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A Whole New World of Language Study

Stephanie Beery went a very non-traditional route for her higher education. Beery is a Masters student in Comparative Philosophy of Religion at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. But in addition, she chose to supplement this degree by studying Tibetan language and culture through Naropa University, a Buddhist-based university in Boulder, Colorado, at the suggestion of a Buddhist scholar she works with at Iliff. Tibetan, like most of the world's languages, is a Less Commonly Taught Language.

Although Tibetan is spoken by around 5 million people, there are reasons for its limitation. Partly it's that other languages, like Nepali, Hindi, or English, are more prominent in regions inhabited by Tibetans. Moreover, the alphabet and language structure are entirely different from anything most are used to. This presents a big challenge. For Beery, "it took complete immersion to make me understand the awesome logic behind (the grammar)."

So why take such a tough and unusual road? According to Beery, studying a non-traditional language "offers insight into different ways of thinking" and "can provide more intimate interaction with different cultures."

For many, this sort of immersion into the world's cultures and an understanding of diverse experiences and knowledge are reason enough to go the way of only 9 percent of American language-learners to study a Less Commonly Taught Language.

Studying foreign languages is becoming more and more common. Many people learn languages to make themselves more marketable, and languages like Spanish, German, and Arabic can do just that. Some people study a foreign language to make traveling easier, or to have an excuse to visit France or Italy. Others do it just because they love languages. But most Americans, regardless of their motivation, still choose to study one of just three languages: German, French, or Spanish. In fact, according to the National Council of Organizations of Less Commonly Taught Languages, over 90 percent of American foreign language students choose one of these three.

We all know there are many, many more. The Foundation for Endangered Languages suggests that people still speak between 6,000 and 10,000 languages that cannot be understood by speakers of other languages (known as "mutually unintelligible"). It also suggests that, based on the 6,000 languages (probably around 90 percent of all languages) for which population figures are available, 52 percent are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people, and 28 percent by a mere 1,000 folks. At the other end of the spectrum are ten major languages, which are now the native tongue of half of the world's population!

Language records our stories, our traditions, our business and our history. Language allows us the ability to create in entirely unique ways. It gives us identity and community. Language makes us distinctly human.

For Ann Lee Omondi, Assistant Director of African Studies at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont, and a speaker of Kiswahili, the lingua franca of East Africa, language study is, quite simply, "critical to cultural understanding."

All this talk about cultural immersion sounds romantic. But is it reason enough?

Native populations around the world have begun to realize the vitality of preserving their languages. In New Zealand and Hawaii native languages have taken hold in standard school curriculums. Kiwis learn Maori songs and the traditional dance of New Zealand's natives, the Haka, is now world-renowned thanks to its performance by the New Zealand national rugby team, the All Blacks. The Maori population (only 8 percent of the total) has its own radio stations, magazines, even spellchecker software.

Hawaiians, too, are embracing their ancestry with schools and university degree programs taught entirely in the native language, since the law against learning Hawaiian (except as a foreign language) was overturned in 1987. In 2002, the first university degree completed exclusively in the Hawaiian language was awarded to Hiapo Perreira by the University of Hawaii.

Even the once-dying language of the Jewish Diaspora, Yiddish, is enjoying a great resurgence. Jewish Community Centers now offer Yiddish teach-ins, last year National Public Radio aired a series called the Yiddish Radio Project, and the Complete Idiots Guide series of books now offers one on, you guessed it, learning Yiddish.

Fortunately, the world is slowly giving weight to details that once seemed incidental, even useless. Linguists and cultural preservationists have created categories for the various stages a language can be in. A moribund language, (like the Native American tongue Mohawk, and Marakhus of the Pacific island nation the Republic of Vanuatu), is a dying language, one that is no longer taught to children. An endangered language, such as Irish Gaelic, is approaching moribund status-it is headed for extinction. Many linguists agree that over 50 percent of all languages are moribund. They also expect that 90 percent will be extinct by the end of the century.

Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTLs) fall into each of these categories. Some LCTLs, like Mandarin Chinese, native to around one billion folks and the planet's most commonly spoken language, are paradoxically among the most-used tongues in the world.

A few languages are dropping toward the bottom of the endangered language list, no longer entirely moribund thanks to people embracing their own cultures-and those that influence their lives.

