it’s not occidental? Far too often the languages of the east are not taught in American classrooms due to them being seen as useless. Or who will you have to practice with? It is then our challenge and our responsibility to find communities near us and practice. Global citizens are protectors of all people of the world. A language is a key to someone’s heart and a passport to deeper empathy. True there are a lot more opportunities to practice Spanish in the US, but we cannot be myopic in our pursuit of language learning.

Why study them

The Shanghai International Studies University Development Plan has a distinctive strength in cultural and area studies. It has a number of language-related degree programs to serve China’s national diplomatic strategies. It is worth noting that all of the four newly-established programs focus on the languages used by the “Belt and Road” countries. The term Belt and Road refers to the old silk road network of countries. A modern means of connecting Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Places like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, India, Egypt, Djibouti, and Sudan want to expand their understanding of each other to do more business. Emerging markets and developing countries are being sure to remain relevant in their understanding of languages in countries of strategic interest to their future plans. This is not always a bad thing as it can spur on genuine interest. We see the would is smaller and we want to get to know each other.

Globalization is one reason to discover something new and dive in. The world is more international, international trade, the internet, and international organizations that protect collective human rights, the planet, and international development. There are positive things that globalization causes like the spread of technological innovations, global markets, and the reduction of the gaps between rich and poor. Everything local is now global. You don’t have to travel halfway around the would for a taste of the international.

I have a friend named Woohee Park she is Korean and I met her in China where we were both studying Mandarin. in her spare time, she only hung out with other foreigners. She wanted to learn Russian and so she was always around Alina from Ukraine or Shukrat from Uzbekistan. They were native speakers of Ukrainian and Uzbek. So Woohee also picked up their native languages. She could be found speaking Korean, Russian, Mandarin, Uzbek and Ukranian, and English. But she kept going, there was a really cool group of Turkish students at my university in China, I dubbed them “the Young Turks”. I loved hanging out with them and drinking Turkish Coffee and learning a few words in Turkish. But Woohee took it to the next level, she now lives in Turkey and is fluent in Turkish, Farsi and Hungarian. She is a traveling nomad with a knack for embracing the cultures of the languages she seeks to learn.

Woohee Park, polyglot specializing in less commonly taught languages

Connecting with people and understanding the cherished. Languages are cherished by those who speak them. We become custodians of something special. I remember when I briefly lost interest in learning the Arabic language. The disappointment in some of my friends of Arab descent was palpable. I had begun to embrace a language that was spoken by millions and then cast it aside in favor of another one. What kind of global citizen does that? When we are united in our understanding of being an “other”, foreigner, immigrant or minority they no one is left feeling ostracized or alienated. We are welcoming in the struggle of shared persecution or combatting xenophobia.

Combat xenophobia

 Learning less commonly taught languages or LCTLs can combat xenophobia. Following the events of 9/11, U.S. Federal Departments and Agencies recognized the strategic importance of gaining proficiency in LCTLs and began funding special programs (under Title VI) to promote the education of these critical languages, including Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Urdu, and Hindi. Although the intention was to “better understand the enemy” as a former state department official once put it to me, this was both horrible and good. Good because it humanized people who were being seen as “the enemy” but only to the people who sought to learn the LCTLs experienced the human element of the language: culture.

Protecting the endangered

Every two weeks a language dies according to the the National Geographic Society. When humanity loses a language, we also lose the potential for greater diversity in art, music, literature, and oral traditions. Between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct, according to the  UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Today, a third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. A history of colonialism, racism, and discrimination has led to the extinction of approximately 600 languages in the last century. But there is hope, The Endangered Language Fund supports the documentation and revitalization of the world’s endangered languages. But it is my mission to take them on, no only because they are a challenge in an increasingly English speaking world. But because they have to be included, protected, documented and used as a tool to teach people not to fear the “other”.

The language of Inclusivity can be found in the joy of learning an esoteric or less commonly taught language. It makes us feel closer to one another to be a champion for all. Learning a less commonly taught language can save the world. Because when we lose a language, we lose a part of human history. Let’s stay connected, keep including each other and keep being citizens of the world.

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