Like the rest of my life, my approach to languages is erratic and non-committal. At school I tried a few but never stuck the course, so a number of only marginally useful phrases rattle around my brain. I can croak like an Ancient Greek frog (brekekekex coax coax), and order Georgian meatballs in Russian, even though I’m not really sure whether “meatballs” is euphemistic misdirection. Not that the classroom will necessarily equip you for life abroad. One person I know, who was studying for a PhD in the epic poetry of the Italian Renaissance, arrived in Italy for the first time only to realise that he could very easily command his squire to fetch his greaves and cuirass but had no idea how to ask for directions to the railway station. But the English generally have it easy. Most foreigners either display near mastery of the language already or an unfeigned eagerness to learn. Dean Acheson was wrong when he said that “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.” Our role is to correct the pronunciation of Leicester Square with tolerant superciliousness.
The global dominion of English has left other languages in retreat. Some have disappeared altogether. Tribalingual is an admirable project keeping endangered ones alive online. For £180, you can download an introductory course in Cherokee or Gangte, a Sino-Tibetan language spoken in Manipur in north-east India. For the romance of it all, I chose to learn Ainu, a Far Eastern language hovering on the cusp of extinction. According to UNESCO, there are only 15 native speakers left alive. Then I learned that not only were there three varieties of Ainu, but each of these has multiple dialects. It didn’t seem like the Ainu were helping themselves. In fact, it was a miracle that they were able to understand each other at all. Though there used to be an Ainu population on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands off Russia’s east coast, they now remain only on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. Hokkaido has lots going for it: superlative powder for skiing, excellent beer and the occasional surprise flyover by one of Kim Jong-Un’s intercontinental ballistic missiles. However, Ainu bears no relation to Japanese – or indeed any other languages in the vicinity (parallels have been found with Australasian and Native American tongues).
Despite its oddness, Ainu is surprisingly simple to pick up. This is partly because it was, for a long time, an entirely oral language and it is far easier to spell out letter sounds in the Latin alphabet than the Japanese syllabary. Ainu has only 16 characters, forcing k to moonlight as g and p as b. This efficiency is admirable in comparison with English, where letters such as q, z and x may add a shimmer of quixotic antiquity in written text but are fundamentally useless. There are no declensions or conjugations to master. You simply point and shoot.
Speaking a foreign language, at least in the initial stages, is torture. You sacrifice spontaneity and wit. You stammer gormlessly as you frantically wrangle a sentence into comprehensible shape. You become a stupider, duller person for a while. Language learning often involves posing questions that you’re never likely to ask in real life or to care about the answers: “Does your grandmother own a donkey?” “Do you like red boats?” “Is the fish happy?” There is something liberating about studying a language as impractical as Ainu. I found myself fascinated by finicky little untranslatable words, like those indicating levels of formality, and rushed through the lessons on favourite foods.
Tribalingual is not perfect: it’s expensive and for the amount they charge I would have expected more practice material and greater online interactivity. But their heart is in the right place. Elia, my tutor by Skype and PhD student in Ainu linguistics at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London, was a model of patience, clarity and enthusiasm. It may be overly optimistic, even delusional, to believe that Ainu will survive virtually with language fanatics gathering on Skype to discuss the best chai lattes in Sapporo, but at this point, there are not a lot of options left. Later this month, Google will launch a pair of ear buds that will enable instantaneous translation into more than 40 languages. The incentive to undertake the arduous challenge of mastering a new language is being weakened by technology. But it’s encouraging that technology might also delay or forestall cultural obliteration. Years of oppression at the hands of Japanese nationalists have made the Ainu a wary people. According to Elia, the native community know nothing of Tribalingual. They might soon be surprised by a dribble of Westerners yodelling out a cheery “irankarapte”.