There has traditionally been great support for learning these languages in linguistic and anthropologic circles, yet the Less Commonly Taught Languages movement is gaining ground among other groups, too. More and more students like Stephanie Beery have tried adding non-traditional elements to their educations. Such experiences can often change students' original outlooks. Beery's career goals have certainly evolved since her first encounter with the Buddhist scholar at Iliff. She now sees possibilities that include work with refugees and continued religious study.

The most obvious career choices for those who speak LCTLs include the Peace Corps and other international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) dedicated to working with populations in developing nations on a variety of projects ranging from education to women's rights to sustainability. Diplomacy, too, speaks loudly to learners of non–traditional languages. But there are other ways to use skills learned by studying LCTLs.

Translation and interpretation, travel writing and photography, public health, education particularly English as a Second Language and consulting in fields ranging from computer software to cultural sensitivity are all good options.

But what if your career plans don't include this international common thread? Simply the act of learning an LCTL, the method of expression native to a culture with which most students have little familiarity, is often reason enough to go for it.

The specific skills students acquire while studying LCTLs, "the process of language learning and what that opens up for a student," are often reason enough to give it a go, according to Omondi. The "insights gained through studying the language . . .and perceptions that were opened up because of your language learning can be used in a variety of ways."

Beery agrees. She sees LCTLs as a door to new opportunities, new ways of thinking. "For a person who wants to really experience the world, language study is essential," she says. "It...allows you to dive more deeply into different worldviews."

These new perspectives go far when you consider how few people in the world are actually in touch with the complexity of language and the ways in which culture is tied to communication. Quite simply, learning a language is a valuable exercise both in academia and in experience.


  • Indigenous Language Institute www.indigenous– partners with indigenous peoples to preserve their languages.
  • National Council of Organizations of Less Commonly Taught Languages web-based consortium of organizations representing LCTL communities in the U.S.
Whether your motivation is world travel or life as an aid worker, there is a wide variety of schools that have existing programs in LCTLs, or that are willing to put together custom programs designed to teach such languages. The following is just a brief list of options.
  • Andong National University Language Centre ( Korean culture and language (students are paired with a Korean university student).
  • CET Academic Programs (Division of Academic Travel Abroad) Chinese, Czech, and Vietnamese.
  • Home Language International Offers the opportunity to live and study in your teacher's home, immersing you in your chosen language and culture. Arabic, Cantonese, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Swedish.
  • Institutional Network of the Universities from the Capitals of Europe (UNICA) Czech, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, and Swedish.
  • Languages Abroad Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, Indonesian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Serbo-Croatian, Thai, Turkish, and Vietnamese.
  • Language Studies Abroad Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Russian.
  • Naropa University Indonesian, Nepali and Tibetan.
  • National Registration Center for Study Abroad Provides a great one-stop search with listings of language schools and programs all over the world, selected according to strict NRCSA standards. Basque, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Gaelic, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Mayan, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Swedish.
  • Regent Language Training Offers English training, translation, and a variety of language programs. Afrikaans, Arabic, Bulgarian, Cantonese, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Nepali, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Quechua, Russian, Sanskrit, Serbo-Croatian, Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Waray, and Xhosa.
  • The School for International Training Arabic, Azeri, Bangla, Bahasa Indonesian, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian/Malay, Khmer, Mongolian, Ndebele, Nepali, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Quechua, Samoan, Scottish/Gaelic, Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, Thai, Tibetan, Turkish, Twi, Urdu, Vietnamese, Welsh, Wolof, Xhosa, and Zulu.
  • Skola srpskog jezika i culture: Serbian language and culture in Yugoslavia with professors from University of Belgrade and the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.
  • Where There Be Dragons Travel programs, internships, workshops, and custom language schools throughout more remote areas of Asia: Chinese & Hindi , (with availability in Tibetan,Nepali , Mongolian , Cambodian , Laotian , and Thai ).

Less Commonly Taught Languages, LCTL
By: Lisa Schechtman (justin) 2011.08.23

LIA LIA: Languages in Action is an international organization of language schools providing opportunities to learn a language of your choice, at language schools around the world. We provides individual or group courses that can be tailored to your individual needs. Languages in Action

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