People have various kinds of reasons to learn a language. Sometimes a foreign language is just imposed on them at school, sometimes their choice is based on the perceived "importance" or usefulness of a language (number of speakers, job opportunities, ...). Sometimes, however, people decide to learn a "rare" language or a minority language.

So my question is: Are there any surveys or studies on what motivates people to learn minority languages and/or rare languages?

I am looking for something more formal than the discussion thread What makes you learn a minority language? on how-to-learn-any-language.com. Obviously, answers don't need to focus on all rare languages or minority languages; a small sample is fine.

(Sidenote: This question was triggered by the recent launch of Tribalingual (at most a few months ago), a site that tries to revive rare and endangered languages by matching learners with native speakers who offer courses.)


  1. "Rare language" is probably not a linguistic term. Linguists normally use the term "endangered language".
  2. The UNESCO report Language Vitality and Endangerment (2003) uses nine factors to determine whether a language is endangered, one of which is its absolute number of speakers. However, "It is impossible to establish a hard and fast rule for interpreting absolute numbers". So determining whether a language is endangered is a bit complicated. (See also A methodology for assessing language vitality and endangerment on the UNESCO website.)
  3. Not all "rare" languages are endangered. In a PBS documentary, the poet Bob Holman says that he visited one of the Goulburn Islands, where there were 400 people and 10 different languages. In spite of a small number of speakers, some of the rare languages in Australia are stable because people don't find it a big deal to learn other languages, and learning the language of another people is a sign of respect.
  • Related question on Linguistics: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/1549/421
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 11:25
  • @AndrewGrimm Thanks for the link to Why do we have interest in (dying) language preservation?. That question is about why linguists would be interested in language preservation, while mine is about why learners would be interested in learning "smaller" languages, and these are not necessarily in danger of extinction (though some are).
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 13:46
  • You do know that only 3 users have 2k rep right? Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 16:06
  • @PythonMaster four, actually. Me, you, Christophe, and Hatchet.
    – fi12
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 20:51
  • @ChristopheStrobbe Could you clarify your definition of "minority and/or rare languages" for the purpose of this question? Is, say, Finnish included on your list? Serbian? Kyrgyz? Slovene? How about languages that rarely taught outside the given country, even though they have a quite large number of native speakers (e.g. Ukrainian)? Is Esperanto also included? What makes a language "rare"? The number of native speakers? The number of learners outside the given country? Or the perceived "importance" of the language? In the last case, even Indonesian could be classified as "rare" in many places.
    – michau
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 13:05

1 Answer 1


Paradowski & Wysokińska (2014) summarise interviews with 6 polyglots about their motivation. The purpose of the article is to discover what motivates polyglots to learn languages in general, not specifically to learn "rare languages". However, some of the languages under discussion can be said to be rare, so here are some relevant quotes:


PK is a Polish national. He works for the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since foreign languages are an important part of his job, he strongly asserts the importance of communicative knowledge of languages. He knows 12 foreign languages: English, German, Danish, Iroquois, Italian, Persian, Russian, Kirgiz, Finnish, Indonesian, Serbian and Lezgian.


The interviewees' answers seem to make much more sense if interpreted in the light of Garder's theory which defines motivation as "combination of effort plus desire to achieve the goal of learning the language plus favourable attitudes towards learning the language" (1985:10). Garder's categories of effort, desire and favourable attitudes are very handy tools for analysing the interview results.

Effort has clearly been made by all the interviewees. [...] Although PK obviously makes an endavour, it is not the kind of laborious, mundane effort that worked for JK: 'I never had the patience to learn. When I was learning Armenian I read news services, listened to the radio with a dictionary handy - I had to figure many things out from context, but that was my method. [...]'


While considering the issue of motivation much more interesting are the remaining two factors included in Garder's theory - desire and favourable attitudes. [...] Another key motivational factor in multilingualism is romantic interest in a foreign person. Although largely overlooked by the questionnaire respondents (mentioned by only ten per cent), this topic features heavily in the body of the interviews. The best example of a person motivated to learn foreign languages by his personal relationships is probably TG, who claims that as many as three of his languages were picked up to communicate with romantic interest: '[...] I also learnt Silesian because of my Silesian ex-girlfriend. I think I just prefer communicating with people in their mother tongues.' [...]

One more driving force behind multilingualism is personal interest in a foreign culture, which featured with a 25 per cent score rate in the questionnaire results. [...] PK is a shining example of learning foreign languages due to fascination: he learnt Russian and German so that he could learn Lezgian (a language spoken by approximately 790,000 people in the Caucasus: 'I made a website in this language through which I managed to meet some Lezgians. I also contacted a German professor who spoke Lezgian. I learnt individually - I had to, there are no Lezgian textbooks. I think I am not very good at speaking Lezgian, because my only real-life opportunity to use it was a mont's stay in Azerbaijan. The written word is better. I read newspapers and exchange correspondence with Lezgians'.


Paradowski, Michał B. & Anna Wysokińska. 2014. What Motivates Polyglots, in Michał B. Paradowski (ed.), Teaching Languages off the Beaten Track, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang

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