Rare, Low-population, & Dead Languages: Why Learn Them?

I have a smattering of questions. Please consider them general prompts. I would simply love to hear from the community about this subject. Personally, I’ve been considering for a while whether to learn Ainu or Cherokee, but I always push away the idea feeling that I need to concentrate on practical languages that I need for communication in my current communities now. So…

Who here speaks, reads, or otherwise understands very uncommon languages? What motivated you to learn them?

What methods did you use, and how did they differ from methods you might use for more common languages?

Latin is considered a “dead language.” Does learning it “count”?

Were you able to communicate with native speakers of your rare language(s), and was the experience in anyway different than communicating with native speakers of common languages?

…and anything else you would like to say about the subject! :sparkling_heart:


I’m interested in “dead” languages, but haven’t done much to actually study them. I know the app Drops has a track for learning Ainu, but I am not sure how deep they go in the subject matter.
I am also on the fence as to whether Latin counts as a “dead” language. Considering how many people study/speak/use it. I think it’s a beautiful thing to learn the old languages. I feel like it connects you to ancestors and helps understand the world a little better.


Great questions!
I personally learn latin and ancient greek since I study philology at uni. And although I’m not antiquity/classics major, I’ve always been excited to learn ancient languages. Why? Because it’s interesting. Btw, a fun fact: pretty much all the greatest researchers always answer “No reason, I’m just interested in it” when asked about their academic pursuits. I believe that really is what it all comes down to.

The tricky thing about dead languages is that sometimes we just don’t know how a certain symbol’s supposed to be pronounced and stuff like that, so there’s room for improvisation :slight_smile: And it’s probably harder to learn on your own… Then again, some universities offer ancient language courses for the public, and one can still find books online or join an extension school…
But communication, I imagine, is limited to mostly academia folks…

However, my point is: Your interest in Ainu and Cherokee is good enough reason to learn them. The best reason, actually. So start it and you’ll have fascinating culture knowledge in your brain and a new community created in your life.


Thank you for the reply, PinAngel, and for the tip about Drops. I’ll keep that in mind!. I have the feeling that when it comes to languages with limited resources, beggars can’t be choosers. :sweat_smile:


Yes, interest in a language drives us to learn it consistently! :slightly_smiling_face:


The questions you ask are important ones. The Polyglot community has given you some reasons for learning languages no longer actively spoken. I would offer a few reasons for learning languages spoken by smaller living linguistic communities (you mention Cherokee).
(1) It is fun! Typically, these languages will be well outside the usual constructs of the European languages, and will stretch you brain in ways you didn’t even know were possible. If you do it right and stick with it, you will learn to see and process the world in new ways.
(2) Your energy and passion are greatly needed! In North America, there is a powerful language revitalization program currently underway with a number of Native American languages. A few examples are Lakota (Teton Sioux), Cherokee, and Navajo. Again, you may find these challenging if you have only played with European and Asian languages, but they are also incredibly rewarding if you stick with them.
(3) There are now plenty of materials out there. There are Cherokee communities in North Carolina and Oklahoma, at least one online radio show in the language, and numerous books available. The Lakota have a great online dictionary and a super cool series of Berenstain Bear videos available on YouTube for free. The Navajo have at least two online radio stations (KGAK, which is my favorite, and KNDN). There are also some really cool verb conjugation books available on Amazon in the form of the “Fun With Navajo Verbs” series, and free software games on the www.accessnavajo.com website for download (you need to install a Java Runtime Environment (JRE), which is quite easy to do.). And these are just the tip of the iceberg! I suggest you take a look at some of the free materials that are available and see what resonates.
(4) Getting involved with people from these groups can be quite rewarding. My ancestors came to North America from Europe back in the 1600s and 1700s. I spent a few years in High School in France, and then traveled to the Middle and Far East as a young man. I ended up living the better part of a decade in Taiwan, Jordan, and Japan, learning the local languages as I went. I did not really “discover” the above three languages until my middle years, but boy what a discovery. I have been working with a Navajo scholar to develop some sorely needed verb conjugation books (the “Fun With Navajo Verbs” series mentioned above), which had been giving me a reason to travel out to Arizona and New Mexico once a year or so for the past few years (a plan that is currently on hold for obvious reasons). The point here is that there is actually somewhere to go with these languages once you learn them, a ton of fun to be had, and some real good to be done if you are motivated. I can tell you from personal experience that helping to (re)build linguistic communities is a blast!


Hi @Rachel,

Just wanted to share another thread with you where we discussed methods for learning rare / low population languages or languages with (very) few study materials available:

Hope this links to one of your questions :slightly_smiling_face:

I don’t speak any low-population or dead languages, but I’ve studied Amharic on and off for a long time because I used to work with a lot of people from Ethiopia and it seems like a rare language to study. This area has a lot of Ethiopian immigrants and people of Ethiopian descent, and being around them got me interested in the language and culture. Also, the food and the music kick ass, so if you’ve never had a chance to enjoy either, fix that whenever you can.

