I get shy sometimes. Some days I hear one of my languages and I jump right in. Other times, I find it hard to insert myself through the awkwardness into a potential conversation.
With Somali I have to count on conversations with people. I have not found many materials, plus I’m getting past the stage where materials help me that much. Now I just have to talk to people. I went to one of my favorite Somali cafes today for conversation.
As eager as I was to talk, I was silent, bashful. When I ordered my food, the gentleman told me to sit and he would bring me my food. I was too shy to sit. “Where do you want to sit?” he said, food in hand. I shrugged.
“Sit here!” He set down my food next to a man about my age in a room of folks involved in a football (soccer) match.
I had to figure out something, or waste my practice visit.
What should I say?
The main thing I learned that day was always have a purpose for the conversation. Consider before you leave the house what you will do if you hear your language.
Here are 5 ways you can be sure you don’t waste an opportunity to practice your language if you hear it being spoken.
- Be sure to greet folks. When you say hello in the language, you will already start getting folks’ attention. Granted, as a white person speaking Somali, I grab more attention than if I greet folks in, say, German, but even “Guten Tag” will turn heads if you say it to Germans in the US. Think about what you’ll want to say next…
- Pick out a few new phrases to try. Think ahead of time what you might want to practice. Pick out some phrases—write them out if you want—and start saying them. For example, if you’re working on the weather, you can start a conversation with, “It is very cold out” (if you live in Minnesota). If you’re working on family members, say, “Do you have children? I have two daughters.” I will often ask people how long they have lived in the US to practice my numbers.
- Learn new vocabulary words. Are there some words that have been getting in your way? Ask for help. “Excuse me, how do you say ‘immigration’ in Somali?” Or, “I’m trying to translate. What does this sentence mean?” I used this when I saw a sign in Somali that I wanted to understand better.
- Ask about what’s going on in the moment. If you are in a restaurant, you can ask, “What is your favorite food?” If you really want to make friends, say, “I love Somali food!” If you’re at a shop you can ask, “What do Somali people buy?” In my case, I was among the men watching football (which is standard). I asked my neighbor, “Who do you like?” (He was an Arsenal fan.)
- Find out about how to learn more. You can always say, “I’m trying to learn your language,” and maybe add, “Do you know who can help me?” They may have a friend or a cousin, or even volunteer to help you on the spot. Who doesn’t want to feel useful when an easy opportunity to help arises?
You don’t have to have a great reason, just a reason, so don’t over-think. These ideas get the conversation started. Keeping the ball rolling usually requires much less work.