I can see language loss happening under my nose. It’s a process that takes years, but when you see it, you despair for the health of a language.
This week I took my kids to get yogurt, and the young cashier was Somali-American. She had an American look to her, even though she wore a hijab. My daughter thought she might go to her school. I greeted her in Somali.
Maalin wanaagsan! “Good day!”
She gave me a blank look.
That’s when I saw it happen.
Maad ku hadashaa afka soomaaliga? “Do you speak Somali?”
She looked at me and nodded.
Wax yaar? “Just a little bit?”
“I wasn’t expecting you to speak Somali,” she smiled.
I asked her some questions about the upcoming Eid el-Fitr. She spoke in unaccented English, like any cashier at the yogurt shop. I paid and we headed out.
Salaamu aleykum! she said. Waa alaykum salaam! I responded.
She did not react like other Somalis. I don’t want to over-sell my Somali-speaking abilities, but I never get a blank look. Either someone understands and smiles, or doesn’t understand and screws up their face like they’re trying to understand. One old woman was shocked, and just mumbled in Somali, “You surprised me!”
It wasn’t because she’s a teenager and I’m an adult. I’ve spoken to teenaged Somalis who came here from Somalia, and they reacted like the adults.
Her environment made her this way because of two likely reasons:
- She doesn’t have to speak Somali to her parents. They can speak to her in Somali, but she can respond in English.
- She never speaks Somali in public. Her parents hang out with their friends and speak Somali, she hangs out with her friends and speaks English. She works at the yogurt shop and goes to school and speaks 100% English.
Her likely multilingual parents did not pass along their multilingualism. The US ended it. She speaks only English at home and in public.
This is what language-loss looks like. It doesn’t have to happen in an Indonesian forest or African village. The dynamics are hard at work in the suburbs of Minnesota, as well.
The pressures come from our Minnesota society. The “mono cropping” of English in the US removes the space for any other language to survive. If your language is not the “cash crop” of choice, that is, it isn’t a language for doing business and getting rich, it is of no use and the system will eliminate it.
We can destroy Somali culture with several of the weapons we are already using. We shame blacks, and especially Africans, through condescension, acting as if they need us more than we need them. We fear and fight against Islam. Then add the ignorance and laziness we accuse non-English speaking immigrants of, and we can guarantee Somali kids face mountains of shame once they reach school.
In this way, we’ve stigmatized acting Somali and speaking a language other than English. No space exists for speaking other languages in the school.
What would motivate a young person to continue speaking their parents’ language? Even in a community as large as the Somalis, young people have few people they can speak the language with—assuming they felt safe enough in the environment, that no one would comment on or judge them.
It’s better to just speak English. It’s practical; you can speak to anyone. It’s safe; you don’t have to justify it.
This example covers Somalis in Minnesota, but the same applies to Hispanics in Arizona, Arabic-speakers in New York, and Menominee in Wisconsin. American culture sucks the oxygen out of languages through suspicion and shame. This is not language murder, as was commited in the past, but creating conditions for suffocation.
We must find ways to give life to these languages. I want an America where the cashier at the yogurt shop addresses me in Somali, under the future reasonable assumption that everyone in the Twin Cities would learn the languages of their neighbors and give them life.