As you know, or should have known, apart from this blog, I run a Lezgi blog as well and on top of that I have a website devoted to Lezgi language. Lezgi (I prefer this name to “Lezgian” which you can find in literature) is a really interesting language, from whichever angle you look at it – its grammar (lot of nominal but very little verbal inflection), its expressions (heart as metaphore for memory) and its sociolinguistics (Lezgi nation is divided by state border; virtually all Lezgis are bi- or trilingual). You really should read up on it, but right now I am going to tell you about something else – my personal experience with it, which may serve as a case in point for learning “strange”, “small” or simply “less commonly taught” languages.
As I’ll be telling you later, I had long wanted to achieve at least a passing acquaintance with as many and as diverse languages as possible. And the less known they are, the better. What is relevant here is that I had long been interested in – inter alia – the languages of the Caucasus, mainly because of the following reasons: a) there were so many of them spoken in such a small area b) they were described as very peculiar and difficult and c) there was very little materials available on them either on- or offline, either in Polish, Russian or English. Well, Georgian was quite an exception to c) and for a while I was busy trying to learn about it…
… but later, inevitably, my interests turned towards North-East Caucasus. At that point (ie. 2001-2003) scraps of information were available on Cherkess languages as well as on Nokhchi (Chechen and Ingush), but Daghestan remained a blank spot, a terra incognita (or linguae incognitae) a virtual black hole, which prompted my curiosity. Because of the lack of materials I started to actively look for people who could help me. And so it turned out that one of my messages on some Daghestani bulletin board or mailing list was answered by Elman, a Lezgi from Baku with whom I started correspondence. Having a native speaker at my side I burrowed through Poland’s National Library and found a Lezgi-Russian dictionary with an appended short grammar sketch. I copied it all (they wouldn’t loan dictionaries out) and started to construct my sentences and check them with Elman. Then I got acquainted with Elman’s friends and some other Lezgis active online.
As I saw that still nothing was available on the Internet, I decided to put my own efforts up, in hopes it would attract some attention and provide me an opportunity to learn on. Thus were my webpages born. Meanwhile I learned that a certain Martin Haspelmath had written an exhaustive grammar of Lezgi (“A Grammar of Lezgian” ed. Mouton de Gruyter, costing in environ of 200USD back then), so I tried to find him on the web and succeeded. I wrote to him then in hope of getting a bit of guidance and informed opinion on the contents of my webpages. What I received instead was… a binded copy of the book! It was (and is) really excellent, one of the best grammars I have ever read, and my Lezgi would really go nowhere without it.
Summer next year we went to Azerbaijan to “do fieldwork”, as most of my Lezgi friends were Azerbaijani. The people were super nice (thanks Samir stxa, and say hello to all your family!), the views were stunning and the stay was very good, my only regret is that I wasn’t as prepared for it as I should have been, both in terms of equipment (if your mic is bad, your recordings will be useless – you have to check your stuff beforehand) and social skills (I mean even now I can be shy and incomfortable when meeting new people, back then I was a total social klutz, I am afraid). But anyway, we were received like royalty just because we , made new friends, learned new things… it was really good.
Now, what does this story tell you about learning “strange, small, uncommonly taught” languages?
1. You can test your resourcefulness and determination in search for materials and people to learn from. If you succeed you really feel you’ve achieved something.
2. Sharing is important. Do your utmost to increase the total sum of knowledge available on the internet. Writing about a “strange” language lets you be a pioneer, say things not said before, blaze new trails through wilderness and the like. It really is self-rewarding. On top of that, it establishes your credentials as someone who actually spends a minute to do something for others.
3. Birds of a feather flock together. Bonds of solidarity created by sharing a rare, uncommon interest can be stronger that those stemming from sharing a common one. There are many millions of foreign learners of English and only a handful of foreign learners of Lezgi. The latter are much more likely to be inclined to help one another only because of “being in it together”. The same goes for academics – virtually all the books I ever got for free (and without asking for them) came from fellow researchers/afficionados of “strange” languages. And conversely – I always try to help people within my areas of “expertise”/interest (unless the request/question is dumb or proves that the person making it hadn’t made a slightest effort. No prizes for laziness and cluelessness here).
4. If you disseminate information about a minority language, in the view of many of its speakers, you are doing a good thing. An expression of interest is always appreciated, all the more appreciated by people who sometimes feel forgotten or ignored by the outside world. It can be embarrassing indeed to see that a community thinks of you more highly than you deserve just because you are spending your time on their language and culture, but not all embarrassment is bad, isn’t it?