True language love is in the margins

But as much as this has been an exploration of the history of language in the United States, it has also turned out to be an examination of prejudice and privilege…. [American history] is genocide and slavery and discrimination
Elizabeth Little, Trip of the Tongue (p. 252).

Learn a language and push against the power of privilege
Learn a language and push against the power of privilege

The history of language follows the ebbs and flows of one form of communication to another. It seems that human beings, born in the right circumstances, can switch from one language to another without much effort. One group spoke Hebrew, then Babylonian, then Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Generation after generation, language blends into language.

Languages don’t just ebb and flow like tides of the ocean. They fight, kill, dominate, and oppress, like warring chimpanzees. Hebrew speakers sent the Canaanites to the hills, before being conquered by Babylonians, and then the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs. Each power came and imposed a language of privilege onto the next group. No language disappeared without a fight.
Fight for the marginalized

Languages won’t make you more money, so why do it?

If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?
If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?

Let me correct that: English will make you more money. Because the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have a lot of it. With other languages, you’ll have to be lucky.

Learning foreign languages will improve your relationships with others. A more fertile ground for diverse languages will produce a better crop of human beings, better able to understand and respect one another.

Cultivating the environment around us has value that doesn’t show up in standard calculations of “Return on Investment” (ROI). I listened to a speech by environmental activist, Vandana Shiva. Working the land with our neighbors produces a better environment and healthier community, but eating what we produce does not produce wealth that can show up in GDP. In contrast, industrial agriculture, which does produce capital wealth, creates environmental problems and destroys species.

I am a native English speaker. I can get a job paying six-figures without ever learning another language. Not so in, say, the Philippines or India, where English is more valuable for learning potential than a college degree is in the US. When we say that languages are “valuable,” we are saying that the economic system has made one language more valuable than another. I can get a higher-paying job with this language than I can with another.

Economics does not drive my desire to learn languages like these forces drive industrial agriculture. The desire for a healthier community for my children and neighbors drives me to learn languages.
Language ROI

Developing language education at my job

If we listen to each other, we can learn languages!
If we listen to each other, we can learn languages!

Now I see why American places of business don’t make language-learning an important part of work.  I’m a language enthusiast and a supervisor, and it’s hard for me to incorporate language-learning into my workplace, in spite of opportunities.  We have a speaker of Marathi and Hindi on our team, and we speak every day to people in the Philippines.  Personally I meet weekly on the phone with a colleague in Shanghai, and occasionally with folks in Brazil and Portugal.  Yet I have not emphasized learning languages at work, neither for myself nor for my team.  Because even basic language-study helps empathy and goodwill so much, and deeper language-study improves the mind and problem-solving skills, I will begin incorporating language-study into our work.


We speak every day to folks in the Philippines in a way that we could learn basic greetings really well, though our interactions are not conducive to learning the language deeply. Someone will call in from the Philippines.  A basic transfer of information takes place, and the call ends.  The calls are very short and technical, and the people we’re talking to are very busy.  It’s the equivalent of asking the waiter at a crowded restaurant to offer you grammar tips.

We can limit ourselves for now to basic greetings: hello, good morning/evening, how are you? thank you, good-bye.  I would love to expand it to small-talk: are things busy? is the weather nice?  Maybe we could do numbers, as a lot of the information we get is numbers–though I fear for accuracy, which is important.

One day it would be nice to have a teacher give us a lunch-lesson once per week or twice per month.  He or she could come to our team so we could learn a little conversational Tagalog.  Such lessons offer the full benefits of learning a language.

Marathi & Hindi

One of our teammates is a native speaker of Marathi and Hindi.  He calls Marathi his “mother-tongue,” though he speaks Hindi at home with his wife and child for his child’s sake.  Our interactions are more numerous, longer, and wider-ranging.  We have an opportunity to learn more than Tagalog.

How practical is it to learn these languages?  In reality, our area of town has very few Marathi speakers, though there are a lot of South Indians.  So Hindi could be used much more widely than Marathi.  At the same time, Marathi is no obscure language; it represents the 19th most widely-spoken language in the world with 73 million speakersHindi claims 331 million speakers, the fourth most widely spoken language.  Both of them are official Indian languages, though the latter enjoys more penetration into more of the country.

I would like to incorporate at least Hindi into our daily interactions at work.  All of us can build from each other as we greet our colleague in the morning, ask how his evening was, and offer our greetings to his family at the end of the day.  I would like to have a lesson in the room–if he’s up to it–that would be open to me and the rest of the group.

Mandarin & Portuguese

My team is not exposed to these languages on a regular basis–only I am.  In my weekly meetings with my Chinese colleague, I try to speak a little Mandarin, for example, “Hello” and “Thank you.”  Many Chinese people, including my colleague, pick anglicized names for themselves.  I try to use the actual, un-anglicized name of my colleague as much as possible.

