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.
Help my children’s brain
Neuroscientists continue to demonstrate the advantages of fluency in multiple languages. Multilingual children can process information more efficiently, multilingual adults can multitask better, and elderly multilinguals show a lower rate of Alzheimer’s disease. Our brain works better with more languages as our body works better with daily exercise.
Unfortunately, American culture does not possess effective language-teaching institutions. Our school systems do not create actual bilinguals. They put knowledge in a child’s mind that they do not use. The lack of a community in which to speak that language prevents true proficiency. When I learned French in middle school, I never spoke to a native French speaker in over two years, and in that first conversation, I could not uphold my end; my hundreds of hours of classroom instruction were truly academic. Without immersion in a community, I did not learn the language.
In the Twin Cities Somali is a much more practical language than my middle-school French, one that students could actually learn fluently. My children would not have to wait two years to carry on a conversation, only ten minutes—the amount of time it would take to drive to a community of hundreds of Somali-speakers. Their brains would enjoy the cognitive advantages of bilingualism very quickly.
Bringing communities together
Clear tensions exist between white and Somali communities in the Twin Cities. (Tensions also exist between Somali- and African-American communities, but because my children are white, I will leave that discussion to someone more intimately involved.) Even though Minnesota invited Somali refugees to come live here and pledged to support them, many residents of our state mock them for their differences in language, religion, and culture.
Objectively, cultural difference offers multiple advantages. Tension arises from the impulse to demean differences and assume that they are bad. In fact, cultural variety offers strong advantages to businesses and society overall. Only someone who can see the good in difference, who knows how to live in the tension, can make the connections among people necessary to overcome this rift.
Yet people’s attitudes generally will not change because of “societal good,” but rather because of personal relationships. Hate and anger against other languages and traditions arise because of a lack of love and respect for those from another group. The love and respect that come from mutual friendship bridge the gap between people.
I want my children to navigate cultural difference without fear but with respect, and learning Somali will put them precisely in this position. Learning Somali would force them to build relationships with these “others” and so to observe differences in the context of beloved and respected brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts. I hope that their children will live in a Twin Cities where differences flourish among trusted friends.
A “Nation of Poets”
The foundations of Somali culture in its language will deepen my children’s insight into the beauty of poetry as the backbone of community. Somali has always been a “nation of poets,” as listening to, composing, and reciting poetry from memory forms the backbone of Somali self-understanding and communal life. Dr. Said Samatar, Professor of History at Rutgers university stated it this way:
Poetry is the vehicle by which Somalis ask the three eternal questions: Where do I come from? Who am I? And where do I go from here? Somali poetry is not art for art’s sake. In the West poetry is purely aesthetic but in Somalia, it’s always art for a cause. If you translate and chant Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ to a Somali audience they would ask what the poet’s motivation was, what point he was trying to make. Somali poetry is didactic, not purely aesthetic. (From “Somalia is a ‘nation of poets’”)
My kids, like typical Americans, consume entertainment. Music and poetry exist for fleeting, emotional enjoyment. As is happening more and more in our country, they consume it isolated by themselves, glued to a screen. In their world of isolation and entertainment consumerism, my children need to see that masterful, beautiful use of language enriches the individual and the community at the same time.
An anglophone might say, “Let them read Shakespeare or Wordsworth. They are sophisticated and beautiful. Why do kids need to learn another language to read poetry?” First, Somali poetry lacks nothing in technical or structural sophistication compared to these anglophone poets. Second, Somali poetry elicits interactions with listeners (rather than readers) in a unique way. As Dr. Samatar wrote, the world of Somali poetry engages listeners—groups at a time—on an intellectual and moral level, as well as aesthetically. But my kids need the language to hear the beautiful poetry of our Somali brothers and sisters so that it can help grow their hearts and spirits, as well as their minds.
Who will teach them?
Why does our society discourage language-learning on every level? Of course, we give lip-service to knowing other languages, but no one seriously believes knowledge of a language besides English offers an advantage in American society. Language is like calculus: great, if you’re into that kind of thing, but how often are you really going to use it?
My kids have Somali classmates at school, but no one encourages speaking Somali there. Somali children do not speak Somali to one another, and the non-Somalis—whether students, teachers, or administration—have no interest in the language. I understand that English is necessary for basic necessities in the US, but the loss of Somali language in Minnesota will impoverish us all.
I want my children to learn Somali from their neighbors.
I want them to hear Somali spoken in the halls at school.
“Warya kalay! Hey, come here!”
“I’m coming wallahi!”
I want the Somali parents at school events to greet my children.
“Is ka warran?”
“I’m good, adeer. Adiguna? And you?”
Who will teach my children Somali? I want my children to learn from the Somali community, to benefit from the knowledge and wisdom that their neighbors bear. I want them to expand their minds and hearts and spirits.
Who will teach them?