This week a Somali friend of mine at work was willing to help me with my Somali. I know my questions are unintuitive to native speakers, so I feel uncomfortable imposing sometimes. I was so grateful when he accepted my invitation to lunch. I learned a ton about grammar and relations among words, and he made me feel very comfortable, and even said that he enjoyed forcing himself to think about this language on a deep, detailed level. We were able to spend a nice time admiring and loving the Somali language together.
I found the exercise helpful, exciting, and fun. Translating helped originally because it forced me to make meaning when I was very unsure. This time with my friend allowed me to see relations among words. How do words connect? What does a preposition connote in a given context? What are other contexts where we can use this word or constructions? This conversation really helped with the doldrums I was feeling last week by connecting me with another and making me work out my language muscles hard.
When my friend surprised me with a new text—literally, and SMS text on his phone—I had to translate on the fly without preparation. We were both surprised at how close i got. He could spur me on with hints on the new words, but I get moving along.
One item I worry about is whether I’l get good at speaking this way. Since I know that my vocabulary grows quickly and my grammar deepens in sophistication, I’m moving the right direction. I can continue to write, to keep my knowledge active. During these translation sessions, I can also ask questions in Somali.
I think a lot of people share his interest in looking at his own language more deeply, because language fascinates us as humans. (Again, I’m grateful for him being fascinated and generous.) Somehow we let our emotions and thoughts be known, connect with others, make plans, relate the past—all without ever having to think about the actual tool we’re using. I often listen to the podcast “Lexicon Valley,” and its explorations into the minutia of language structure, English usage, and the history of words, prove to me that a lot of people think about such issues during their leisure time. So my Somali friend was willing to offer his lunch time to me!
Finally, we got to talk about dialects and politics. I learned that many Minnesota institutions of Somali culture are somewhat segregated by region and clan. So you will tend to hear only one dialect in a given coffee shop, for example. I don’t think it causes real problems, but I know that some tensions exist here, far away from the Horn of Africa.