*Please excuse my face on the front cover photo. Thank you.
Every language learner faces struggles, whether you have neighbors that speak your target language or whether they speak your target language half way across the world. Each of us face our own individual struggles as language learners, but there are a few struggles (and perks) that learners of less commonly taught languages experience.
There is a formal list of LCTLs in the United States that is defined by a specific group of people (more info at the end of the post), and in the U.S., these languages are everything except English, Spanish, French, and German. However, this post will focus more on languages that are less known or less studied. For example, the list of languages above does not include Mandarin, but I know that many high schools, universities, and communities around me that speak it. I will not be going by the formal definition of LCTL as defined by these people.
I have studied my fair share of less commonly taught languages (aka LCTL) as well as the more commonly taught, whether it be in the classroom or through self-study. I have taken at least one year of formal classes in Spanish and French. My LCTL studies include(d) Mandarin, Brazilian Portuguese, and Catalan, and coincidentally, I began studying the last two of these languages by myself; I took Portuguese and Mandarin classes and my university offered Catalan (but I didn’t take it).
Keep in mind LCTLs can differ by where you’re located/what country you live in!
Needless to say, those of us that study LCTLs face a huge struggle, which can be put into its own list. But with this list of struggles, comes a list of (really cool) perks of learning LCTLs. First, the struggles, and then the perks, because we all want the perks to be the cherry on top.
1. Finding Speakers
If you’re learning a LCTL, one of the biggest struggles is finding native speakers or finding a community near you that speaks your target language. In other words, where are all you native speakers at? It’s really fun for me when I see signs or billboards in X language, but there’s a 99.9% chance it’s a more commonly taught language. You can rarely get this with your LCTL, and if it is in a LCTL, I literally freak out.
If you enjoy talking in your target language in person with a native speaker, this will probably be more of a problem for you than someone who is more shy. Not to mention, it’s hard to even find other learners of your LCTL! However, learners of LCTLs can easily get around this because of technology (pen-pal sites, language learning apps, social media, Skype, etc.).
2. The Never-Ending Critical Questions & Comments
If you have/are studying a LCTL, you may or may not have gotten questions and comments that go a little like this:
“Oh, what made you learn that language?”
“What is that [language]?”
“Where is that even spoken?”
“No one speaks that language.”
“That’s not useful.”
Or my all time FAVORITE: “That’s not useful, study X language instead!” And most of the time, the person will indicate a more commonly taught language, with either a huge number of speakers or a more “well known” language.
I think this is one of the biggest struggles for leaners of LCTLs. I don’t think the questions are too bad, because that means the person is (most of the time) just curious about your history or background of how you got into the language. But comments, however…are not always the most encouraging.
Many people aren’t really aware of the fact that there are other reasons to learn a language besides increasing your job qualifications (not that there’s anything wrong with that). There are so many different reasons for learning a language, spanning from personal reasons, familial reasons, cultural, to just pure interest and love of the language.
A lot of people learning LCTLs do it for the reasons listed above, and I think this is one massive struggle (i.e. major problem) that we face. But we keep learning it anyways.
3. Resources are Harder to Find
If you’re learning a LCTL, you might notice (depending on the language) that resources are really hard to find. A lot of love to the LCTLs, but even more to those less commonly taught dialects! I want to mention some kind of hierarchy of LCTLs and dialects: Brazilian Portuguese is more commonly taught than European Portuguese, which is even more underrepresented in terms of resources. It’s easier to find BR-PT resources than EU-PT resources online, and even in printed sources.
Not to mention, it’s not only hard finding resources, but it’s hard finding resources that are good. As I was searching for Catalan language books online, I realized how little there was, and whatever there was, it had really bad reviews. The struggle: finding resources, and if you find it, make sure it’s GOOD! Because sometimes it will be the opposite of good.
4. Study Abroad Programs… might not have your country/language.
Let’s talk about study abroad programs for all you university hopefuls/students. Depending on the institution, there will be more or fewer locations to study abroad in. A lot of the common places (in my opinion) are places in Western Europe (minus Portugal!), Eastern Asia, and some Latin American countries. Talking about the hierarchy I previously mentioned, they might not have a program that speaks your target language and/or dialect; my university had study abroad programs for Brazil and didn’t even have Portugal as an option. However, they did allow you to study in Barcelona where they speak Catalan (but is still under a Spain program), so it all depends on what your language is, where it’s spoken, and if it works out with your university schedule. If this is important for you in college, make sure you do your research before you apply/accept your offer on what countries and type of study are available (but there are also outside programs that allow study abroad to certain countries or exchange programs, so do more research!)