I don’t run into much Portuguese, but it’s around.  Another group is working extensively with folks in Portugal, and I occasionally interact with some counterparts in Brazil.  If I needed to, I could learn this language quickly on my own, since I already know French and Spanish.  Greetings and basic phrases are a breeze, since this is a Romance language.

A Plan

I think it’s time to breach the divide.  I will bring languages into our team.  Hindi and Tagalog would be the most common languages.  I will plan to learn and teach a word or phrase per week at our team meetings.  The phrase will focus on daily interactions and IT.  I will ask my teammate to teach me some Hindi in the room, for maybe 20 minutes once or twice a week.  I can get a book to do a little work on my own to (like for learning the alphabet).  We’ll wait for Marathi, Chinese, and Portuguese.

What are the languages you run into at work?  Are you trying to learn them?  If so, how?  If not, why not?

Photo credit: abhiomkar / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Why Somali is harder than your language

English: A young Somali man.
A young Somali man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Recently I was discussing with @JaredRomey about an article he posted, “9 hard languages for English speakers.”  I replied that I don’t know why Somali never makes it onto those lists; they tend to be the same list: Chinese, Arabic, etc.  Jared suggested I blog about why Somali deserves to be on the list.  He suggested 5 reasons why it’s hard–I came up with 7, but I’m only a beginner.


In difficulty, Somali can stand its ground against the hardest languages.  Yet the Foreign Service Institute puts Somali in category 2, where 3 is the hardest.  Category 2 includes Farsi and 3 includes Arabic.  I’ve studied both, and I don’t see how this is so; Somali seems to be way harder than Farsi and of at least the same level of difficulty as Arabic.  If you drew a Venn  diagram of languages and their hardest aspects, Somali would overlap with a lot of them.  While Mandarin and Somali have tones, Mandarin has no case.  While German and Somali have case, German has fairly simple sounds.  While Arabic and Somali have difficult sounds, Arabic has a consistent writing system.  Plus Somali does some odd things with prepositions you’ll have to read about, below.  Somali is a doosy–but the challenge is made lighter by the joy of Somalis hearing their language spoken by a foreigner.


For a bit of background: Somali belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family, in the Cushitic branch.  More famous branches of this family are Semitic, to which Arabic and Hebrew belong, and Egyptian, which includes the language of the ancient Pharaohs.  Some overlap with Arabic, then, is natural.


  1. Three (four?) writing systems.  When Somali was originally written down in the Arabic script in the 13th century (Wadaad script).  In 1920, another script was invented that somewhat resembled the Ethiopian writing system (Osmanya script).  A more minor script was invented in 1930, called the Borama script.  The official script since 1972 has been a Latin-based alphabet (Somali alphabet).
  2. All the hard sounds of Arabic.  The guttural sounds that foreigners have trouble with in Arabic–they’re all in Somali.  The emphatic ha, the ayin, the qaf, the raspy kha–they’re all there.  (They’re spelled x, c, q, and kh, respectively.)  Additionally, Somali distinguishes between short and long vowels, like in Arabic, and other languages like Japanese and Finnish.  So my friends correct me if I say “si” rather than “sii.”  Finally, they have a retroflex “d” (spelled dh) like in Indian languages.
  3. Some of the tones of Mandarin.  Most have heard of the four different tones of Mandarin: high, low, falling, and rising.  Somali only has two, high and low, but they can sound different depending on the environment they are found in.  They change the meaning of the word, too!  “Boy” is ínan, and “girl” is inán; “dog” is éy and “dogs” is eý.
  4. Irregular plurals like German or Arabic.  A Somali noun forms its plural according to a pattern that is not predictable from its singular, and Somali has 7 or so patterns.  This concept may sound familiar to German- or Arabic-speakers.  Unlike English, which almost always forms its plural with “-(e)s,” Somali has no “regular” plural suffix.  So the plural of áf  “language,” flattens the tone and repeats the last syllable: afaf.  For some nouns, a suffix is used, so hoóyo “mother” goes to hoyoóyin, and áabbe goes to aabayaal (also note the tone shift).  Finally, words may shift gender as they go from singular to plural.
  5. Prepositions–unlike anything.  Somali prepositions don’t resemble any language I know.  They’re a challenge, so I’ll explain as well as I can based largely on this academic source and this textbook.  They are divided into prepositions and “deictic particles.”  They have four prepositions, roughly “to”, “in”, “from”, and “with”.  “Deictic particles” indicate activity relative to the speaker; the four Somali deictic particles indicate toward the speaker, away from the speaker, toward each other, or away from each other.  One may need to use both a preposition and a deictic particle.  Somali tends to place these items in front of the verb, not the noun.
    For example, “I pulled the man out of the well with a rope” is nínkíi bàan cèelka xádhig kagá sóo saaray.  The last five words literally mean, “well-the rope with-from towards_me I-raised.”  Similarly, “they used to give us news about it” is way inoogá warrámi jireen, literally, “They us-to-about news gave.”  They could have thrown a soo in there, too, right after inoogá.  It seems to me they cluster all the prepositions together.  In the first example, “from” goes with “well” and “with” goes with “rope,” but both stick by the verb.  In the second, “to” goes with “us” and “about” goes with the unspoken “it.”  Unscrambling in real time what preposition goes with what is beyond my level right now.
  6. Cases–like Greek or German.  Somali has four cases, but not the ones you may know from, say German or Greek.  They are absolutive, subject, genitive, and vocative.  Absolutive is used when it is by itself, and subject if there is another noun in the sentence.  Genitive, like in other languages, indicates possession, and vocative is used in directly addressing someone or something.  Like the plural, they are marked with a suffix or tone change, depending on the class of the noun.  In addition, like in German and Greek, the absolutive and subject are marked on the article, as well.  However, Somali also has different articles depending on whether the noun was mentioned before or not (similar to English “a” and “the”).
  7. Poetry.  Somalis are known for their love of poetry.  Richard Burton noted in the 19th century the widespread recitation and performance of poetry among Somalis.  When Somali is spoken it is peppered with poetic allusion, proverbs, and alliteration.  The uninitiated cannot understand the depth of the language without a deep knowledge and appreciation of the poetry.


