Getting to know me: Entering the Somali community

How do I become one of the guys? Is it even possible?
How do I become one of the guys? Is it even possible?

Iska warran? “How are you?” he said as I entered the cafe.
Nabad! Maxaad sheegtay? “Good! How are you?” I responded.

This was the first time a Somali person initiated a conversation with me in Somali. I was shocked. Did I know this man? Had I chatted with him before at the cafe?

Since he was on his way out, I didn’t have a chance to chat further with him, but it made me think, Did my reputation precede me? Am I starting to become a part of something? Maybe I’m “that white guy who comes here speaking Somali.” I’m becoming someone in this part of the Somali world—but who am I becoming?
Feeling visible


5 ways to overcome fear and awkwardness in language learning OR How to talk to strangers

Don't just listen! Break the ice and start talking.
Don’t just listen! Break the ice and start talking.

I get shy sometimes. Some days I hear one of my languages and I jump right in. Other times, I find it hard to insert myself through the awkwardness into a potential conversation.

With Somali I have to count on conversations with people. I have not found many materials, plus I’m getting past the stage where materials help me that much. Now I just have to talk to people. I went to one of my favorite Somali cafes today for conversation.

As eager as I was to talk, I was silent, bashful. When I ordered my food, the gentleman told me to sit and he would bring me my food. I was too shy to sit. “Where do you want to sit?” he said, food in hand. I shrugged.

“Sit here!” He set down my food next to a man about my age in a room of folks involved in a football (soccer) match.

I had to figure out something, or waste my practice visit.

What should I say?
How I overcame the awkwardness

Polyglot questions: How do we use languages for good?

Nothing beats deep conversations with polyglots!
Nothing beats deep conversations with polyglots!

During my short two days at the Polyglot Conference in NYC (in the midst of my public speaking tour), I spent much of the time chatting with people. Since my talk concerned how to use this talent/hobby/obsession of ours for bettering our community, my fellow polyglots offered their own ideas on this topic. We can use languages to help international aid and speakers of rare—or just less well-known—languages, as well as ourselves.

Here are ten people, in alphabetical order, who offered me some ideas and questions that enriched my thinking.

I recommend you stop by their web page and/or Twitter feed. Please stop by! When you visit them, please say hello from me! Let’s keep the conversation going.
Some important food for thought

Week 9 of Loving Somali: Language love to my rescue

A simple chat with a stranger saved me this week!
A simple chat with a stranger saved me this week!

Without my languages I feel anxious and unfulfilled. While I don’t have a lot of time for Somali, I feel the need every day to work on my language, even if it’s five minutes of Anki flash cards or four minutes scanning BBC Somali headlines of which I may only grasp a few words.

Fortunately, I found a Somali teacher who will work with me over Skype. He is very knowledgable about the Somali language, and he has experience teaching foreigners. I am very grateful that he is willing to work with me. Part of me still asks: Will this sustain my language love? Will Skype provide the connection I need?

This week, language love came to my rescue and brought me joy in a moment of stress and anxiety. Work was difficult, and took up a lot of time, causing me stress. I missed my language tables as a result, so I didn’t get to experience much language. I had to go work at offices in different areas, where I luckily got to mix with new people. On the way to a meeting I heard a guy working at a food stand speaking Arabic to another man as I was walking by. On the way back to my car after the meeting, I said to him, Ahlan! Masa ilkheir!” (“Hi! Good afternoon!”) Business was slow for him in the mid-afternoon, so he gave me a can of Coke and told me to sit down.
Continue reading “Week 9 of Loving Somali: Language love to my rescue”

Eu amo português! Loving language in Portugal

Filipa at the library of the Academy of Fine Arts
Filipa at the library of the Academy of Fine Arts

I’m writing this on the plane back from a one-week work trip to Lisbon, Portugal. Though I stayed busy with day-to-day business, I wanted to connect more with my Portuguese colleagues, so I spent a couple hours per day learning Portuguese. The first four of my five days I scheduled 90-minute Portuguese lessons with a different teacher each day.

Continue reading “Eu amo português! Loving language in Portugal”

Types of exercises: Interactive and Solo

Drills and playing time make the superstar
Drills and playing time make the superstar

To succeed at learning languages on your own, you must balance interactive and solo exercises.  I define “interactive” exercises as those that include another person, especially conversing with a native speaker, and “solo” exercises that do not include another person.  If we keep a balance between these two, we will progress quickly as each method builds up the other.

Compare learning a language to training for a sport, where you practice and you scrimmage.  In practice, you work on the fundamentals to ensure that they come naturally.  You train your reflexes to react in a particular way in a given situation.  Practice includes drills.  They can be boring sometimes, but the greats become so because of drills, like Michael Jordan‘s hundreds of free-throws after practice.  When you’re practicing drills, you don’t know how well you’ve mastered skills until you put them to the test, however.

Scrimmages test your skills.  By entering a real-life game situation, you see how your body remembers and applies the skills learned in drilling.  Scrimmages bring constant unexpected elements.  For example, you may have drilled jump-shots, but what about when a guy taller than you keeps getting in your way?  Only by bringing in unknown variables will you see how good your skills actually are.  Moreover, scrimmages bring up situations that reveal weaknesses you may have neglected.  If scrimmage reveals that you never got to take a jump shot because your dribbling was lousy, you know what to practice next time.

Greatness at language-learning requires solo preparation through drills, as well as constant interactions with others.  You have to learn the fundamentals through drills.  The most important aspect is learning vocabulary, but spending time on grammar helps, too.  But you need to enter into conversations; those are our scrimmages.  Just like in basketball, it puts your knowledge to the test in “real time” and reveals weaknesses so you can practice during your solo time.

