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#183 Obscure Linguistic Feats

November 21, 2012

Submitted by Greg Vaughan who also blogs at Agrarian Ideas

Elven is always a good choice…. (Image:

A great way to improve street cred is mastering one or multiple foreign languages. Of course in the rarefied world of development workers, especially the pan-European ones who grew up speaking eight languages between their aristocrat parents and their private schools in Brussels, not just any language will do.  Your small-town family members back home might have been impressed when you traded a few jovial dirty words in Spanish with your Mexican co-workers at the local gas station, but you’ve got to go well beyond the official UN languages if you want to turn heads at the local expat bar.  (Disclaimer—most of your native Anglophone fellow expats will resolutely speak no language other than English, and will not care at all whether you speak Spanish or Swahili).

Granted, Arabic and Chinese, despite being UN languages spoken by huge swathes of the world’s populace, seem rare and exotic to anyone who is not an Arabic or Chinese speaker.  So these are a good bet to impress a general audience.  If you’re trying to wow the jaded EAW crowd, shoot for something more obscure, like Yoruba.  If you want to show off for the six non-Nigerians in the world who know that Yoruba is actually a pretty widespread language, learn something spoken by a small tribal people living in a remote jungle corner of Bolivia.

Creole languages like Haitian Kreyol or Tok Pisin are great because they are very easy to learn, but still retain the caché of an obscure, presumably difficult-to-master language.

If you must learn one of the colonial languages, try to go with Portuguese instead of Spanish or French.  Again, despite its being a widely-spoken Romance language, most people in the developed countries have never heard it spoken, so it seems exotic and edgy.  If your situation dictates that you must learn boring old Spanish, go for an aberrant, funny-sounding dialect like Argentinian or even Continental Spanish, with its lisp and its guttural sounds.  This will indicate to anyone who’s worth indicating to that you have fully imbibed the local color and culture of a specific corner of the Spanish-speaking world.  You are authentic.  If you’re stuck with being in a country where they speak a relatively clear, generic dialect of Spanish, like Mexico or Colombia, use a lot of incomprehensible local slang to set yourself apart from the amateurs or those who merely use the language for pragmatic communication and not to show off their enigmatic character.

Of course the best, most impressive track is to combine all of these points.  Learn Persian, but not just standard Farsi—learn an Arabic-tinged dialect from the mountain hinterlands near Iraq.  Or go to Indonesia, and learn a tribal language spoken by 10,000 people in total, without learning the lingua franca spoken by millions of Indonesians.  This may seem counter-productive, because if you go too rare, no one will know how impressive your feat is, and they frankly won’t even be able to tell if you’re faking it, since there will probably be no Tuamotu Islanders to confirm your claims.  But in any case, you’ll know deep down how mysterious and adventurous you are.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rudbeccia permalink
    November 21, 2012 8:51 am

    oops! Let’s see where I fit on the street cred scale…. 3rd language Guarani, 4th Portuguese, 6,7 & 8 basic Haitian kreyol, liberian english and a sub-group of mandingo language called Konia (and of course Spanish and not European but West African French) – in the end – just one very mixed up brain! Do I get a street cred tatoo, or only look forward to multilingual senility when I hit 90?

  2. Juan permalink
    November 21, 2012 9:22 am

    “…go for an aberrant, funny-sounding dialect like Argentinian…” Pero qué te pasa! Te volviste loco, chabón? Hay que ser caído del catre… :-)

  3. November 28, 2012 7:44 pm

    Ha! I used to speak Russian with a Ukrainian accent.

  4. c-sez permalink
    December 4, 2012 4:05 am

    There is also the key element of *what* you learn in the obscure langauge, if you don’t have time to go all the way. For example, one earns bonus points if one can fluently discuss diplomatic matters and the local equivalent of “don’t forget you signed the peace treaty that says its time to put the guns away now”, but have no idea how to ask for directions – obviously that’s what the driver/fixer is for.

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