Reasons to learn an obscure language

12 Oct

I don’t need to explain why you might want to learn Spanish or French. Travel, dining, literature, socializing, access to a vast cultural heritage . . . It’s self-explanatory.

Choosing to learn an obscure, difficult, and unconventional language, on the other hand, is an undertaking that offers rewards which the conventional languages cannot.

The opportunities of specialization

Picking a strange foreign language enables you to specialize in something that few non-natives have mastered. This can open up a lot of opportunities, given the lack of competition and surprisingly high demand for these languages.

Work opportunities

You’ll find there are a lot more opportunities for fiscally promising work if you know Farsi, Korean, or Kazakh fluently than there are for Spanish or French. Why? For one, these are hard languages, with few people who know them well outside of the native speaking population.

Some of these opportunities might be in very specialized fields—law enforcement, the military, the foreign service, intelligence work, etc.—while there will still be fewer openings for teaching and translating.

But they’ll often pay well and will bring you into an important position quite quickly.

Academic opportunities

These are similar to work opportunities. Although there are a lot fewer schools that offer programs in Czech or Estonian than in German, you’ll be a much bigger fish in a smaller pond. You’ll have a better chance of doing original research amid literature that hasn’t already been pored over for generations.

You’ll have openings for studying at foreign universities, translating works, giving readings, and working with clever, highly specialized professors and students. It’ll be a lot easier to pursue your goals if you choose a less conventional path.

In this case, I can’t guarantee a job as much of course, unless you’re willing to travel. (Which, if you happened to stumble upon this world-popular blog, I assume you are.)

Social opportunities

Every major American city has a little Serbian and Ethiopian community. Sure, there are plenty of Russians, Mexicans, and European exchange students too, but they’re often so large and diffuse that the community has little cohesion. If you pick a smaller community, you find it’s much easier to meet people and fit in.

My wife, for example, is Polish. You’d not expect there to be many Poles in the Bay Area, but there are a few of them, and they have a strong sense of community. We’ve met them through a number of events and have immersed ourselves into a unique tight-knit group. Could we have had that opportunity among the city’s large Hispanic or Chinese populations? Or, for that matter, among the Russian locals and German backpackers?

I don’t think so. They’re either too large a group, too independent and self-sufficient, or too much on the move.

Access to obscure knowledge

Everyone knows about Flaubert’s and Goethe’s contributions to literature. Everyone can read the Tales of Genji or Anna Karenina on their Kindle if they want to. We’ve probably all seen a couple Antonioni films. Internationalism has set in quite nicely—at least if you’re a big, culturally dominant nation.

But few people still have heard of Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai or Cambodia’s pre-Khmer Rouge rock scene. Choosing an obscure language, you’ll get to be one of the few who has this exciting, esoteric knowledge. If you’re lucky, you can be one of the first to find something new and valuable and reveal it to the rest of the world.

* * *

As you can see, learning a language can often be about how you want to invest in and add value to yourself. Although it may be tempting to pick something that will go the widest and farthest, you can often go farther choosing a language less mined and picked over.

But before all that . . . pick something you like.


Posted by on October 12, 2014 in Art, Career, Language, Literature


3 responses to “Reasons to learn an obscure language

  1. Sing Better English

    October 12, 2014 at 11:49 am

    Thank you for writing that. I like the fact that you prioritise picking a language that you like. It’s hard to steam past the beginnings of any language without an interest or, better still a love for the sound and the subtle meaning of the words.

    I’d add – joining a choir that sings in the language is a wonderful way to strengthen ties to it. My son joined a Russian choir here in Brighton, England. There aren’t many Russians in Brighton, but luckily, one of them wanted to plant her language here. In two years of Monday evenings singing in Russian, led by a Siberian choir leader, he’s gone from zero knowledge of Russian to being able to sing solos in this song (about all the things that a young soldier will miss in life because he will not live to see a future) with an accent that Russian members of the audience find authentic. It’s surprising how many local foreign language singing groups or choirs exist – I think people far from home miss their own music and want to come together to remember it.

  2. Richard Sharpe

    October 22, 2014 at 5:05 am

    Learning any foreign language can be difficult but it can also be stimulating and bring joy.

    You really need lots of resources. If you are not going to do it in the country where the language is spoken then it would help to have access to native speakers or to have lots of on-line resources.

    Having spent many years learning Cantonese and Mandarin, I have observed that many people bring their native language’s pronunciation quirks to the new language and thus they will always stand out as a foreign speaker.

    In addition, subtle grammatical differences create problems until you figure them out. For example, in a language like Chinese (either Mandarin or Cantonese) that has prepositions but does not make any near as much use of them as English does, how do you handle two different sentences like:

    “I am not talking about you” -> “我不講你” (Northern Mandarin uses 說 rather than 講 and all characters are traditional.)


    “I am not talking to you” -> “我不跟你講” Cant “我唔仝你講”

    (One preposition and a slight change of word order. Slightly different in Cantonese.)

    Similarly, of course, Chinese speakers often do not realize that changing a simple preposition changes the meaning of a sentence considerably. Eg,

    “He threw the ball to me”


    “He threw the ball at me”


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