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Why Learn an obscure Language?

Updated on September 9, 2012

As a Norwegian language teacher for a community program, I often hear "You teach WHAT language?" "Why would someone want to learn THAT?" Many people think that the only languages anyone wants to learn are the big four: English, Spanish, German, and French. American Sign Language is a close fifth here in the U.S. To learn anything else is a waste of time, money, and a good mind, in their way of thinking. My students, of course, disagree. Learning a second language is not a whim, nor is it a waste of time.

So, here are the main reasons why people learn languages other than the ones taught on college campuses:

Spoken or heard as a child

The main reason people learn a less-commonly taught language is ancestry. If their parents spoke the language at home, even a few words of it, they are likely to want to learn it as adults. If their grandparents spoke it, they may remember some but want to learn more. This was the case with my father. Growing up, he heard his mother speak Norwegian with her sisters and brothers, but only English was spoken in the household. He picked up a few words here and there, some songs, and some nursery rhymes, but that was about it. When he got into college, he wanted to learn more about this language, so he asked his mother to teach him a bit. Then he signed up for Norwegian classes, learning enough to take a trip to Norway and hold conversations with the relatives he found there.

Although many families who immigrate to America, historically and now, keep their language for home use, just as many adopt English as their sole language of communication. In doing so, a lot of the culture they came from is lost, because most culture is learned and passed on through language. Thus, the children and grandchildren of immigrants want to regain that culture while still being American.

Communicate with family members or others in the other country

The second most common reason for learning a less-commonly taught language is to communicate with family members or others in the country where it is spoken. A student may be researching their family and needs to know the language to read the archives or historical books, or letters. Family members may write in their language, and the person wants to translate them by him/herself rather than relying on a translator. Someone else may be planning a trip to the country, and another person might want to work in that country.

Many of my students learn the language so that they can read the census records and church books to research their family history. Once they find relatives, they can write letters or e-mails in the people's own language and introduce themselves. Their newfound relatives are quite impressed and overjoyed upon receiving a letter of introduction from a family member in America who has taken the time to write in Norwegian!

Communicate with family members or others in their own country

Sometimes I get students who sign up for the class because their grandparent, parent, or significant other speaks the language and they want to be able to communicate better with them. At the moment, one of my students is married to a Norwegian man and spends every other Christmas in Norway as well as other vacations there. Her husband also works in both Norway and the U.S. He is fluent in English, but sometimes she feels left out when he is describing something and throws in a Norwegian word or phrase that she doesn't know.

Want to learn a "funny" language

Then there are the people who want to learn a new language because they think it sounds funny or they think the country is interesting, but they have no other reason to learn the language. People in this group rarely excel in the language unless they have someone else to practice it with. I always suggest to these students that they sign up for the class in groups of two or three friends, or join in the conversation class that I hold as well, so they can learn on their own. It is hard to learn a language if you can't practice it, if you are not otherwise motivated.

So, if you have an interest in another language, don't let anyone tell you that you shouldn't learn it. Take that next step and sign up for classes or have someone that you know teach you. Learn at your own pace. Find a reason to study, and pick a language and culture you know you will enjoy learning about.


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    • ameliejan profile image

      ameliejan 6 years ago from Alicante, Spain

      I'm not learning Norwegian but agree that learning the more uncommon languages is important.

    • KT pdx profile image

      KT pdx 8 years ago from Vancouver, WA, USA

      Hi, JD, glad to be of help. You can also see if there's a local Sons of Norway lodge around you. They usually have language classes (I teach through one of their programs as well as do tutoring on my own).

    • jdnyc profile image

      JR 8 years ago from California

      Thanks for the link to your class website! I've had Norwegian on my list of languages to learn for quite some time - most of my ancestors are from Norway, although they moved to the U.S. in the mid 1800's, so no one in my family speaks Norwegian. I've wanted to learn the language and then visit some of the places they may have lived. Your link looks like a great place to start!

    • Haunty profile image

      Haunty 8 years ago from Hungary

      Thanks, KT. I'll look at the links for sure. I'm a member of , a similar kind of site and I do find that there are plenty of Norwegians there. Our interactions are a bit one-sided, though. See I'm Hungarian. Noone wants to learn Hungarian. :)

      Search for people from Norway on Skype? That's another great idea! Thanks.

    • KT pdx profile image

      KT pdx 8 years ago from Vancouver, WA, USA

      Hei Haunty! Hyggelig å møte deg! Yes, Norwegian is an idiomatic language, but the popular idioms vary by region. The best way to learn them is to ask people who speak it. One that I know is:

      Det regner på presten, som det dripper på klokkar'n. (It rains on the priest, but drips on the klokkar (bell-ringer and often caretaker of the church.) It means that things that are good for the higher-up people often have effects that benefit those down the line.

      It is a very well-known proverb.

      I would suggest that you sign up for a language community like My Language Exchange and/or sign up for Skype. On the exchange sites, you can find penpals from other countries who speak or are practicing Norwegian, and on Skype you can sign up then search for people from Norway who want to talk. Many of my students do those to practice to supplement their classroom studies if they don't have anyone at home to practice with.

      I also have more links to sites with audio, practice sheets, and tv at my class' website at

    • Haunty profile image

      Haunty 8 years ago from Hungary

      Hei KT pdx! I'm learning Norwegian cos it's FUN! I like the sound of it very much. Also, I think Norway is a beautiful country.

      However, I've been a bit off the track recently. That's because I really have no mate to have this kind of fun with, and talking to myself gets boring after a while.

      But my interest in the language is still strong. Is Norwegian an idiomatic language? Do you know where I could find Norwegian idioms?