How I learn Sicilian: 8 simple ways to learn an endangered language

16th December 2017

Thinking about learning a minority language? Learn about my experience with Sicilian and get tips on how to learn a language when there are no books!

Which language should I learn? Whenever I asked myself this question in the past, I only considered widely-spoken languages like Spanish or Mandarin. This is because I'd always assumed that widely-spoken languages lead to better travel options and more opportunities to practice with natives. So when I came across Fran, who’s learning Sicilian, I followed her progress with admiration and curiosity. Sicilian is a minority language spoken on the island of Sicily and in some areas in the south of Italy. Although a close relative of Italian, linguists consider Sicilian to be language in its own right, because Italian speakers need a translator to understand Sicilian and vice-versa. Why did Fran choose a minority language like Sicilian, instead of Italian? And given that so few people are learning Sicilian, how did she cope without the usual language learning tools like textbooks, audio courses, apps, and websites? Fran’s story shows how learning an endangered language like Sicilian can enrich your travel experience by giving you a unique way to connect with the community. She also found that learning a minority language can actually increase your opportunities to speak with natives and that having fewer resources is sometimes a good thing! Keep reading to learn:
  • Why you should consider learning an endangered or minority language.
  • How to learn a language without a textbook.
Over to Fran.

Learning Sicilian: Fran’s story

It’s Thursday morning at the local market in Trapani and there’s a very stern-looking Sicilian lady standing in front of me. It’s one of those bustling markets where you have to squeeze through the crowds to get to the next stall and you can barely hear a word over the stallholders shouting to attract customers. I’d just bought some tablecloths which had caused some confusion between the vendors, and I was trying to explain the situation in Sicilian. “C’è l’haiu, grazii” (I have it thanks). As soon as I opened my mouth, her face changed from a frown to a soft smile: “Siciliano,” she said.

Why I decided to learn an endangered language

I decided to learn Sicilian recently for family reasons, but I wish I’d thought of it years ago. I was born in Australia to a Sicilian father and an Australian mother. My mother learned to speak Italian (which was really a mixture of Sicilian, Italian and Calabrese she learned from her sister-in-laws) so they spoke mostly Italian/Sicilian together, but when it came to us kids, they always spoke English. Dad would say “you liva in tisa country you spreaka da English.” So we didn't learn Sicilian or Italian. Just before I turned 50, my husband and I decided to visit the birthplace of my father, Salaparuta, a small town which was devastated by an earthquake back in '68. So I thought I’d better learn some Italian first. I bought a couple of online programs, hired every teaching program from the library and found an online tutor to practice with. But when we visited my family in Sicily, I was too scared to speak. Luckily, my two cousins spoke a little English. Over the years, we returned a few times and although my Italian improved, I still couldn't communicate very well with my Sicilian relatives. Last year, I went with my sisters who couldn't speak a word of Italian, so I did all the talking for us. My sisters were impressed with how well I managed to communicate with Italians speakers, which helped them pinpoint my problem with my Sicilian relatives: they understood what I was saying in Italian, but I didn't understand what they were saying in Sicilian! So they asked me if I'd ever considered learning Sicilian. It was a light bulb moment. My sisters were right! No amount of Italian would help me to understand my Sicilian speaking family. So I started learning Sicilian. It’s been challenging (I’ll talk more about this in a moment) but truly worth the effort.

I returned to Sicily several times and although my Italian improved, I still couldn't communicate very well with my Sicilian relatives. So I decided to learn Sicilian instead!

Recently, my husband and I returned to Sicily and this time I was determined to communicate in Sicilian. It paid off! Although I'm learning the Catanese dialect and my family live in the Trapani region on the other side of the island, we communicated well. For the first time, I understood. My relatives were so pleased to hear me speak their language and encouraged me to keep learning Sicilian.

Learning Sicilian: the advantages of learning an endangered language

Encouraged by people’s positive reactions to my attempts to speak Sicilian, wherever I went I’d say something, anything in Sicilian. Sometimes people would try to correct me, thinking that I’d just mispronounced Italian. But when I explained that I was learning Sicilian, they stared in disbelief, then smiled with approval. Most people couldn’t believe that a foreigner would actually want to learn it! As we visited different towns around the island, my husband let me do the talking: the Sicilian people seemed friendlier, more accommodating and really appreciated me taking the time to learn their beloved language. If you learn a popular language like Spanish, French or German, it can be difficult to find opportunities to speak with natives. They often speak English better than you speak their language, so they reply in English and don’t give you the chance to practice. But with minority and endangered languages, your attempts to speak are often met with surprise and delight. Sicilians are proud of their language, and it saddens them that it’s fading away. The people I met were so pleased to find a foreigner learning Sicilian that they went out of their way to help me practice speaking it.