Here are examples of solo language exercises:

  • Anki (online) or other (paper) flashcards;
  • Reading a grammar book and dong exercises;
  • Computer applications (eg, Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Livemocha);
  • Listening to a podcast or watching a movie;
  • Reading an article.

Here are examples of interactive exercises:

  • Instant message with a native speaker (eg, Skype or italki);
  • Video chat with a native speaker (eg, Skype);
  • Meet up locally with speakers of your language;
  • Daily interactions in the country of the language.

Interactive exercises determine success.  Language-learning usually trains you to speak with native speakers (unless you’re learning a language just to read it), and interactive exercises are the closest to the real thing–if not actually the real thing.  While you need interactive exercises, you can learn languages without solo exercises.  Bilingual people have been learning languages exclusively through person-to-person interaction for millennia.  North Africans learned Arabic without solo exercise when the Arabs arrived; Phoenicians learned Greek without grammar exercises.  We should note, though, that scholars in ancient Babylonia (ca. 2000 BCE) were writing and referring to bilingual dictionaries so they could read Sumerian texts.  Acquiring a high level in a language will likely include solo work, but progress requires interactive work.

Recently, some standard language-learning software includes interactive exercises, but I count interactivity as useful only when it brings in the randomness that scrimmages do.  For example, Rosetta Stone has included classes with an on-line teacher in its language package.  However, the curriculum follows the software fairly closely, so the learner does not encounter the randomness of actual conversation.  In contrast, italki offers the choice to learn from either untrained native speakers or trained teachers.  With the italki service, you can enjoy the controlled environment of a teacher who helps you practice your skills and the random environment of an average native speaker.  Teachers use as much as possible constructions that you know in order not to overwhelm you; native speakers employ the structures that come to mind first and most naturally to him or her.  Both are helpful, but the untrained speaker provides the true test.

I’ve found that I learn the most when my solo work undergirds my interactive study, and my interactive study feeds my solo work.  I study grammar and vocabulary on my own.  Then I have an easier time in conversation.  As I talk, I write down new words and phrases in context.  Then I study those during my solo time.  Soon I master my favorite and most common topics of conversation.  If I do solo work without interaction, I don’t know if I’m progressing.  If I interact without solo work, I progress, but slowly.  With both, I make constant, quick progress.

What are good interactive exercises have you used, my dear readers?  How do you balance solo and interactive exercises?

(Photo credit: photo by Vedia on Flickr.)

Don’t just practice–engage!

No bout succeeds without practice, but practice needs a bout!
No bout succeeds without practice, but practice needs a bout!

Learning languages is like boxing.  I have to work out and practice–like Rocky in the meat locker or running up the stairs of Philadelphia Museum of Art.  But I also have to remember that I have to get in the ring.  I’m doing my language exercises so that I can “go the distance” and successfully engage in conversation.  Lately I’ve been struggling with my language study because I lose sight of how all the learning-exercises fit together and how it all fits in my daily schedule.  With recent concrete experiences I’m discovering practical ways to balance learning exercises: to practice my language on my own, but always with the end that I will be talking to people.

I’ve made a cycle through my Farsi resources.  For a long time, I was reading articles and listening to podcasts.  I memorized lots of vocabulary.  I finally burned out on these exercises for two reasons.  One, I was too isolated.  I couldn’t sustain language-learning without my ultimate end before my eyes, that is, the end of talking to people.  Two, my schedule changed and I didn’t have the same kind of time to dedicate to these activities.  I was bored because I was stuck with the same vocabulary words and didn’t have time to look for more.

As a result, I recently turned to the internet and Skype.  I’ve found several generous Iranian students of English through italki who patiently help me with my Farsi.  Two problems have arisen from these conversations.  One, the time difference and my work schedule conspire to block frequent meetings.  Two, my vocabulary is not good enough to say precisely what I want to say and to understand others’ responses.  I’ve recently had a couple of Skype conversations that were frustrating because I was asking people to translate what they said and help me translate what I wanted to say.  The talk was not exactly “conversation.”  Previously I ran into the same problem with our neighbors.

I can classify my learning problems into two categories: time and skills.  I have to work, spend time with my family, and have a social life (even with non-Farsi speakers!).  So I need to figure out how much time I have to work on my language and when.  This re-analysis would be a good task for the new year.  I need to be honest about my time, what I’m spending it on, and how much can I spare on my language.  Also, managing my language time so that I don’t get stuck in an unproductive rut like where I found myself this fall.

For my skills, I have to work constantly with an eye on balance.  I need the vocabulary and I need conversation.  Like a boxer, I have to do push-ups and hit the bag; I also have to get in the ring to spar.  I can’t do one without the other.  Sparring–conversation–shows where my weaknesses are so that I can go and work on the areas that I’m weak in.  Learning vocabulary is the push-ups and punching-bag workouts, but with the goal of engaging with a partner.

One exercise that I’m working on, I’ve mentioned before.  I’m working on dialogues to repeat.  I’m writing ones in English so that language-learners can use them for multiple languages.  Then I’ll translate them into Farsi, and then into Somali.  On Skype these work well because I can have lots of different partners and so repeat the same dialogues over and over.  This reinforces vocabulary as I converse.  I can also use my “unproductive” Skype time to translate something concrete that I can use again later.

I will succeed if I use the little time that I have for languages well.  I will use my time well if I am balancing exercises on my own with conversations with other people.  The goal for both is to “go the distance” in Farsi–and then any other language.

Can you tell me about times when you ran into time problems?  How about problems balancing learning on your own and practicing with others?  I’d love to hear your stories.