For the most part, those are the biggest struggles that I have experienced being a learner of LCTLs or struggles that I know other people have undergone. The struggles are real, but there’s always a bad and a good side to everything.
Yes, believe it–learning LCTLs has surprisingly a lot of perks, and really great ones too:
1. Educate the World
One of the most amazing things about learning a LCTL is educating the rest of the world. This can go two ways. The first way: educate the people around you about where your target language is spoken, who speaks it, what the culture is like, what the food and music is like, their history. There’s so much that a LCTL can open up to you, if you’re interested in gastronomy, history, or anything like that, learn about it and teach people who are intersted so there’s more awareness. The second way: if you’ve achieved a certain fluency, you can teach native speakers of your LCTL about your own culture–where you come from, what kind of food you eat, slang terms, what it’s like where you live. Learning a language is about communicating and communicating, used for good, can be an amazing flow of ideas and an exchange of culture.
2. Learn More about the World
Learning a LCTL teaches you more about the world (or the opposite: learning more about the world leads you to learn a LCTL!). Whether it’s the first one or the second one, you’ll be learning about a language and culture that a lot of people aren’t aware of and don’t know a lot about. When I told someone I was learning Catalan, they had never even heard of that language. I learned of Catalan and Spain’s other co-official languages after getting sucked into Spanish, so I guess you could say learning about Spain got me into learning Catalan. Either way, learning languages helps you learn more, and learning about LCTLs and their cultures helps you learn about things that aren’t as commonly known.
3. Feel Special
I think anyone who learns a second (or third or fourth) language, no matter what the language is, should feel really special because learning languages are hard. I like being able to speak/understand a LCTL because, well, less people speak it–it feels like an exclusive club that you can be in just by starting to learn it. One of my former roommates who is from a Latin American country says she feels like she can never speak Spanish because she feels like everyone (where we live) speaks Spanish. I can’t say the same for Portuguese–though there were a surprising amount of Portuguese speakers spread out around my university, I would feel 10x safer speaking Portuguese than Spanish.
4. Surprised Native Speakers
This kind of ties in with the “feel special” heading above: from personal experience, I’ve felt really good when native speakers of my LCTL tell me that they wanted to talk to me because “they don’t meet a lot of people who want to learn Catalan” and that “they wanted to help as much as they could.” Not to mention, just in general when they say that “not many people are interested in learning Portuguese” or things like that. I think it’s amazing when native speakers can be so impressed and/or excited just by the fact that a foreigner is learning their language, not to mention grateful and really helpful. I can’t say that this will be the same for every group of speakers, but in general, this is what I and a lot of other language learners have experienced.
5. Study Abroad Programs…
Study abroad programs, again? Believe it or not, if they do have your target language country available, chances are you have a huge advantage just from knowing the language because it’s likely that a majority of the people who also want to do the program don’t know the language (yet).
The advantage of knowing the LCTL is a small perk academically against your peers, but the main thing is being able to communicate with the people and culture of the place where you’re studying abroad. I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with the quote, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” (Nelson Mandela)
6. Smaller Classes
One last (pretty luxurious) perk that I want to tack on at the end here, is that if you are lucky enough to learn it in a formal setting like a college classroom, the classes will be smaller because a lot of people won’t be interested or won’t even know what X language is. My university offered a lot of languages, and even if I didn’t take any of them in my final year, I was very aware that classes like French and Spanish (that had 4 different time slots each) filled up really quickly but classes like Catalan and Yiddish (just one time slot) had about 10 people or less. If you’re shy, don’t let the class size worry you and take advantage of the small class opportunity. Taking small classes allows for more individual attention from the instructor, less people in office hours, and is motivation to use the amazing LCTL that you’re learning!
For the most part, this list of 10 things makes up my list of struggles and perks of learning a LCTL. But like always, the struggles outweigh the perks by far for me. What do you guys think? Leave your comments below 😉
**More about LCTLs: The National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages says that “the less commonly taught languages includes all languages other than English and the commonly taught European languages of German, French and Spanish.” This is only used in the United States.