As we visited different towns around the island, my husband let me do the talking: the Sicilian people seemed friendlier, more accommodating and really appreciated me taking the time to learn their beloved language.

The challenges of learning Sicilian

That said, learning an endangered language like Sicilian can pose a few problems. The main one is a HUGE lack of resources. The Sicilian language is a spoken language, so there aren’t many books or documents to learn from. There are a couple of online dictionaries and textbooks, but I’ve learned that most teachers do not accept these books. This is because each region of Sicily has its own dialect, and within these regions, family groups can have their own “version” of that dialect. When a family moves, say to an English speaking country, they take their spoken dialect with them and pass it on to the next couple of generations, which is a great way to keep the language alive. Years later a well-meaning family member decides to share his beloved language and publishes a textbook. Unfortunately, the dialect that it teaches is now out of touch with modern Sicilian. So, no recommended textbooks, no podcasts and at the time, no teaching videos on YouTube. But after ten months of learning, I’m quite happy not to have all the language learning choices that are out there. I don't get distracted exploring all that's on offer, and I’ve been able to stay focused, which has helped me progress faster.

How I learn Sicilian: a step-by-step guide to learning an endangered language

1. Find a teacher or tutor

With most minority languages, you can't just go to your local language school and sign up for a course, so you'll need to explore other ways to find a teacher. If you're lucky enough to be in the area where the language is spoken, you could get in touch with language schools to see if they have members of staff who speak the language and would be willing to teach you. I emailed a language school at Trapani in Sicily and asked if any teacher there would be interested in teaching me Sicilian and the manager himself was more than happy to do this for me. If you can’t go to the country, you could call/email the school and ask if they’d be willing to do the lessons via Skype. Alternatively, you might be able to find a tutor via the online teaching platform italki, as they are gradually building up a community of teachers who speak minority languages. If all else fails, try looking for universities who conduct research on your language of choice, as the professors will probably have native speaker contacts who could help you find a teacher or community of speakers (thanks to Donovan Nagel from The Mezzofanti Guild for this tip).

2. Be prepared

With no textbook, you or your teacher will need to prepare for each lesson. I prepared word lists, sentences and dialogues for my lessons each week that we would discuss and correct. But then I found an Italian teacher on italki who is Sicilian and loves to teach the Sicilian language. She prepares her own structured lessons each week and on occasion, I still like to prepare something for us to work on together.

3. Record your lessons

If you do lessons via Skype, record them and make sure your teacher is typing as much information as possible in the message section. Most computers have a record function but I use the memo app on my phone. After the lesson, you can print out the Skype messages/notes (which I usually copy and paste into word). If you’re doing face-to-face lessons, you could ask your teacher if you can record the lesson on your phone and work together on some detailed written notes that you can take away with you after the lesson.

4. Review what you learned

These notes now become your study sheet. Get colorful. Highlight words and phrases you want to remember. Circle things that you can't remember or need more clarification on. Can you make a sentence or two from this week’s study? Note down other questions you would like to ask? This prepares you for your next lesson. I also rewrite previous dialogues to help consolidate words and grammar.

5. Make word lists

Make lists of new words. I have a book I like to write them in and then import them into apps such as Quizlet and Memrise.

6. Focus on listening skills

Listen to your study session a few times. Do 10 or 20-minute sessions over a few days. Listen to the grammar and follow along with your notes to hear pronunciation and explanations. If you’re anything like me, you might notice some questions you misunderstood, mistakes and parts where you could have responded better. This is an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. If anything is unclear, make a note to ask your teacher for clarification in the next lesson. Also, try to find TV series, movies or songs in your target language. For Sicilian, YouTube has folk songs with the lyrics to sing along to (in private of course!) and I like the series Inspector Montalbano, although it's spoken mainly in Italian, I get quite excited when I hear the extras speaking Sicilian.

7: Make your own materials

Now you’re in contact with the community of speakers, why not take advantage of this to create your own materials? I asked my teacher to help me prepare interview questions and she agreed to be interviewed. Then I contacted another Sicilian friend who also agreed to be interviewed. I put them on YouTube for easy access, originally as a private status but I later published them as I thought others learning Sicilian might benefit from these too. It was a lot of fun and I plan to do more in future.

8. Speak as much as possible

Get creative and find as many opportunities to practice speaking Sicilian as you can. Remember, you don’t always need native speakers to practice speaking! Try reading your written dialogues aloud or talking to yourself when you’re alone in the house.

What do you think?

Are you learning (or considering learning) Sicilian or another minority language? Which tip do you think is the most useful? Can you add any more advice? Leave a comment and let us know!

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