A Beginner’s Resource Guide to Less Commonly Taught Languages

In my various attempts at trying to acquire less commonly taught languages (LCTLs), one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is knowing where and how to find the resources to begin. If you’re looking to learn an LCTL but don’t know where to start, this page is for you.

The National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages (NCLCTL) defines a less commonly taught language as “all languages other than English and the commonly taught European languages of German, French and Spanish.” With this in mind, I should probably note that the term LCTL is obviously defined from the U.S. American perspective. While I’m not so keen on alternative versions either (e.g. minority language, low-resourced language, rare language), I’m still going to use LCTL as defined by the National Council, but prioritize languages which have very little existing instructional resources online (so no Chinese, Russian, Japanese, etc.). I will also be covering only living languages— so sorry, no Ancient Greek today.

Finally, don’t forget that a lot of the tips, tricks, and resources I mention below can also help you to learn more popular languages. Check out my other resource guide for more tips on language self-study.

Working with a Language Mentor

All learners will eventually need somebody to practice with consistently. In “The Whole World Guide to Language Learning,” T. Marshall writes about the “language mentor,” a native speaker of your target language who guides you through the process of acquiring their language. If you’ve chosen to learn a LCTL, chances are you’re doing it because you know somebody who speaks it. If you don’t yet, you can always find them online through language exchange sites like Tandem, HelloTalk, and iTalki.

Since LCTLs usually don’t come with roadmaps or nicely structured curriculums, it’s essential that you need to 1) define why you’re learning an LCTL, 2) establish what exactly you need to learn, 3) determine how, where, when, and with whom you will study, and 4) determine how you will evaluate your learning. Marshall’s book provides excellent examples and tools on how to work with just a language mentor and your collective imagination.

Government-Sponsored Resources for Less Commonly Taught Languages

Peace Corps Language Manuals

The Peace Corps is a U.S. government volunteer program which enlists volunteers to spend two years of service in one of 60 countries around the world. One unique aspect about the PCV program is that volunteers spend a few months training in the local language of their post before beginning their service. Once on site, they are able to use and practice their skills regularly with their community.

In addition to the “PCV On-Going Language” manual, many of the language-specific training manuals are available online for free. Note that while some of these manuals have a lot of nice exercises and information, they often require a native speaker/language mentor to guide you through them, especially for pronouncing words and phrases correctly. Some of these exercise recordings are available on YouTube, but I’ve found that working with a native speaker helped me get much more out of the book.

Defense Language Institute: Global Language Online Support System (GLOSS)

The U.S. Defense Language Institute is the primary language training school for the military. Through the Global Language Online Support System (GLOSS), they have provided a free collection of reading and listening lessons that feature a variety of graded authentic materials in over 40 languages and dialects. While the design is rather simple and tends to focus on military and political situations at higher levels, I have found the lessons to be well-organized and filled with quality materials.

The Defense Language Institute provides listening and reading lessons in many less commonly taught languages.

Scholarships for Learning Less Commonly Taught Languages

For those studying at the undergraduate or graduate level in the US, there are several scholarships which can be used to fund language domestically or abroad. These fellowships/scholarships involve a commitment of three months to year. The languages offered are usually those designated as “critical languages” by the US government, including Chinese, Pashto, Dari, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Portuguese, Indonesian, Russian, and Persian.

These funding opportunities are highly competitive, so you’ll need a convincing application to show how this language aligns with your studies. Most of my friends and colleagues who got these awards are studying languages directly related to their future career (for example, an economics Master’s student studying Indonesian to do research on economic policy in Southeast Asia).

Click below for more information:

Non-Governmental Organization / Nonprofit Resources

The ASbReader (African Storybook) Project

The African Storybook project is a nonprofit initiative based in South Africa that aims to raise mother-tongue literacy across the continent. They have a massive collection of picture books in a variety of languages, with many of them published in English and French as well. Content includes both traditional and modern stories and can be a great way to acquire vocabulary graded to your current reading level.