Even though it’s a language spoken by 100 million people, I never really hear of anybody learning it. At my university, several people who speak Amharic started teaching a class every week and that helped me out so much and gave me a chance to share my enthusiasm for the language with somebody. Most of them were people with Ethiopian family who wanted to talk to them in their native language, but occasionally people who weren’t Habesha showed up besides me.


Drops is a fun and effective app for vocabulary practice. I use it for Hungarian,


That thread popped up after this one was created, but I have been watching it, thank you. :slight_smile:

I absolutely love studying Biblical Hebrew, because - believing that the words are divinely inspired / connected, I find it to be truly amazing getting to know and to understand different nuances of what was written down, and transmitted to us throught the ages in these texts.


I learned a few phrases of Navajo from one of my workers. It wasn’t a lot, but it amazed her and helped her to feel at home in my office.
Hebrew was not much used as a daily spoken language for many centuries, until the zionist era. That is one very special example of a language that was renewed. Now, many millions speak Hebrew. Isn’t it amazing!
I think it depends on the people you come to care about and love. When my wife and I had a Danish au pair, I picked up many Danish phrases, and again, it really helped to create some common ground. Many years later, we went to Denmark, visited our au pair from 40 years earlier, and I still remembered some of those cute phrases.


I believe that learning languages should always be fun. If you love the culture related to an specific language, you should learn it. It doesn’t matter if it’s old or only spoken by a few people. And I strongly believe that all languages are alive as long as there are people learning them. If you read a book in Latin, the language is not dead anymore.
It’s amazing to see people learning all kinds of languages with the internet nowadays.


Engaging with minority, endangered and indigenous language is a moral imperative of our generation. As David Harrison eloquently puts it in “The Linguists”:

‘I don’t see how you can justify devoting your career to the study of French Syntax, when you could use the skills you possess to document a language that will go extinct within your lifetime.’

Languages are not just a fun-to-do-hobby for privileged people with spare time, they are on the frontline of socioeconomic injustice, just like Kiribati (and Taetae ni Kiribati, its main indigenous language) is on the frontline of the Climate Emergency.


Because of this discussion, I searched for resources for Cherokee, a language that I wanted to learn as a teenager and young adult but had no connection to learning opportunities. Learn.Cherokee.org. The courses are free and the website is well developed.


Ainu is a very interesting language. It has its own unique katakana forms, like a small ラ for words with a final “r” sound. I’ve never studied it in depth, but met some Ainu when I was living in northern Japan.

I’ve also studied Lakota to some degree as I grew up around many indigenous Lakota speakers.


I learned a few “dead” languages… Although I’d say that as long as a language is learnt, it is not really dead. Even if we don’t speak it in a community anymore, it still should count that we read texts, understand how it works etc. I learned Latin, Old French, Old Provençal and other “old” languages – I am a philologist / linguist and have researched also the origin of words (etymology) which implies analyzing old texts to determine the use (semantic field) of words, sayings etc.
Why learn a “dead” language? Because it helps us understand our “living” ones. Knowing how languages evolve, where they come from, can help us understand how they are connected on a deeper level.
As for “rare” languages, I don’t know if it counts that I learnt a few local Italian dialects, and Swiss German – which is spoken only in the Swiss German part of Switzerland, and is only an oral language? We can acquire/ learn languages for practical purposes, but we can also broaden our horizon and learn new facets of a language by learning its variants and dialects. – I personally enjoy speaking and exploring languages, no matter which one!


Absolutely! Caucasologist here. Documenting a language now with less than 1k speakers.


I have learned a few lesser known languages such as Scottish Gaelic, Sicilian , Neapolitan.

However, I am now learning the following:

  • Old English - This is a course normally taught face to face in London but it’s online this term, so I enrolled. I like seeing all the similarities to German and the British Library now has all their Old English medieval manuscripts online and I look forward to reading them.

  • Welsh - I am learning Welsh with a teacher on skype. I also attend monthly Saturday classes in North Wales when they are running. There are no monolingual Welsh speakers anymore so I wouldn’t need the language to get by in Wales. I just like it. Celtic languages are very different to the other European languages I have learned. Welsh has lots of literature, a tv channel, news sites and lots of resources including graded readers for learners.

  • Cornish - If you know Welsh, you get a big headstart with Cornish. As with Old English, this is normally a face to face course in London which I’m able to attend because it’s online this term. I’ve also been to the Cornish Language Weekend in Cornwall which was fun.


Because there are a lot of culture to learn from them. It’s a vivid culture. I thank every day in my life the chance to learn Basque (Euskera) betwwen 2003 and 2006 almost by accident. I befriended a Basque girl in a forum, that friendship became more serious, and after three years of everyday chat I acquired B1 fluency in Basque. At a time I spoke better Basque than French.

But Euskera, like every other language, is unique. Euskara, maite dut.