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.
Loving language when it’s awkward

Preserving Somali in Minnesota

How will we nurture the languages of the next generation?
How will we nurture the languages of the next generation?

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.
Local efforts

I saw language loss happen

Every language in the US is on the verge of death. How do you give it life?
Every language in the US is on the verge of death. How do you give it life?

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.
Language death

Language of terror vs loving language

Listen--let him tell his story
Listen–let him tell his story

When I go to Cedar Riverside, a neighborhood of Minneapolis, to practice my Somali language, the streets are full of Somali people in the many shops and cafes. Sometimes I find that people will not respond to me in Somali—only in English. I long for someone who cannot speak English so that I can have a conversation in Somali, but I have only ever found a couple.

Now the news is coming to Cedar-Riverside, the biggest concentration of Somalis, and where I happen to go for my weekly Oromo study group. Here is a video of Fox News correspondent, Pete Hegseth, unsuccessfully trying to interview folks on the street.

The reporter claims that he could not find someone who could speak English.

Ha! Not what I’ve seen! Unlike the correspondent at Fox News, no one ever refused to talk to me. But I could never find these monolingual Somali speakers. Was it something he said?
Talk to immigrants

I’m against assimilation: Teachings from Africa

What are you learning from each other?
What are you learning from each other?

Why am I against assimilation? If the African immigrants had “fit in” to the norm here in Minnesota, they could not have taught me many valuable lessons. And if it wasn’t for pursuing their non-English languages, I may not have met as many of these wise people.

I’ve learned a lot from my African neighbors in the Twin Cities

Staring is perfectly acceptable.

Everything starts with networking.

If you want to get to know someone, ask them questions about themselves.

These are a couple of items I’ve learned from East African friends. They’re sinking more deeply into my thinking as I see them in action all around me. For example,

Staring is perfectly acceptable. If I want to know if someone is from Africa, I look a little longer at the person than I would at a white Minnesotan. If the person looks back at me or smiles, the person is likely African.

Everything starts with networking. If I friend an Ethiopian or Somali on Facebook, I know that five people will request to be my friend shortly after. Every time I look for news about Somalis, I learn about another community organizer. I learned that if you ever need to get in contact with a given Somali person, ask a room of 50 Somalis—someone will have that person in their phone.

I’ve learned from my African neighbors that neighbors should not be feared but embraced. Barriers provide only so much usefulness. I love interacting with them.

If you want to get to know someone, ask them questions about themselves. Here’s a great example of what I learned last week.
What I learned

Loving language confusion: Disrupting expectations

Who speaks what language can be confusing.
Who speaks what language can be confusing.

Today an Ethiopian-American friend came to visit. Since he wanted to experience something uniquely Minnesotan, we went to Karmel Mall, the premium Somali Mall in the Twin Cities and the whole Midwest US. If I want to have my Somali tea while immersed in Somali culture, this is where I go.

We managed to confuse the restaurant workers a bit. I greeted them and placed my order—all in Somali. They looked at me a little funny—not unusual. More confusion

How did so many Somalis end up in Minnesota?

Learn more about Somali by visiting La Polyglotte on Facebook!
Learn more about Somali by visiting La Polyglotte on Facebook!

This post continues “Somali Language Week” series at La Polyglotte. Be sure to “Like” her page there! And find great videos about African languages at her YouTube page.

The first immigrants to Minnesota came from Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Think of the Wilders of Little House on the Prairie. They farmed in difficult conditions in the Old Country, and came to a familiar-feeling land: Minnesota.

But Sweden is a long way from the Horn of Africa.

A lot of people ask me why so many Somalis move from a land of sun, sea, and camels, to one of snow, ice, and blizzards. What is their story here?
How Minnesota became home

The best school for polyglots

Students at the Wellstone Int'l High School (from their website)
Students at the Wellstone Int’l High School (from their website)

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Wellstone International High School, the coolest, most exciting high school I’ve ever seen, of whose students I will remain eternally jealous. I heard multiple languages as I was shown the school, and had the chance to speak Somali, Spanish, and Arabic—but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to speak French with the Haitian student.

As I was leaving, a retired teacher said to me, “I envy you.” I replied to him, “You envy me?! You got to come here for work! This is the best place to work I’ve ever seen!” The school sets the standard for what global education can and should be.
The best global education

Actual Fluency interview: Positive impact of learning pt. 1

Kris Broholm, the host of "Actual Fluency"
Kris Broholm, the host of “Actual Fluency”

A couple months ago, I was invited to an interview with Kris Broholm of the Actual Fluency podcast. I enjoy Kris’s work, as he fell in love with languages during a difficult period in his life. When I met him at the Polyglot Conference, we got to talk about how learning languages helped him with his depression.

In part 1 of this interview, I discuss my background in languages and my interest in connecting with immigrants through languages.

Learning Somali: Interview with Loving Language at la Polyglotte

My friend, la Polyglotte
My friend, la Polyglotte

My friend at “La polyglotte” did an interview with me recently that I thought I’d share with you. It’s called, “The community at the heart of learning.” In it I discuss my background in languages, and my current process in learning Somali.

I’m proud to say that I did the interview completely in French. It was the first time I spoke French publicly, that is, outside of a simple conversation, since high school.

The “Polyglotte” is a fascinating woman, whom I met at the Polyglot Conference in NYC back in October. She comes from Paris, and her parents from Senegal. She advocates for the importance of African languages, so we’re kindred spirits in this way. These languages often get left out even in polyglot circles, since most polyglots focus on European and East Asian languages. But now that people see more economic and personal opportunities in Africa, interest in the continent’s languages is on the rise.