“My sister and I were walking along the road.” (source language: Swahili) from “Ajali Mbayo” ; Authors – Zanele Buthelezi, Thembani Dladla and Clare Verbeek ; Translation – Ursula Nafula ; Illustration – Rob Owen

The Ethnologue (Summer Institute for Linguistics)

Those who work in linguistics research are probably familiar with the Ethnologue, the largest online database of living languages. While not a language learning course , it does offer interesting linguistic data and statistics from a more scientific perspective. A subscription is necessary to access complete language profiles.

The Ethnologue is sponsored by the Summer Institute for Linguistics (SIL), a Christian nonprofit which has promoted literacy, research, and documentation of the world’s languages since 1934. They have been one of the principal reasons why the Bible is the most translated book in the world. Regardless of your religious affiliations, SIL has produced and supported a lot of LCTL initiatives and is a handy resource for those in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, and education.

Resources for Native American Languages

Unfortunately, I’m not very knowledgeable in this domain, but I think that any resource discussion about LCTLs should include resources for learning Native American / First Nations languages. Here are some lists I found while searching the web:

University and Library Programs

The University of Wisconsin-Madison

Pressbooks: “Resources for Self-Instructional Learners of Less Commonly Taught Languages”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of my favorite language institutions, not just because I’ve studied there myself, but also because of the wealth of language resources available via PressBooks. These webpage are updated and maintained by students in the Multilanguage Seminar Program, a course which teaches language learners how to use self-directed instructional methods to acquire LCTLs.

The site mostly covers local African languages, but there are useful resources for a few others as well (e.g. Malay, Javanese, Nepali, Hmong).

Wisconsin Intensive Summer Language Institutes (WISLI)

WISLI offers two-month intensive summer courses in LCTLs from different regions of the world: Central European, Southeast Asian, South Asian, Nordic, and Middle Eastern/Mediterranean. They also have a Brazilian Portuguese Institute and host the Multilanguage Seminar program for any LCTL. All courses are coordinated and taught by leading scholars and experienced instructors in their respective languages.

The intensive courses require a lot of dedication and sustained effort because they fit one year’s worth of material into eight weeks. I took WISLI twice as a non-degree seeking student (Filipino and self-directed Bambara) and was able to receive funding for both summers. If you are a degree-seeking student, there are more funding opportunities available to you, such as the summer FLAS award.

Association for Asian Studies Language Database

Hosted on the UW-Madison Website, the AAS Language Database provides a list of U.S. institutions where you can learn over 30 less commonly taught languages of Asia (i.e. Southeast, Central, South, and East). The site also has a few resources on books and organizations that can point you in the right direction.

Indiana University

National African Language Resource Center (NALRC)

NALRC is hosted by Indiana University and includes hosts conferences, curates resources, and supports research and scholarly work for African languages. Like AAS at UW-Madison, they also have a list of institutions across the US that offer African language programs.

Summer Language Workshops

The IU Summer Language Workshops offers intensive instruction of around 30 LCTLs. With the exception of three major U.S. critical languages (Arabic, Chinese, and Russian), the majority of intensive courses can be taken online. For example, I did their first year Swahili course last summer completely online, so the courses are completely doable if you’ve got the time but not the ability to relocate.

University, College, and Local Libraries

Many institutions in the US and abroad are filled with good information. Even if you live far from a major university, community colleges, for example, usually participate in Interlibrary Loan systems, where you can request books from other universities without having to travel great lengths physically. Local libraries might also house some unexpected resources; for example, before Pimsleur came out with an online subscription, my library provided the physical audio courses, as well as the online version for library members.

Other Resources for Less Commonly Taught Languages

While this guide has offered a few places to start, there are plenty of other resources that are out there. A quick Google / YouTube / social media search can turn out with surprising results.

What resources do you use to learn less commonly taught languages? Mention them in the comments below!

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