Attitudes of minority languages speakers to learners

A friend of mine posted an interesting question on Regional, Minority & Indigenous Languages group on Facebook:

“Has anyone ever experienced rejection or hostility from a minority group for learning their language?”

This generated a lot of discussion.

Sometimes when I speak Welsh to people in shops in Bangor they will reply in English. I don’t know why they do this, but it is a but frustrating. That is the only negative experiences I’ve had with speakers of the minority languages I speak or am learning (Welsh, Breton, Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic and Manx).

I have only met a few young Breton speakers, and they were happy to talk to me in Breton, but I understand that many older native speakers of Breton are not willing to talk to learners, partly because they find them difficult to understand as they speak a standardised form of Breton with lots of neologisms.

If you are studying or have learnt any minority/endangered languages, have you had any problems with being accepted by their speech communities?

11 thoughts on “Attitudes of minority languages speakers to learners

  1. There are a few people in China who don’t speak to obvious foreigners (i.e. those of us who don’t look East Asian) in Chinese for a variety of reasons. One is the insistence that all foreigners must speak English and only English therefore it is not possible that the sounds coming from that foreigner’s mouth could be any form of Chinese – and I’ve met people who learnt English in China at least partly because of that insistence. Another is that they really want to practice their English or they’re inordinately proud of their English and want to show it off – sometimes even when things would be much easier if they’d just speak Chinese because the foreigner they’re talking to speaks Chinese far better than they speak English.

    Having said that, the vast majority are happy to speak Chinese with learners, and even people I know speak English will often just speak Chinese with me because it’s easier.

  2. “Sometimes when I speak Welsh to people in shops in Bangor they will reply in English. I don’t know why they do this, but it is a but frustrating.”

    My thinking on this is that, since the vast majority of native Welsh speakers are also fluent in English (and many have a better command of it than most monoglot English speakers), it actually takes more effort for a Welsh speaker to slow down and simplify their Welsh for the benefit of the learner, than to speak English. Also, where I live, first language Welsh speakers are a small minority, so they are probably unaccustomed to speaking Welsh with people outside their families or Welsh speaking sub-community.

  3. I haven’t learned any minority language, but I’ve naively tried to buy a Luxembourgish phrasebook in Luxembourg…

  4. But on the other hand I don’t see why Simon wouldn’t be accepted in some way by Welsh speakers – he is apparently quite proficient and his “foreignness” couldn’t possibly be all that manifest (i.e. Welsh and non-Welsh white people aren’t really distinguished physically). So I find it a little surprising that anyone would reply in English – maybe he (Simon) does have some kind of accent?

  5. I’ve heard before that speakers of “Gwynedd Welsh” consider it “proper” and are little inclined to interact with those whose Welsh is either from a different region or 2nd language. But that’s just hearsay so might not be true.

  6. I think people require a little bit of effort to switch languages in, say, a work context. If a shop clerk is speaking mostly English and has you slotted as an English speaker, that clerk may well answer a Welsh question in English. Here in the U.S., I always try to address Mexican restaurant staff in Spanish. They often answer in English, not out of hostility or unwillingness to speak Spanish, but simply because they’re in English “mode.” If they’re not rushed, I’ll often persist, and then they will often switch to Spanish.

  7. I have heard that the Navajo do not like anyone speaking their language, but I do not have any direct experience with that. My experience has been that people move to the language that facilitates communication.

  8. andreb – native Welsh speakers can probably hear that I’m not a native speaker, though I try to pronounce Welsh like a native. I learnt southern Welsh at first, as my mother’s family come from south Wales, though they haven’t spoken Welsh for several generations. Since I moved to north Wales I have learnt northern Welsh, though still use some southern forms and pronunciation.

    This month I have been writing in Welsh every day on my other blog, Multilingual Musings and making recordings, so you can see and hear my Welsh there.

  9. Simon – you’ll find that those who are least political and self-aware as Welsh speakers will reply in English. A combination of unfamiliarity with someone actually wanting to speak Welsh – a language they may perceive as being ‘inferior’ etc. The nationalists will speak to you in Welsh.

    In a way, it’s the reverse of being in a monolingual country. If I go to Germany I can be quite sure I can have a decent conversation with a person in a ‘low’ job because they’ll only be able to speak German. Someone in a high prestige job will no doubt speak English better than my German. So, in the ‘normal’ situation you can expect to speak the native language with the ‘ordinary people’.

    In a situation where a language has been minoritised then all kinds of complexes kick in! My aunt was evidently a native Welsh speaker with English being painfully slow, but she’d still insist on speaking English to my father even though he’d learnt Welsh. It was as if she was trying to prove she could speak and she still had this hang-up that it was rude to speak Welsh and that, hey, nobdy who could speak English as a first language really wanted to speak Welsh.

    It’s called colonisation.

  10. … colonisation as in the native welsh speaker made to feel their language is inferior.

    There will also be this nonsense about not understanding different Welsh or ‘proper Welsh’ or ‘book Welsh’. So, Welsh is seen as the ‘problem’ rather than the state and state policies which caused this complex.

    My advice, keep speaking to them in Welsh. That’s what I do. After all, you’ve got the money and you’re the one paying for the service.

    Having said that, Bangor is a funny place where there is an anti-Welsh townie attitude among some of the inhabitants.

  11. Sorry, again. By coincidence tomorrow is Diwrnod Shwmae / Su’ mae.

    Many Welsh organisations have got together to get people to start conversations with shwmae (in southern Wales) or su’ mae in the north.

    Here’s a video shot in Pembrokeshire:

    And here’s the website:

    … of course, the French, Danish, English, Estonians don’t have to humiliation of having to beg people to speak a few very very simple words in their native language in their homeland.

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