The Starting Point

Sometime in the fall of 2016, I received an odd message on Facebook. An ethnic Circassian whom I’d never met thanked me for helping him learn Turkish. This was a very strange message, as I don’t even speak Turkish. How could I have helped him learn it?

As it turned out, my fellow Circassian – let’s call him Wa’el – was originally from Syria, and had fled to Turkey as war waged on there. He was joined by millions of other Syrians, tens of thousands of whom were ethnic Circassians.

Back in Syria, Wa’el was part of a Circassian language study group, and he was using my materials to teach himself Circassian.

The plight of the Circassian language

In case you’re confused, here’s a brief sidebar: There are an estimated 5 million ethnic Circassians in the world. In proportional terms, Circassians make up the largest diaspora in the world, with an estimated 90 percent living outside their historical homeland in the North Caucasus of the present-day Russian Federation.

At the time of their expulsion, Circassian was spoken, but not written. So although people (like my mother and father) may be fluent in the language, they are illiterate.

Due to a variety of circumstances, the vast majority of ethnic Circassians don’t speak their ethnic language. The situation is somewhat parallel to the decline of Gaelic among ethnic Irish. Even in Ireland, Gaelic is on the decline, and a similar trend is at work with the Circassian language.

The Circassian language is currently considered “at risk” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). By some estimates, fewer than 20 percent of the world’s ethnic Circassians can speak the language, and that number will likely decrease to 10 percent over the coming decades.

How grassroots teaching morphed into more

Having succeeded in teaching myself how to speak, read, and write Circassian, I was flooded with requests to share my study notes and learning materials.

What began as a collection of handwritten notes quickly morphed into a series of PowerPoint presentations and video lectures.

Eventually, I established a teaching program at the Circassian Benevolent Association in Wayne, New Jersey. Over the course of several years, I taught the language to several hundred people aged five to 65.

It was an amazing experience for me. Writing and rewriting my materials, sitting in front of large groups of students, running in-class exercises and drills, and interacting with children, young adults, working professionals, and senior citizens, I learned a lot about how people engage in the language learning process.

This was a bit of a golden era for me. Teaching others improved my own language abilities, and seeing how people struggled with, or embraced my methods helped me refine my methods and materials.

During this time, it is safe to say that I worked directly with at least 500 individuals. I purchased and consumed every commercial and academic language learning course I could acquire.

If Amazon sold it, I bought it. Friends from overseas would mail me books and lectures in foreign languages, designed for non-English speakers. I found a way to get into a crash course language seminar at the United Nations.

I attended another rapid teaching program run at Dartmouth College and taught by John Rassias, who developed the rapid learning methods used by the Peace Corps to train people in new languages quickly.

Unsurprisingly, every piece of content I consumed made the same promise: “Our approach is the fastest, easiest, most effective, and efficient way to learn a new language.”

Of course, everyone makes this claim. What’s the alternative? To say your approach is poorly developed, unproven, time-consuming, and ineffective?

While I’m sure that all the developers of the content mentioned above were well-intentioned, there was a huge variance in the quality and effectiveness of the materials I consumed.

But I wasn’t interested in critiquing this or that approach, method, or teaching material. I was interested in helping my students speak a new language with the least amount of time and effort invested.

While I’m certainly not alone in my efforts to achieve that goal, I daresay I’m a bit unique in my motivation. I didn’t start down this path trying to make money or launch a product. I wasn’t trying to build a social media following or achieve Internet fame.

I was trying to save my ethnic language from going extinct. And I still am.

Saving the Circassian language

I needed to help fellow Circassians learn to speak and understand Circassian as quickly as possible, and I didn’t have the luxury afforded by larger, more widely-spoken languages.

Aside from materials I have developed, Circassian has almost no language-learning materials for non-native speakers. There are no textbooks or methods for people who don’t already speak a bit of the language.

There aren’t many books written in Circassian, and modern media like television programs, radio broadcasts, and films are practically non-existent.

At the same time, Circassian is not a language of trade or governance, because Russian plays that role in the ethnic homeland of the Circassians.

The only reason anyone might want to learn Circassian would be to engage with extended family members who live in different countries where different languages are spoken.

For my students, however, this was a very powerful motivation. Many of them had circumstances similar to my own, and they wanted to hear the stories of their grandparents. Others had tracked down extended family members across countries as diverse as Syria, Jordan, Russia, Israel, and Turkey.

