“When you speak Somali to me, I feel close to you.” I heard this last week in Minnesota, not from a friend, but a complete stranger—a taxi driver named Mohammed. Upon seeing him, I immediately spoke only in Somali. “I pick up a lot of people,” Mohammed continued, “but when you speak Somali, you are like my brother—wherever you are from.”
Many languages are struggling to survive. Each bears something to offer humanity, but a deluge of powerful, imperical languages push them towards extinction as children ignore the language of their forefathers and embrace the modern language of the world around them.
Polyglots wield the power to stave off this tide—if they choose carefully the languages they study. While the morality of polyglottery is rarely discussed, polyglots’ choice of language affects communities of people trying to hold on to a history and a tradition. We must choose based not on what merely looks and sounds nice personally, but on what will preserve the dignity of language communities, and the diversity of languages—an ecolinguist preserving the lingua-sphere.
More about ecolinguism
Persistence paid off. Please forgive the cliche, but I’ve been trying to manifest in the past several posts—at least to myself—the progress I’ve been able to make over many months. This week I:
- found a local teacher;
- carried on a decent conversation;
- dedicated some time every day to study; and
- won a Somali grammar contest.
An additional truth came to me this week: I can’t do this alone. If it weren’t for my on-line tutor and my new conversation partner—not to mention my friends at work—my progress would be even slower than it is. I’m very grateful for these supporters I have.
Read how I did it
My life is wonderful, yet sometimes I imagine I’m supposed to be living a different life than the one I’m living. At those moments, I get overwhelmed by so many things, find I’m not letting myself sleep enough, and feel down. Languages are my passion, but they’re not everything in my life, or even the best part of my life. They make me feel alive and happy. The moment they no longer make me feel good reminds me to take a step back and look at the totality of my life and remember how wonderful my life is. What am I really doing in my life? What progress am I actually making in my language?
The reality of my life
My learning Somali hits some difficult spots, similar to when I was learning Farsi. The problem is intermediate language learning. I’ve discussed this with multiple polyglots and language-learning companies. I even posted about it here, here, and here. What do I do when I have learned most of the grammar and acquired a decent amount of vocabulary, but cannot understand basic articles or podcasts aimed at native speakers? This week, I discovered a fantastic way out: Bliu Bliu. And they even work with Somali!
This post concludes the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain” and the second, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe,” and the third, Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Anything can translate.”
4. Borrowing words from other languages is par for the course.
This is a corollary to point 2, “Describe, don’t prescribe.” Many speakers of certain languages work hard to keep their language “pure,” that is, not to utter words from other languages while speaking their language. No language ever existed in a vacuum, however, as far as we can tell. When the first Europeans came to what is today the Northeast US, they found speakers of Mohawk and Mahican (completely unrelated languages) communicating with each other, and soon after they came, Pidgin languages developed between the Dutch and some of the native peoples. (See my earlier post, “A lesson from history: Languages in 17th century New Netherland.”) Surely words mixed among all of these languages.
How much more so today, when speakers of so many languages are constantly bumping into one another by virtue of jet travel and the internet? Every language is adapting to a new state of affairs.
While I believe that languages can’t help but borrow from one another, I still like the work of language academies, even if I disagree with their self-understanding. French, Modern Hebrew, and other languages have designated groups that sanction the use of new words. I don’t believe in the mission of keeping the language “pure,” but I like the resourcefulness and creativity of these groups. They look to the native verbal resources of the language to express a new concept. Hence the French word “ordinateur” and the Hebrew word מחשב maxshev entered into these languages.
Furthermore, I like academies because they help speakers not forget words of their languages in order to pass on as much as possible to the next generation. For example, I knew someone whose father is Navajo and a scholar of Navajo folk literature. He purposely uses obscure Navajo words when he delivers public talks in his native language; otherwise, those words might disappear entirely from the language.
How do you feel about the “purity” of your language? Do you feel that young or less educated people are “ruining” it?
I realized that this week marks six months of learning Somali for me. A couple years ago, I learned from some friends a few phrases that we used often, but I wasn’t learning any grammar or vocabulary regularly. A half-year ago, though, I started getting more serious. Focusing on Somali has been difficult, but looking back I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made. I live a busy life, so I can’t dedicate large chunks to language-study. As a result, I learned what I can accomplish in 6 months.
Are you a busy professional with a full social and domestic life? Do you have lots of demands on you from your home and community? That’s my life. I hope that this list shows what you too can accomplish, even with a busy life.