Struggling to connect with language love

10-year old camel herder: how do you do that in Minnesota?
10-year old camel herder: how do you do that in Minnesota?

The last couple of Fridays I’ve been listening wrapt to stories of life in Oromiya, in rural Ethiopia. So many differences from our urban life in the US.

What happens if a woman is past her “youth” but still wants to get married? She leaves her house with a traditional jug on her back full of milk and goes to her suitor’s house.

What is leadership? You may have a strong leader among your cattle, in which case the rest of the cattle will follow all over the place, even through fences. Without a strong leader, all the cows will go here and there, but not very far.

What happens if Oromo folks come to your house, but speak a distant dialect? If you went to school in town, then you learned different dialects from your friends. You can help translate for everyone.

What happens if you leave all of that and move to Minnesota for the rest of your life? You don’t talk about those stories very much…

Immigration consists of heart-wrenching loss, where you may have to limp through the rest of your life. It feels like you are missing a limb. Maybe it’s like Edward Scissorhands, who has fingers, but not the right kind of fingers. You may discover they are useful for some things, but they just don’t work for “normal,” everyday activities.

Because I’ve heard the discussion of immigration take such a nasty turn since 9/11, I want to express some of the losses that immigrants experience—and how I learn from them.

We all grow up in a world that makes sense to us because our sense of “normal” develops as we grow. Our family and community who take care of us teach us values and practices: how to greet, how to get what we need, how to apologize, how to share, how to protect ourselves, how to tell the truth, how to lie. Even a child that grows up with mentally ill or alcoholic parents learns how to live in that life as “normal.” Early life gives us the meter for gauging the behavior of ourselves and of others we see throughout our lives.

Language inherently fits in that mechanism. All the abstract methods of politeness, respect, and negotiation are conveyed to us about language using language. Every American child knows that the answer to “What do you say?” is “Please,” and parents are teaching not only a word but a way to get what you want by “softening” the emotions of the demand.

Moving these norms from one society to another does not fit. I have a good friend from Israel who lived in the US since grade school. When he went back to visit relatives in Israel, he was on his best behavior, so he made sure to say bevakeshah (“please” in Hebrew) all the time. His relatives couldn’t stop laughing. They mocked him mercilessly by adding a bevakeshah and a smirk to everything they said. US manners don’t work in Israel.

His first language was Hebrew. His parents were born in Israel. Yet he still had a hard time transferring his manners. Imagine what it is like for the Oromo or Somali in Minnesota!

The basic tenets of Somali wisdom, like you see among the Oromo, assume a knowledge of rural life. For example, a whole genre of Somali poetry praises the beauty and utility of camels.

When you come to the US from Somalia or Oromiya, your frame of reference does not change, but your daily life does. Instead of a milk jug, a woman leaves home with a U-Haul. A camel no longer carries your things or provides your necessities; now you have a shopping-cart and Walmart.

The immigrant must struggle to bring their stories, wisdom, and experience to bear on a child going to basketball camp or on a credit card. Well-meaning state agencies teach “child-rearing” to people who grew up joyfully among 20 children and multiple fathers, mothers, aunts, and uncles, not always clear on the precise relationships, and “financial literacy” to people who have been entrepreneurs for generations. These individuals possess invaluable skills, knowledge, motivation, and wisdom, but they are locked away in another language, in another frame of reference. State programs may or may not be able to help the transition.

We who love languages have a duty to learn their language and their frame of reference. Of course, they will know ours better than we will ever learn theirs. We offer them, however, a way for them to unlock their stories and wisdom in ways that they can’t otherwise.

I cherish the meetings I have with my Oromo teachers. I learn not only the language, but stories and a way of life that I could never discover on my own. I connect with them in their humanity, as they want to express it, to someone from the outside.

How do you connect with immigrants? As an immigrant, how do you translate your experience into your new home?

Photo credit: UNICEF Ethiopia via / CC BY-NC-ND


3 thoughts on “Struggling to connect with language love

  1. Pingback: Peace comes from speaking another language…or does it? – Loving Language

  2. Pingback: Translating Wisdom Through Context – Habesha LA

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