Communicating in the Circassian language negated the need to learn four different languages: Arabic, Russian, Hebrew, and Turkish.

But people are busy, skeptical, and have short attention spans. I needed to find a way to get people speaking and understanding as quickly as possible, or I’d lose my chance to convince them to stick with my program long-term.

I quickly discovered that no one cared about learning formal grammar; the rules were confusing and had frequent exceptions. So I began to focus exclusively on teaching common, useful phrases embedded with high-frequency vocabulary words.

Over the course of nearly a decade, I wrote and re-wrote thousands of phrases and sentences. These materials are at the core of my courses today. After a decade of work, I’ve developed a series of universal phrases that are very short and simple; this makes them easy to pick up and learn.

At the same time, they’ve been written in such a way that they can be mixed, matched, and combined to convey a variety of very complex thoughts and ideas.

Later, as I got more interested in applied linguistics, I came to realize that the core of my material covers approximately 1,500 unique phrases, over 1,000 high-frequency vocabulary words, and most grammatical structures.

In other words, the content at the core of my method covers around 80 percent of what a native speaker might read or say on a daily basis.

Of course, back in the fall of 2016, when Wa’el reached out to me, I didn’t realize any of this. I was just confused and curious to know how Wa’el used my materials to teach himself Turkish.

Teaching Circassian to non-English speakers

As my face-to-face teaching efforts progressed, I began to receive requests to share my materials via the web. As I did so, others starting asking to have my Circassian materials translated into Turkish, Russian, and Arabic, the primary languages spoken by 99 percent of ethnic Circassians.

Native English speakers comprise less than 1 percent of the Circassian population, so of course I jumped at the chance to expand my reach and help as many people as possible.

My decision to ditch formal grammar instruction and focus on phrases and high-frequency words made it a lot easier to support translation into these other languages.

I also learned much about the pros and cons of word-frequency lists. I won’t go into the details, but in summary, I learned that aside from some minor cultural issues, high-frequency words are pretty universal.

English, Russian, Turkish, and Arabic are completely unrelated languages. They come from different roots, share different cultures, and developed in different historical contexts. The word “Soviet” might be common in Russian, while the word “Allah” might be more common in Arabic (and non-existent in Russian). Despite minor variations, though, words like “help” or “hungry” or “mother” or “father” are pretty universal.

I had a small army of ethnic Circassians help me translate my materials, and as before, I continued to learn and refine my methods and materials.

Ironically, my lack of computer prowess is probably what led to Wa’el’s ability to use my materials to learn Turkish.

I had plenty of requests to “build an app” or “make a website” that would allow Circassians speaking all those unrelated languages to learn our ethnic language.

While I consider myself computer-literate, I’m no programmer. My background is in management consulting, so my go-to tools are Excel and PowerPoint. I used the former to look for patterns across my teaching materials, and the latter to develop my teaching materials.

Eventually, all my materials were developed into a five-column layout. Circassian was at the far left, with English, Russian, Turkish, and Arabic in columns to the right.

Every phrase and every word were laid out in a simple grid pattern.

Wa’el’s brilliant realization

Now we can return to Wa’el, my fellow Circassian, an Arabic-speaking Syrian refugee living in Turkey. One day, Wa’el had an idea: why not pull up one of Jonty’s Excel files and focus on the Turkish and Arabic words and phrases?

I’d never imagined that my materials could (or would) be used in such a way, but somehow, it worked.

By his owns timate, my universal phrases and high-frequency words covered around 80 percent of what Wa’el needed to get by in Turkish society. At the same time, because I’d spent so much time developing content that could be mixed and matched, Wa’el found he was able to say things that were never explicitly covered in the core of my teaching materials.

His experience was quickly replicated by other Syrian Circassians. He asked if I could share my materials with non-Circassian Syrian refugees in Turkey who wanted to learn Turkish. Of course, I quickly agreed.

That’s when I realized that I had something special.

It was one thing for ethnic Circassians to use my materials to learn the Circassian language. This is what my materials were designed and optimized to do.

But when I saw Circassians and non-Circassians (in this case, ethnically Arab Syrian refugees) using my materials to learn Turkish, I was blown away. Quite honestly, I was humbled and happy that something I produced could help so many people in their time of need. They were learning Turkish easily and quickly, and it was helping them integrate into their new homeland.

That’s when I decided I could and would fine-tune and optimize my materials to help people learn other languages as well.

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