When we think of preserving language, we think of the last speakers of the language. But the dynamics of language loss happens in every country, all of the time.
For example, tens of thousands of people speak Somali in Minnesota, and millions more in Somali and other diaspora communities. Somali will not die any time soon.
Yet we can see that Somali is dying in Minnesota. Tens of thousands will become thousands, which will become hundreds, in just a few generations.
The same dynamics that are choking off Somali are killing Lakota and Navajo. People do not speak them in their daily business outside the house. Their use is largely confined to the kitchen table. Ironically, the mayor of Mogadishu recently declared that foreign languages are “killing” Somali culture and must be expunged from signage. Too bad he doesn’t see what that attitude does to languages here.
Some efforts exist to keep the language going. Frankly, though, they do not look like enough to me. Many language-focused programs are aimed at new immigrants—more for integrating them into the English-speaking world and less for making sure Somali isn’t lost.
We can hear the concern from the community. In a Minnesota Historical society oral history, Abdisalam Adam lamented how his multilingual Somali people came to the US, only to lose their multilingual heritage. It was normal to know Somalis who spoke Italian, Arabic, and Swahili, in addition to English, but now many of the kids don’t speak good Somali. These Somalis will become monolingual in this country.
One non-profit organization bridges the gap for small children. The Minnesota Humanities Center published bilingual kids books so that parents can connect with their kids in their language. The publishers made a huge effort to make recordings of an adult reading the book in both Somali and English. One of the books is being used in a bilingual class in an innovative program for new Somali immigrants called, NABAD, an acronym and also the Somali word for “peace.”
Older kids can take Somali at one school. A high school in Minneapolis teaches Somali to (mostly) heritage speakers. this article cites some of the students’ reasons for taking the class, including the inability to communicate well with their own parents. “I miscommunicate with my parents sometimes we don’t understand each other,” junior Ayub Mohamed said.
One group is preserving the Somali language in Australia by developing this Somali-English dictionary app. This allows native speakers to preserve words for the next generation, and weaker and heritage speakers can look up words that slip their minds.
I wonder what more can be done. I despair a lot that I will see Somali disappear in my city.