Why travellers should study minority languages

Why travellers should study minority languages

I was stuck in the desert at midnight. Kilometers away from any civilized settlement, surrounded by sand, and with 10 armed policemen at the checkpoint. I had crossed the border between Iran and Pakistan just about 10 hours prior to this, hopped on a bus and was hoping to find myself in the next big town the following morning hours.

Learning languages in the mountains Photo by drymountains

However, at midnight we stopped at one of the checkpoints and the guards told me that due to Taliban activity in the area it would be not safe for me to travel beyond this point at night. ’No!’ the mustached man replied strictly to all my hectic objections. It was then when I realized that I would be spending the night at the police barracks.

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

Baluchestan is the border region between Iran and Pakistan, a bit of a boogeyman in both countries: everybody tries to advise you against travelling there and tells you scary stories about terrorists and evil Baluchi people. In fact, I met some of the nicest friends on both sides of the border, despite going through many troubles with the local police. Baluchestan does not get too many tourists from within the country, not to mention the foreigners.

’Teach me how to speak Baluchi,’ I asked my friend Javad in Zahedan.

As it turned out later, at the checkpoint in Pakistan at midnight, Baluchi language was the key to everything. As I was standing there, tired and covered in road dust, watching the lights of my bus disappear into the night, the policemen were probably contemplating me as another annoying Westerner who came here for adrenalin and was instead just causing nothing but hassle.

‘Man lutin brayin Quetta,’ I said, as my brain was squeaking at remembering the few Baluchi phrases I learned. ‘I need to go to Quetta’.

As I attracted their attention, I decided to go on: ‘Man darin baluchi yata gerin. Man musaper be Lahore... – I am learning Baluchi. I am traveling to Lahore.'

This broke the ice. I was introduced to all the policemen at the station, then brought a pot of tea and a plateful of biscuits. ’Tidast dard makant! Thank you-thank you!' I kept repeating as the men were smiling and apparently saying how cute it is that I am speaking Baluchi. In about an hour they spared the entire room for me to sleep and discreetly left to stretch their hammocks outside. This was the beginning of a great journey.

‘I am learning [insert the name of the language],’ is a good start for your language mission and breaking the ice.

There are about 7 000 languages spoken around the world, and their number is declining every year as not only foreign learners but even the native speakers give up their minority mother tongue in favour of bigger languages. The amount of ‘useful’ languages is being reduced to a few dozens that are used internationally in business and communications. While European nations are trying to control and preserve its minority languages, in many countries around the world they die with the last native speakers, new generations give in to the dominant and official languages of the country.

During my travels around Asia and Africa, I came in close contact with the speakers of many lesser-spoken languages, such as above mentioned Baluchi, Wakhi in the North of Pakistan, Uyghur in the West of China, Tibetan in the Himalayas, Rungus in Borneo, Fumbira in Uganda, Chuvash in Russia – and this is just a small fraction of all the minority languages in those countries. Of course, you can easily speak Swahili (or, for what matters, English) in East Africa, Mandarin in China, Urdu in Pakistan, Malay in Malaysia, Russian in Russia – and be understood. But if you want to show the people that you really care, to earn their respect and trust, there is no better way than learning the minority language of the region. Moreover, each language opens a window into the history and culture of its speakers. Even more so – minority languages, touched less by the growing globalisation and uniformity of the languages of international communication.

‘I am learning [insert the name of the language],’ is a good start for your language mission and breaking the ice.

’Ta mé ag foghlaim na Gaeilge’ (I am learning Irish) was the phrase that got me through the immigration at Dublin airport on my first ever trip abroad. But that's for another story...

Article by Anna Rudycheva