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.

First, let me describe falling flat on my Somali-speaking face a couple weeks ago. My friend and I were together at a picnic, where he met some Somalis. He bragged about how well I knew Somali, and so his new acquaintances asked me one question.

I had no idea what they were saying.

They translated for me immediately, “Where were you born?” I tried to answer in Somali, and bungled it. My face felt hot—anxiety—but I managed to change the subject and to speak further in English.

I couldn’t let that stop me the next time.

When I spoke Somali this week, even just to order breakfast, people were happy. Many people have language anxiety, worried that they will sound stupid or speak wrong. I guarantee you, I fulfilled both of those, stammering until I could get a single sentence out, which was grammatically incorrect anyway. When I was actually speaking, everyone was enjoying themselves.

I think it was a great success!

My wife went out of town this weekend, so when I’m in charge Saturday morning, I get what my household calls “Somali breakfast”: sambusas and sweet, milky Somali tea. I went to a new place that I had seen, but hadn’t tried. I entered, but only one person was inside, a worker. I greeted him and told him I wanted 10 sambusas. I only spoke Somali to him—no English—which I think left him a little confused. He decided to speak Somali back to me, and I was grateful. It ended up that they only had one left; they didn’t have 10 ready, so the young man directed me to the cafe across the street.

The conversation turned to a common question: How do you speak Somali? (I don’t know the exact question in Somali, but I get it every time I speak.) We had a pleasant, albeit short, conversation before I headed across the street.

While I love grammar, I learned today that it is secondary: vocabulary is king. One- and two-word sentences will get you through good portions of a conversation. For example:

I want sambusa. 10. Meat and fish. 5 meat and 5 fish. Is there? And tea. I want tea. Somali tea.

I speak Somali. A little. How? I have my friend and a book. Why? Somali is nice. I live in Minnesota.

See? That worked, didn’t it? It’s not Shakespeare—more like a precocious 3-year old.

I continued to the cafe across the street, where I had visited before. The gentleman working at the counter seemed like he may have recognized me. (There may be a half-dozen white Somali-speakers in Minneapolis.) I continuously used my newly-acquired term of address for older people, Adeer “Uncle,” but otherwise I had the same conversation as in the other restaurant, other than some confusion over whether I wanted chicken sambusas. The conversation, while full of flaws, went perfectly.

On Thursday evening, I got to have a conversation with another gentleman. I got to speak a little more in detail about my Somali: “my friend from work,” “my teacher in London.”

You know what? He asked where I was born. And I told him—mistakes and all—Waxaan ku dhashay magaalada Lincoln, Nebraska. I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. I was completely prepared for that question, thanks to my anxiety-ridden surprise a couple weeks ago.

Anxiety taught me. I learned something new, and I got to use it. I couldn’t form sentences well, so I spoke in choppy word-clusters.

I had a great time!

Have you experienced language anxiety? How did you get over it? Did it inspire you? Did language-anxiety ever end a language for you?

Photo credit: Zavarykin Sergey / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

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5 thoughts on “Learning from anxiety: Waxaan ku hadlay maanta afka soomaaliga! I spoke Somali today!

  1. Maurice

    Now, this is something I can relate to. I’ve found that your language anxiety is decreased in direct proportion to the amount of bilingual speakers you have with you that come from the same background as yourself, so ultimately, learning a language with a friend makes it easier to build confidence.

    Thank you for the wonderful article. As I’m learning Japanese at the moment, you have reminded me of something important to remember.

    Liked by 1 person

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