Everyone’s heard about the world’s most widely-spoken languages – English, Spanish, Russian – snore. So vanilla. So mainstream. They’re so applicable and useful around the world it’s tiresome.
But what about the underground scene in language learning? What about those truly challenging, extreme-sport-equivalent tongues that only the daringest of the daring attempt to master? These languages are so rare, they make four-leaf clovers seem positively abundant. They’re so difficult, you’ll think Russian declensions and Mandarin tones are a Sunday stroll. The following are a few of the world’s least-spoken, most unique, hard-mode languages.
Spoken by four people (as of 2012) on the island of Naunonga, Tanema is a rare Austronesian/Polynesian/Oceanic language in a region of the world brimming with literally thousands of unique languages. If the largest of these Pacific Island tongues, such as Eastern Fijian, Tahitian or Māori are just too ordinary for you, then why not give Tanema a shot? You’ll certainly have your work cut out for you.
ArchiWith more or less 1,000 speakers, Archi would appear to be much easier to learn than Tanema, not least because the Caucasian mountain region where Archi is spoken is easier to reach than a tiny Oceanic island – but that’s where you’re wrong. Archi’s verbs can be conjugated nearly infinitely; some are recorded having 1,500,000 separate conjugations. One can only imagine what the grammar tables for an Archi textbook would look like.
Taushiro (AKA Pinche, Pinchi)
Thanks to the prevalence of Spanish and Quechua in the Peru/Ecuador region of South America, many native languages in the area are dying fast. Taushiro is one such language, unique for being a language isolate, meaning it’s seemingly totally unrelated to any other language on the planet. With only one reported native speaker, you’re going to have to hope they’re a damn good teacher.
Not really a single language, but a group of languages belonging to the natives of Eastern Siberia and Western Alaska, Yupik is not the rarest language on the list (though with only 15,000 or so native speakers, it’s no English), but it earns its spot by being polysynthetic – that means they like to combine several words into one. If you think German is excessive, try tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq, the Yupik word for “he had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer.”
Another critically endangered language, Ongata is spoken by half a handful of elders in a small village in Ethiopia. The reason why is actually pretty tragic – the Ongata are despised by their neighbors and their language publically ridiculed. To prevent teasing, the elders have stopped speaking it to their children, who have picked up the larger local language of Ts’amay (which itself is endangered by even larger regional tongues). Help the Ongata stand up to bullies! Learn Ongata!
This one is my absolute favorite. Silbo is an extremely unique language “spoken” by the people of the La Gomera island, one of the Spanish Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco. I say “spoken” because it’s not actually spoken; it’s a whistled language. That’s right. What’s amazing about this is that unlike vocal tones, whistles can carry long distances while retaining their pitch, making it ideal to “talk” to your neighbors across the valley. Silbo has words, grammar, tones and all – and, I can only assume, the La Gomera understand what R2-D2 is saying. With the prevalence of cell phones, Silbo isn’t quite as necessary as it once was to communicate over long distances, and is now done mostly for tourism. It may one day become a cultural cliché, but it’s an awesome one.
Sadly, many of these languages are in danger of becoming extinct forever. The United Nations estimates that we lose a language every two weeks. In many cases, language being inextricable from culture, the death of a language means the death of a culture. Personally, I think this sort of thing is an unfortunate but inevitable byproduct of globalization, but it’s great to have records so they can at least be proudly remembered – and, just maybe, picked up by an enterprising language learner like yourself.
What about you? Do you speak any rare language or dialect?