When language love gets hard

Sometimes, they get weird when you talk to them. What do you do then?
Sometimes, they get weird when you talk to them. What do you do then?

I love walking through the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis. It holds the largest concentration of Somalis in the US. You see Somalis everywhere, smell the amazing blend of spices coming from apartment windows, and hear the beautiful language.

So I take the opportunity to speak at least a little Somali as I walk through the neighborhood. My Somali is still not very strong, but I know how to greet and meet people. As an ecolinguist I love to make connections with people from different cultures, and Somalis are open and easy to talk to.

Along the way I saw a young man, sitting by himself, and I said hello.

Maalin wanaagsan! Nabad? “Good afternoon! How’s it going?”

It got pretty awkward after that as I learned what it really means to connect with a community—every side of it.

We introduced ourselves each other, Cabdulkariim and I. (Unfortunately, I forgot his actual name, but I’ll call him Cabdulkariim.) He reacted strangely next, as he continued the conversation in English.

“I’m not bullsh***ing you!” and handed me a paper.

“Are you a cop?” he continued as I unfolded the paper. It was the papers served him for an arrest warrant. This was already really weird.

“I wanted to be a cop,” he said. I noticed at this point his missing hand, and I imagined this would have been an impediment to working in law-enforcement. “But it didn’t work out.”

“That’s too bad,” I said. This was way more information than I was expecting at this point. I was uncomfortable.

“See these big apartments? The towers? I used to live there,” he said. He went on to tell me how greedy the landlord was.

“Well, nice to meet you!” I tried to separate myself from the conversation.

“Yeah, nice to meet you…hold on! Come back!”

“Sure. What’s up?”

He went on. His wife told him he shouldn’t start drinking. When she started complaining, his landlord got wind of it, and they got kicked out. My new friend began an ugly invective filled with f-bombs against his wife. Now I really felt uncomfortable, even worried.

“Sorry to hear it,” I said. “Nice to meet you!”

“Yeah, nice to meet you…hold on! Come back!”


More invective, more accusations as he stared out into space. A sob story. A pity-party. Everyone is against him.

“Sorry, man. I gotta go.”


“Sorry. Gotta go. Nabad gelyo!

I left.

* * *

If I want to connect with a community at home, men like Cabdulkariim are a part of it. I do not have the luxury of only including folks I want. The community includes great people that make me feel good, and others who are draining and depressing.

True language love connects me with all of them: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Sometimes my languages bring me in contact with people I would normally avoid, and some for good reason. Of course, I want to protect myself from actual harm, but not necessarily from discomfort. When it comes to language and power dynamics, though, hard situations will inevitably arise.

Recently I spoke to someone who works with public school language programs. She is an immigrant to the US and a person of color. When she spoke with teachers who want to help revitalize indigenous languages, and offered an expert to aid to update their curriculum, she was rebuffed with hostility. The aid was from a white woman, and the indigenous person did not want white people to tell him how to teach.

When I was in Denver many years ago, I went to a cafe and heard our waitress speak Arabic with a clear Moroccan accent. I started speaking to her in Moroccan Arabic. For some reason, I spooked her. She called me a “Jew” in a very unfriendly voice, and shortly after told me that they were closing—effectively kicking me and my friends out, while a group of young Egyptians continued to sit at another table by the door.

Power dynamics exist. When I, as a white man with privilege and interests in language, enter the situation, I can easily touch those third rails and raise some sparks. Most people are friendly. Some get very excited. A few get angry.

I can’t assume that people will welcome my gesture to connect with them, but I can’t avoid trying to reach out. Sometimes I get into awkward conversations. Others are actually hostile. I can’t let them dictate how I will interact with other communities.

A lot of people say they “love” the culture of such-and-such a people or language. Do they really? What do they do when those individuals openly reject them? Are they willing to accept that they, too, are part of this culture that they love?

Have you been openly rejected when learning a language? How did you continue on with your language-study and interactions?

Photo via kurayba/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)


5 thoughts on “When language love gets hard

  1. Ah, the flip side of the coin… very interesting!

    It gets even more complicated for women. I’d not be inclined to speak to a random guy in the street for language practice. We tend to ask ourselves… could this bring problems?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Likewise, I tend not to talk to random women on the street. But I would think if women were to chat with random women, one would have the occasional bad interaction–surrounded by many generally pleasant ones. Do you practice your languages with random women?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It probably depends on the language, too. Somalis and East Africans in general are very open with each other. They stare, say hello, etc with everyone. At the grocery store Saturday, I was asking the Somalis behind me to remind me how to say “pumpkin.” They started talking me how they cook pumpkin in Africa. That’s more normal.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yesterday in London I was speaking to a cafe owner in Italian and we were building a rapport. Then when he said one of his workers doesn’t speak Italian and that she’s Polish, I used a couple of words of Polish with her. The cafe owner said he couldn’t trust people who speak several languages.

    Liked by 1 person

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