Languages don’t require a book to learn. They only require a community. Books help when you don’t have people around, but when you meet people who speak your language, make the most of the encounter. Introduce yourself, tell them how much you love their language, and see if they can help you advance.
Let me explain how I learn Somali in Minnesota. Realize that I don’t live close to a Somali community, that is, I don’t run into Somalis on a daily basis. I have to drive intentionally to where I know Somalis frequent.
Memorization lies at the foundation of my Somali work. I read some books and articles just to glean vocabulary—individual words and phrases. I put them into my Anki deck, and I go through my deck every day at about 5am. I do it at that time because the day gets too busy otherwise and I forget.
When I get into Minneapolis, where the largest concentration of Somalis live, I take advantage of my visit.
Somali by rail
A few weeks ago I was giving a talk at a conference at the University of Minnesota—across the street from the main Somali neighborhood. Since I had to leave for the airport directly from the conference, I took public transportation—fortunately for my Somali education.
At the light rail stop, I walked up and down, looking for a unsuspecting “teacher.” I found a young man and said, Miyaad hadashaa afka soomaaliga? “Do you speak Somali?” He—with a surprised look—confirmed my hope: indeed, he spoke Somali.
With even more luck, I found out that he worked at the airport, so we would be taking the whole trip together.
I started grilling him for information, and I took notes. I asked him the things that keep coming up in conversation:
- Where do you know Somali from?
- I learned from a book.
- Do you speak Somali?
- Right now I only know a little.
- I used to live (in Seattle).
And he helped answer my questions.
We eventually arrived at the airport. He went to work and I left to prepare my new phrases so I could study on the plane. I am so grateful to this stranger who was willing to help me!