Pirates, Sexists, Terrorists: Is this all there is there to know about Somalis?

Who are they? Can you tell just by looking?
Who are they? Can you tell just by looking?

I’m exhausted by hearing the same questions and answers about the Somali community over and over, as if they only contribute sexists and terrorists.

A few weeks ago I went to a talk by a local Somali community organizer, who helps with women’s health. During the question and answer time, the well-educated, well-intentioned audience asked two questions:

  1. How is the Somali community reacting to terrorist recruitment?
  2. Do Somalis treat their sons and daughters the same?

Right on script.

When I write a blog post and look for related articles, all that I can find concern terrorism and occasionally piracy. I see the top three articles right now are,

  • “Somalia – News website editor gunned down in Mogadishu
  • “Minneapolis: 3rd of 8 Muslims who plotted in mosques to join ISIS to plead guilty,” and
  • “News website editor gunned down in Mogadishu.”

I thought I saw a different sort of story, about “building community reslience,” and then discovered it was an anti-radicalization, anti-terrorism grant from the US Justice Department. Even the good news is about terrorism.

I read about how many Somalis are on welfare in Minnesota.

Many people like the refrain of how Somalis “refuse” to assimilate to US culture. They’ve repeated for eight years the story of Somali taxi drivers who refused to transport passengers with alcohol or dogs. I also hear the trope of the Somali cashiers who won’t handle pork products.

When I look up popular Somali musicians or artists in the English-language press, I find that we only know one: K’naan. (Better than nothing, right?)

So here is a “typical Somali” based on what I read in the media:

  • pirate/thief
  • potential terrorist
  • sexist
  • unproductive
  • repudiators of American culture
  • without contribution to arts and culture

Is that really it?

Learning from anxiety: Waxaan ku hadlay maanta afka soomaaliga! I spoke Somali today!

What did you learn after your crash?
What did you learn after your crash?

I had some great opportunities to speak Somali this week. Since I live in the suburbs, just over the Minnesota River from the largest Somali populations in the US, I took an opportunity to cross the bridge to practice with some folks.

I listened to a podcast this week about language anxiety (listen to part 1 here) and read an article with new research on the same topic.

Language anxiety affects me. By getting out of the “classroom,” however, and into the community, I saw that any anxiety I had was unfounded.

How I enjoyed my anxiety

I want my children to learn Somali

How can my children learn her wisdom?
How can my children learn her wisdom?

My children are not “heritage learners.” Our family does not have roots in Africa. We are white mixes of American European culture. No living relatives have ever spoken to each other in a language other than English. Yet nothing could serve my children more than fluency in this beautiful, complex East African language.

I previously lived in Seattle where, in order to learn more about the local refugee community, I volunteered to help with the orientation of a family from Eritrea (in East Africa). My children would occasionally accompany me to visit them in their impoverished Seattle suburb. The very different lives of these people enriched my children. At the ages of nine and ten, they ate popcorn and sat in a living room with two people’s beds and a second-hand coffee table to listen to the stories of shepherds, of men who served as child soldiers, and of children raised in refugee camps. These intelligent, motivated, kind people offered them an education they never received in school—an education not of knowledge but of wisdom.

Once in Minnesota, I quickly learned about the extraordinary Somali population here. My next question was how my children could gain wisdom from these new brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts who surround them every day. (I use “uncle” and “aunt” not as titles for blood relatives but as translations for Somali terms of address to elders.) They would need to acquire the language to really hear these people and learn the most important lessons from them. Somali language will make my children wiser and more intelligent people.
What my children will learn

The US is truly a Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, “Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly.” And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do:and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth:and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth:and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:1-9)

Many Americans see multiple languages in our country as a threat. As I presented in my last post the US has suppressed other languages since its inception until today. We always see foreigners as a threat, but if they at least speak English, then they have assimilated to an acceptable degree.

Oddly, the rallying cry of the “English only” crowd is, “Let us not become another Tower of Babel.” (For example, Pat Buchanan says so here, and one of the authors of this article does the same here.) This implies that a lack of official language leads to chaos and the inability to work towards a common goal.

