Can the airport stay multilingual?

Airports are great for languages. How do we use them to teach?
I recently blogged about traveling through the Denver airport, and the languages that I saw there. Last week I had a different experience at my own local airport, MSP, Minnesota-St Paul. I spoke Somali, Oromo, and Amharic, while I heard a family conversation in Russian and a few phrases of Turkish. An international airport is a treasure-hunt and a paradise for language-lovers.

The airline was sending everyone through the kiosks, so an employee was helping folks get through the check-in process. I noticed the member of a Somali family come through. Sure enough, the airline employee was Somali, and helped the woman through the whole process in Somali. When it was my turn, the same man helped me in English, but we spoke some Somali, too.

When I got to the counter to drop my bags, I found that the gentleman was Oromo, so we got to speak a little Oromo. He was a quiet man, so we didn’t speak much, but I was able to cycle through my pleasantries.

Once we got through security, we went for a sandwich. I used to go to the Subway sandwich shope with the Amharic-speaking Ethiopians, but that shop isn’t around any more. I got a sandwich at another shop, and the cashier spoke Amharic. Again, I got to cycle through my pleasantries, but this time she added on another phrase. “Do you know how to say, ‘Have a nice day?'” she asked.

“No. Tell me!” I eagerly responded.


I had a problem with the two “k”‘s. (Technically speaking, the first has normal aspiration, while the second is ejective.) My new teacher helped straighten me out, and I managed to get it before I held up the line too badly.

I wasn’t the only one paying attention.

As we were leaving, my daughter noticed, “Wow, Dad! Your ‘k”s were really ‘k’-y.” So we had a conversation about aspiration and ejective consonants. She managed to pronounce them correctly (at least according to my ear). Ejective consonants led to more discussion about the Caucasus and their ejective consonants. Then we wandered back into the relationship among Amharic, Somali, Oromo, and Arabic.

Look what happens when we learn to speak a few words of the languages around us. We speak a little; we learn constantly. Our children can’t help but begin to ask questions, and they learn a few words.

I’m trying to give my kids an ear to hear the languages that surround us. I translated for them the Russian conversation I overheard while we were waiting to board. They hear and recognize the major East African languages in our area. I need to be sure that they can at least say the pleasantries that I know.

Oddly, though, my daughters speak to more Ethiopian and Somali people on a daily basis than I do. Their school is full of kids, born here and abroad, who speak and understand multiple languages. I make the effort, and effort alone distinguishes what little I know from the negligible amount that they know. No one on either side of the language divide at school values teaching any of these languages.

Let’s tune our children’s ears to the languages they hear. Let’s go to public areas where they can hear languages, and let’s engage the speakers there. Let’s work to make more spaces multilingual.

How do you engage the languages around you?

Photo credit: dragunsk via / CC BY

2 thoughts on “Can the airport stay multilingual?

  1. Rachel

    Interesting. I’ve always liked listening out for languages and trying to identify them, but I remember once in Singapore – a hotspot for hearing dozens of languages on the street – when I was about ten or twelve turning to my parents and going, “That lady’s speaking (language)!” I can’t even remember which language it was, but they bent close to me, “Shh! That’s rude! Don’t listen in to other people!”

    It’s a different mentality.

    Liked by 1 person

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