Learning or teaching a language without a local community

Is it possible to learn a language without living in the area where it's spoken? Jonty Yamisha from OptiLingo.coms shows how he achieved it.

Jonty Yamisha
Updated on
February 5, 2021
5 min read

Can you get fluent in a language without every stepping foot into the country where it’s spoken?

Absolutely! There’s not a doubt in my mind, because I’ve seen it countless times. But it requires the right conditions.

I’m an ethnic Circassian. Depending on who you believe, there are anywhere from 3M – 7M of us in the world. Around 80 – 90% of our people live outside of our ethnic homeland of the North Caucasus of the Russian Federation.

My mother and father grew up in a remote village in Syria. I have distant cousins who grew up across the border in Israel. I also have relatives who grew up in Turkey. None of them ever visited the North Caucasus, and yet nearly all of my relatives grew up speaking Circassian as their primary language.

Granted, they all grew up in small villages, with communities of native speakers of Circassian. So what does this mean for anyone learning or teaching a language when there’s no access to the country where that language is spoken?

Well, even if there’s no access to the country where the language is spoken, there might be opportunities to small communities of native speakers. You don’t need to travel to a remote village, either.

Over 600 languages are spoken in New York City, and Toronto is home to nearly 80 foreign language publications. But what if you don’t live in New York City or Toronto? What if you’re in a small town full of monolingual speakers of English? There’s still a lot you can do to build a small bubble of interaction with your target language. Here, I can speak from experience.

Despite the fact that my parents speak Circassian as their first language, I never learned it growing up. I only started to learn the language when I was in my 30s, and at the time, I was far removed from any local community of Circassian speakers.

In my case, I found as much YouTube Circassian content as I could. I got my hands on a scanned PDF copy of a dictionary, and I labeled every item in my house in Circassian. I found people interested in speaking via Skype, and slowly but surely, I was able to transform my apartment into a small bubble of Circassian influence.

The simple fact is that in today’s Internet-connected world, it’s absolutely possible to learn a new language, even if you don’t have the ability to travel to where that language is spoken. It’s even possible to achieve fluency. It requires a bit more work, but anything worth achieving takes time and effort.

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Jonty Yamisha

‍Jonty is a lifelong polyglot and founder of OptiLingo. He is the proud father of four children. He and his wife are the proud parents of polyglot children.‍

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