“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.”
While this Somali refugee does not feel close to the majority of the Minnesotans he meets, he intimately knows those from the Somali diaspora communities across the US—which he lists: Minnesota, Seattle, Ohio, Virginia. History, culture, and language allow him to relate to other Somalis wherever they are in America, while he does not feel close to those who live in the same city as him.
I learn Somali to connect through these conversations. As Mohammed feels close to me when I speak Somali, I feel close to him. Learning Somali and seeking out people to talk with fulfill a personal longing to feel connected.
Mohammed helped me along with my Somali. “Tag midig,” he said when I told him to turn right. When I went to pay, he pointed at the blank line at the bottom of my receipt: “Saxiix, signature.”
At one point he joked, “When people ask you why you’re learning Somali, you tell them Maan jaajuus ihi ‘I am not a spy.’”
After my ride (lesson?) he handed me a sticky note on which he had written out the new vocabulary we had covered—an encouragement to keep working.
I am an ecolinguist because I want my work to preserve the complexity of our world’s language and culture ecosystem. How do you create a strong community made up of hardened, poor refugees and rich, privileged natives? The privileged must work hard to create new connections. In middle school, the band geek or math nerd can’t simply decide to enter the “cool crowd.” Only those with strong social capital can invite in those on the outside.
The strength of our communities depends on the decisions of the privileged and the powerful. When insiders opt to forgo their comfort to commune with those who go without, they unite communities who would be isolated. When a well-educated privileged professional chooses to learn a language, for example, he forgoes his advantage in communicating in way where he feels most comfortable. The white Minnesotan, speaking elementary, broken Somali, puts the outsider, the refugee, in the position of power. Struggling to learn this difficult language allows new connections to grow.
Are you willing to use the privilege you possess—however great or small—to benefit your community?