Why Study a Less Commonly Taught Language?

Why study a less commonly taught language?

What are the benefits of learning a language that has only a few million speakers, that most people you know haven't heard of, that is not taught often or in many places in North America? It's great to learn a "big" language like French, and Spanish is so widely spoken in the United States that it isn't really a foreign language, but there are definite benefits to learning something more unusual.

  • Someone has to do it! National security, economic interest, cultural value, and social justice all mean that even a small country requires the specialized knowledge of some members of our society. Every country will at some time experience a natural disaster, a war, a political crisis, or else a sudden economic boom, a fashion in tourism, discovery of a rare new natural resource, or something else generally newsworthy, The cultural, economic or political advantage will go to the embassy, army, company or journalist who can send in someone with the necessary language and the cultural knowledge (and perhaps the local connections). Knowing the language and culture are part of being prepared.
  • Knowing a less commonly taught language also opens the door to study immigrant and diaspora communities in North America...
  • ...or to work with those communities, if you're a lawyer, physician, teacher, social worker, member of the clergy, etc.
  • The government recognizes the value of having linguistically well-educated citizens, so much that it offers financial support for studying "unusual" languages: a FLAS (Foreign Language Area Studies) grant or other kind of scholarship aid can help to pay for your education, and often even more money is available for advanced study (by graduate students, professors, and working professionals). Some language programs have scholarships endowed by the local ethnic communities, who have an interest in supporting and continuing their language and culture.
  • Organizations like the Institute of International Education, which administers the Fulbright Program, encourage new graduates, graduate students, and faculty to pursue research abroad. Because so many people apply for fellowships in the usual languages and places, you have a better chance of receiving a grant if you apply in a less typical country with fewer competing applications (though, of course, you still need a compelling application).
  • Like other challenging or unusual accomplishments, study of an unusual language will make your r�sum� stand out and give you an advantage when you apply to graduate or professional programs, or to potential employers. Combined with good knowledge of a more usual language, less commonly taught languages enhance your possibilities as a student of linguistics, history, comparative literature, and other fields.
  • If you are interested in working in interpretation or translation, knowing an unusual language enhances your qualifications. There may not be as much work, but there are many fewer people qualified to do that work. Authors of literary works and other important cultural documents treasure their translators, and the professional and relationships that this work creates are extremely rewarding.
  • For linguists, less commonly taught languages are essential for offering unusual or unexpected insights into the structure and use of human language. For other students who appreciate language, learning a language that is less similar to the ones you know already may be more of a challenge, but it also offers great rewards and more salubrious exercise of those brain cells.
  • Whereas the locals in most tourist spots are indifferent to foreign visitors at best, speakers of less commonly taught languages know it's something special when a visitor can speak and understand their language. Whether you travel for work, study or pleasure, knowing even a little bit of the local language makes for a very different experience of travel, study or resdence abroad.

If you teach a less commonly taught language, your interests may be advanced by the National Organization of Less Commonly Taught Languages, NCOLCTL (fetchingly pronounced as "nickle tickle"), http://www.councilnet.org. For more infomration on LCTLs, see the CARLA (Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition) site at the University of Minnesota.

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Why study more than one Slavic or East European language?

Slavic languages are typically taught in one department because of their linguistic similarities; Slavic and East European languages are often affiliated with East European and/or Eurasian are studies programs, because of their linguistic, cultural, historical and political connections. Studying more than one of these languages has extra benefits.

  • Slavic languages are similar enough that learning one makes learning the next one much easier. Other East European languages (such as Romanian, Hungarian, or Yiddish) often share vocabulary with Slavic languages, and in some cases (such as Albanian and Macedonian) the languages share important underlying grammatical characteristcs.
  • Languages spoken by neighboring peoples, or languages used together in a single country or region, enrich and influence the culture, politics and writings of those places. For this and other reasons, the languages and their literatures and cultures reward comparative study.
  • Historians, economists, scholars of religion, or political scientists working in the region, obviously, will benefit from having better access to more than one country or ethnic group. (What better proof that you take people seriously than learning to speak their language?)
  • For graduate students in Slavics, even if your program doesn't require it, knowing another East European language does more than extend your brain and your potential topics of study: it also improves your job prospects. Look at the job advertisements that mention "a second Slavic language." Your eventual position may require you to teach mainly Russian language and literature, but your secondary expertise in Polish (say) mmay be what gets you that job, a second set of disciplinary alliances on your campus, and the chance to teach other courses regularly or occasionally.
  • For faculty, learning another East European language offers not only intellectual refreshment and the professional satisfaction of new knowledge: it makes us truly Slavists. Funding for study of new languages is available to faculty as well as to students, especially in connection to graduate study or expanding research programs.
  • The days when Russian was the only game in town are over - they ended with the end of the Cold War. It's now possible to view learning Bulgarian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak or Slovene as a kind of entr�e into West European studies.

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Why study a Central Asian language?

  • All the arguments for studying a Slavic or East European language apply here as well. While Russian was once the lingua franca of the region, this is less and less true, especially among young people (with whom our students would enjoy socializing or conducting research). The former Soviet republics of Central Asia and their languages have immense geopolitical and economic importance as well as linguistic interest. Moreover, if Central and Eastern European literatures and cultures are little known and underappreciated in North America, then the cultural achievements of Central Asia are truly hidden treasures for most North Americans. (Hint: Borat is not really Kazakh.)
  • For the student who embarks on studying a language out of the desire for something new and different, and who might consider Russian pass� (while other East and Central European languages seem too hopelessly, well, European) Central Asian languages offer difference indeed.
  • As some of the countries once viewed as part of Eastern Europe or the Socialist Bloc have joined the EU and reasserted their historical ties and economic aspirations to Western Europe, scholarship money for the study of their languages is no longer so freely available, but a student may receive generous financial assistance to learn a Central Asian language.
  • The cultural, grammatical and vocabulary closeness of Turkic languages in the region means learning one makes the others quite easily accessible: learning one of these languages is a good investment. For more information, consult the American Association of Teachers of Turkic Languages.
  • The linguistic richness of Central Asian languages (in particular, the variety of language families they come from) makes them valuable and rewarding to linguists working from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives.

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