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I am looking for documented cases where some person or group of people learned a language (= gained ability to communicate) with no prior knowledge of the target language through being immersed in ~100% target language community.

Important points:

  • languages should be fairly different (eg, not Ukrainian and Polish, etc.)
  • the person/group of people should be older than ~15 years old
  • it should not be an immersion language study program, instead it should be a person with ~0% knowledge coming into 100% natural ~100% target language community
  • the duration of getting from no knowledge/little knowledge of language should be specified (months or years, but better months); this duration point is really important.

This could be pretty much anything. Examples (random):

  • a news story,
  • a podcast,
  • a diary of someone who sailed with James Cook,
  • an anecdote written by someone from Ancient Greece/Rome or by a medieval monk
  • someone documenting some sort of invasion saying "Oh, they came and started speaking our language in five months!" -- so, quite literally anything.

I'd be grateful for any suggestions or pointers!

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    there are almost certainly cases from the early colonial era, where indigenous people were often kidnapped (in small numbers) and taken back to Europe. I don't have any specific examples to hand, but they should exist
    – Tristan
    Sep 30 at 9:48
  • @Tristan perhaps also shipwrecks and (maritime) forced landings, e.g. when some of the Spanish armada washed up in Ireland
    – Chris H
    Oct 1 at 10:15
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    @Tristan - Anyway conquistadors had that experience. Invading a whole continent of unknown languages implies learning them in 100% immersion, Christopher Columbus definitely left that account in his notes.
    – Yellow Sky
    Oct 1 at 11:10
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    @YellowSky the Spanish were absolutely not immersed 100% in the target language. For the most part at least they were surrounded by and primarily communicated with other Spaniards. That's extremely far from 100% immersion
    – Tristan
    Oct 1 at 11:20
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Do linguistic field workers count?

In this case I offer the case of Daniel Everett who learned the Pirahã language from scratch by contact with the native people without having any common language. Of course, Everett had some preparation and training in doing field work, he wasn't completely naive in this respect.

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  • Thanks! Ken Halle would work in this regard as well, probably. The only question remaining is -- are there any notes from Everett (or Halle, etc.) on when it was that they acquired relative fluency (or any basic communicative ability). Sep 30 at 13:50
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    @DaniilM.Ozernyi I think there's a difference between a linguist employing the so-called 'monolingual method' of learning a language and a non-linguist learning in an immersion situation. Ken Pike was a great exponent of the former, you might find this demonstration by him interesting:diu.edu/demo Oct 1 at 0:12
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I bet historically that was not an uncommon occurrence up to the early 20th century. Nakahama Manjirō springs to mind, who was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan and then immersed himself in the United States (though he was 14 so barely meets your criteria). A key factor that spurred his situation, in addition to Japan being an island country, is that it was illegal to enter or leave the country during this era. Manjirō served as a translator when the US urged Japan to reopen in the 1850s. (There were similar cases like Otokichi, but I don't know if they acquired any language to the same extent as Manjirō did English.)

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  • According to the Wikipedia page, he also studied English in school, which I guess would disqualify him based on the ‘shouldn’t be an immersion language study program’ criterion. Sep 30 at 12:04
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I read that criterion as a school where they speak one language located in a place where they speak another (like those in Canada), or a school for students from abroad. But I don't think Manjirō went to that kind of school. It sounds more like a school teaching literacy skills to monolingual kids. In fact the Japanese Wikipedia article says he was taught alongside grade-school students. If the OP meant more broadly, then Otokichi might be a better example.
    – Nardog
    Sep 30 at 12:20
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    If my understanding is correct that Manjirō went to a school in the US where no Japanese was spoken, and received the same instruction in English as American kids did -- then it wouldn't disqualify him. The reading of the criterion as excluding Canadian schools (and the likes) as mentioned by @Nardog is the intended reading. And thanks, those cases do look interesting! Sep 30 at 12:57
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I recently learned about William Buckley on the Futility Closet podcast. Buckley was an English escaped convict who lived with Indigenous Australians for decades. He learned the language of the people with whom he lived, and as far as I know neither of the parties knew each other's language beforehand.

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Russian anthropologist Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay spent 15 months in what is now Madang, Papua New Guinea, among speakers of Bongu. None of them had had any kind of exposure to any of the Old World languages before they met Miklouho-Maclay.

He ended up having some limited command of Bongu, enough to get by in everyday life, but not having mastered the grammar or any abstract nouns.

I am not sure that counts as having learned the language, but he did have some ability to communicate.

He left a detailed journal of his expedition (available online in Russian), in which he describes the challenges of learning the language and tracks his progress on the daily basis.

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