This stance shows that they don’t know what the “Tower of Babel” means. I’d like to go back over the story, so for this reason I cited the story, above. I hold a PhD in Ancient Hebrew and Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), so I place a lot of importance on the interpretation of the Bible. My aim is not to convert anyone here or make anyone religious, but to understand some of the historical background of this biblical story as it relates to the modern US. (If you are interested in hearing a discussion about this story that delves more into the biblical aspects of this story, please listen to this podcast episode of “The Bible as Literature Podcast,” that my friend and I produce.)
The US *is* a Tower of Babel

Myth: Our ancestors happily learned English

America's multilingual past, forced into monolingual present
America’s multilingual past, forced into monolingual present

A common language brings people together. Historically, learning English was a priority for German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and Japanese immigrants (to name a few) because it helped them participate in the communities they joined. And because the United States is still predominantly an English-speaking country, that practice should continue today.
From Dear Abby, “Sharing Common Language Is Simply Common Sense,” Jan 23, 1997

Because the United States was at war with Germany, those of German heritage were the main target of suspicion. Soon German language instruction was banned in public schools. Then, parochial schools were forced to use only English in their classrooms. The churches were next, and eventually Iowa’s Governor Harding declared that only English was legal in public and private schools, public places and over the telephone.
From “It’s the Law—Speak English Only!”

How English was actually established in the US

The day I fell in love with languages: Dr. Richter and field linguistics

Dr. Richter, who first introduced me to Linguistics
Dr. Richter, who first introduced me to Linguistics

Field linguistics … refers to the collection of primary linguistic data on the basic grammatical facts of a relatively little studied language in a relatively natural setting from ordinary speakers, and to the analysis and dissemination of such data.Pamela Munro

When did I truly fall in love with languages? I had been “dating” languages for a while—French, Latin, German—in my early teens. Then, the summer after my sophomore year in high school, I completely fell for languages after I took a full-blown linguistics class. The class filled me with solid information about the breadth of complexity in the world’s languages, but once we started learning field linguistics I discovered joy in diving in, asking questions, and figuring out the language from the inside, as if I were in the field among speakers of a language completely foreign to me. That joy determined the course of my life, and that joy has never left me.
How can I count the ways?

On pronunciation and memorization: A eulogy for Dr. Thomas Coates

My first German teacher (circled) along with his class
My first German teacher (circled) along with his class

Wer noch? Du? Steh auf! Blitzschnell!


Who are the most influential teachers? It’s not always obvious at the time, but some lessons seep into your bones.
My first German teacher

Distance and stereotypes: Longing for language love in Turkey

Just another tourist in Istanbul
Just another tourist in Istanbul

“Do you have a book in English to learn Turkish?” At the large book fair next to one of the universities in Istanbul, I figured I’d find something I’d enjoy. “In English?”

He handed me a phrase book.

“No. To learn Turkish. Grammar.”

He handed me a Turkish grammar book—in Turkish.

“In English?”

He handed me a learning grammar. This was it.

“How much is it?”

“How much?”

He started leafing through a catalog.

“You have to order it?”

“…sorry. No English me,” and he looked to the ground. He pointed at the price on the page. I paid, said, “Teşekkür ederim” (“thank you”), and left.

I have an easy time connecting with others thanks to my language “superpower.” But what do I do when circumstances eliminate that ability?

Here was a young man, selling language books next to a university. How could we not have something in common? But I would never know. At the end of my recent trip to Greece, I spent a day-and-a-half in Istanbul. Without being able to speak any Turkish, I had a disappointingly difficult time connecting with people there.
Unable to connect?

What if we talked about monolingual White children the way we talk about low-income children of color?

Loving Language:

I have tried to articulate the problem of monolingualism, even offering a “cure” for monolingualism. Regardless of the satire of this piece, this rings 100% true, “This linguistic isolation has a detrimental effect on the cognitive development of monolingual White children.”

Why would the linguistic mainstream deprive their children of what is proven to offer a cognitive advantage, teaching them another language?

Originally posted on The Educational Linguist:

I have written a previous post debunking the so-called language-gap.  In this post I flip the script and imagine a world where interventions have been developed for monolingual White children using the same language gap discourse.


It is a well-documented fact that by the age of 5 monolingual White children will have heard 30 million fewer words in languages other than English than bilingual children of color. In addition, they will have had a complete lack of exposure to the richness of non-standardized varieties of English that characterize the homes of many children of color. This language gap increases the longer these children are in school. The question is what causes this language gap and what can be done to address it?

The major cause of this language gap is the failure of monolingual White communities to successfully assimilate into the multilingual and multidialectal mainstream. The continued existence of White…

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Tarzan Shakespeare or the pain caused by my Greek deficit

How do I connect when I'm bad at Greek?
How do I connect when I’m bad at Greek?

“Me want now go yon church?”

“What name belongeth yon market?”

This is how I imagine what my Modern Greek sounds like: a combination of Shakespeare and Tarzan. You see, I’m bad at Greek. (It’s not all Greek to me, but a good portion of it is.) I can read some Biblical Greek (a simpler version of Ancient Greek a la Homer), but I know only a little Modern Greek—and it’s words with very little grammar. A foreigner from the 10th century.

Last weekend I got back from a trip to Greece. Read how it went