Before you feel discouraged, let me tell you that Somalis love to hear their language spoken by foreigners.  Some non-Somalis have become YouTube sensations by simply interviewing in Somali.  When you try to learn the language, you will receive tons of help.  Somalis love their language, and their love is infectious.  Enjoy taking on this challenge of learning Somali and all the new, friendly people you will recruit to help your efforts and entertain with your enthusiasm.



What makes a language useful?

What motivates your language study?
What motivates your language study?

Recently a friend of mine asked what the most useful language to learn is.  I think he was assuming useful for business, so I addressed this assumption.  I responded that the language you learn depends what you’re learning it for.  If you’re planning on working in China, Mandarin is very useful; Mandarin would not be useful at all if you work extensively in India, though.  But Hindi is not useful outside of India.  If you’re planning on working in Minnesota, Spanish and Somali would be very useful.  You can only judge “useful” with respect to some concrete goal.

The goal of language-learning determines what language one studies and how one studies it.  One friend studied Russian to do business there.  Another wants to learn Tamil in order to enjoy his extended stay in Southwest India.  A third wants to learn Arabic because of family ties and love of the culture.  One blogger I read is learning Pitjantjatjara in order to see the world through a different set of eyes.  For all of these language students, their language is the most useful.

The reasons for learning a language determine not just the language, but also what you focus on in learning.  For business in Russia, much of the business will probably be in English, so small talk will be the most important.  Moreover, much of your studying will be done at home, in between trips to Russia.  For Tamil, you would learn what you could now at home–basic pleasantries–before taking it up in earnest in India.  Once you got there, you would be surrounded by media in Tamil and native speakers, and you would try to speak to the people around you.  For Arabic, listening to music and watching films would help, and then making attempts to find Arabs to speak to would bring the passive knowledge into an active register.  For Pitjantjatjara, probably the only source of the language would be native speakers, so study would be intense conversations, and then studying on your own the words and phrases from those conversations.

For one person, Russian is most useful, and probably Rosetta Stone or an on-line resource like would be most helpful.  For another, Pitjantjatjara is most useful, and conversing with people may be the only language resource.

Often, when I’m asked about the most “useful” language, the asker assumes that this is an economic question; in other words: What language will make me the most money?  But we see above that the question of what language to learn and how emerges from various motives, many of which are emotional and not economic.  Unfortunately, I think many institutions assume that economics is the most important question.  For this reason, some universities closed their Classics departments.  In addition, the economic question does not always lead to a single language.  As I said, above, economics may lead you to learn Chinese, Hindi, or Russian.  Recently I read that some Chinese people are learning Shona in order to do business in Zimbabwe.  This choice came because of increased economic ties between Sub-Saharan Africa and China.

So experience shows that the assumption that economics often does not motivate someone to learn a language.  Even if economics does motivate someone, economics does not always lead to the same language.

Why are you studying or want to study your language?  What means are you using to study them?  How did you choose those means?  Please add your answers to the comments section.

Photo credit: opensourceway / / CC BY-SA