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.
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!