Kunama: Keeping a language alive in my free time

A Kunama man near Barentu, Zoba Gash-Barka, Er...
A Kunama man near Barentu, Zoba Gash-Barka, Eritrea. photographer: Temesgen Woldezion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just got off the phone with a friend of mine who is a native speaker of the Kunama language.  The Kunama people traditionally live along the border of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea.  Since the war started between these countries, the Kunama community are experiencing a grim fate, and many have left their traditional lands as refugees, and many refugees have expatriated abroad.  In this post I would like to focus not on politics, but on the question of what I can do to help the Kunama language.

The language fascinates me.  It is a “linguistic isolate,” which means that it’s not related to any other language.  (Another example of a more well known linguistic isolate is Basque, spoken in northern Spain and France.)  Some linguists have proposed that it belongs to a group called Nilo-Saharan, but others dispute whether this constitutes a true linguistic group.  In other words, some people believe that Kunama is related to other languages, but no one can prove it.

Looking at the numbers, I wonder if the Kunama language could disappear in the near future.  I found a source that estimated Kunama speakers currently at about 140,000.  I would like to know how many of them are monolingual, as every one that I met speak at least four languages.  With the pressure to move out of their land, they assimilate more to Eritrean and Ethiopian cultures, and those who move abroad experience even more pressure.  My friend’s niece and nephew, for example, who came over to the US as young teenagers, speak little Kunama  and speak Tigrinye more often to their relatives.  Their children will most likely not speak any Kunama.

Could I help to document this language?  I know this is an odd question; it seemed odd to me, too, at first, but then I saw that it makes some sense for me to do so.  When I first fell in love with languages, the obscure always struck my fancy.  That’s why I adored Ukrainian, Moroccan Arabic, and Syriac.  When I was 14 and reading about what linguists do, I learned about anthropological linguists who live among exotic peoples and study their language.  In college, I even took a “field methods” class on how to document and describe languages among native speakers.  A few years ago, I was having coffee with my old linguistics professor from college, and he challenged me to do some work on Kunama, since so few people had done so.  So it actually isn’t my idea originally!

Funny enough, I happen to be well situated geographically to work on Kunama.  Significantly, my friend lives in Denver, my home town, so doing “field work” there would not be expensive.  Also, the big annual Kunama festival takes place in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is one state away. (In case you are wondering,  “Why in South Dakota?” I heard South Dakota has the largest population of Kunama because many of the refugees work in the meat-packing industry.)

Practically speaking, though, it would be difficult.  I have a job, I want to teach, too, and I have a family–how could I find time to document this obscure language?  It certainly wouldn’t pay me anything to do so.  (Unless one of my dear readers knows something I don’t . . .)

Does anyone have ideas on how to document a minority language in one’s spare time?

Four questions about language-learning, solved here

Get over problems by focusing on the basics
Get over problems by focusing on the basics

I wanted to get back to basics this week.  I would like to say that the following are the most common questions and complaints that I hear from people when they ask me.  I will be honest and say that these are from ME; I keep asking myself these questions.  So here is the advice that I most often give myself.  Maybe it will help you, too.  I’m lucky that I keep having a lot of great experiences that help me when motivation flags.  I’m sure that you will soon have some great anecdotes to help motivate you.  Languages are not hard if I focus on a reasonable amount of time to work each day, if I talk to people, and if I use methods that are fun and helpful.

Learning a language is hard!

Speaking in one’s native language is almost as unconscious as breathing.  Speaking in another language looks like working calculus on a unicycle–with a time limit.


Always remember that 4-year-olds can speak their native language, but it takes years of labor, interactions, encouragement, and adorable mistakes.  I’ve found that as soon as I’m ready to just try, I am constantly making incremental improvement.  I always keep in mind that it takes a child 4 years to speak like a 4-year-old: that keeps my progress in perspective.

What method should I use?

With so many methods of learning out there, I’ll have to do tons of research.  Many of them cost so much money that buying the wrong one would really set me back.


Start with Google, and search for “learn (language name).”  Helpful information will come up right away.  For example, when I google (learn Tamil), the first five sites would take me several weeks to get through, if I wanted to spend some time every day– everything from writing the alphabet to basic dialogues (written and audio) and intermediate grammar.  After you find out what you like and dislike among the free material, you can start looking for paid material.

How can I talk to somebody?

My first problem might be I don’t know anyone who speaks the language I’m learning.  My second problem might be I know someone who speaks it, but I’m embarrassed to torture this person by making them listen to my terrible speech.  I mean, I can barely say, “Hello“!

Solution to first:

There are two places to look for speakers.  One is in real space.  “Ethnic” shops and festivals cater to people who likely speak your language.  And if you go, you already demonstrate your open curiosity to another culture, so you will make a good first impression just by showing up.  Try out your language as much as you can.  Make sure you say “hello” in that language or “Do you speak (your langauge)?” at every opportunity.

Another place to look is in cyberspace.  I found the site italki.com to be invaluable in finding speakers to talk to over Skype.  But speakers of every language are all over the net, if you look for them.  Many of them want to learn English, so language trades are easy to set up so everyone wins.

Solution to second:

Most people enjoy it when others are learning their language.  I was learning Russian in school in the 80s.  The first time I met a real Russian, the Russian conversation didn’t last past, “How are you?”  The man very kindly made me recite the days of the week, and it was really helpful for me.  I wasn’t putting him out; while he was relaxing in the park, he enjoyed teaching me–just some young guy–the days of the week.  I began only knowing “hello,” and left knowing the days of the week really well.  Any interaction will surely teach me something–and will be a pleasure for the other person.

I don’t have time!

With work, friends, family, and working around the house, I can’t spend tons of time on a language.  Languages take years to learn and I’m just making it through the day.


Work 15 minutes per day, 5-6 days per week.  You will make progress.  You don’t have to memorize vocabulary and grammar all the time.  You can Skype or IM with speakers of your language on-line, or you can watch a TV show or listen to a podcast.  If you hear a word a lot, look it up, or ask your real space or cyberspace friends what the word means.  Writing is helpful, too.  For example, I write up dialogues of what I want to talk about in Somali.  Then I ask my Somali friends over lunch at work how to translate some of the lines.  Every now and then, I read through a dialogue for 5 minutes to learn the phrases better.  You can also write essays and get corrections from native-speaker friends.

Overall goals

I would set up some large-scale goals of what you want to learn just to keep your overall aims clear.  Write them down.  You can make goals for how much vocabulary you want to learn, how many essays you want to write, how many times a month you want to venture to a local center for your language.  Focus on methods that are enjoyable and fruitful.  Do your best to keep up with your goals, but remember that steady progress is the ultimate goal.  If you continue with 15 minutes per day you will make progress.

What are your greatest roadblocks to learning languages?  How do you stay motivated?  Do you have any cool stories that help keep you motivated?

Photo credit: illuminaut / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Setting goals and moving towards the center

Slight, accurate motion causes great, effective movements
Slight, accurate motion causes great, effective movements

This week I was looking at the website of a guy I know; he gives advice about how to reach goals by using small communities of ambitious friends to support each other.  The first piece of advice that struck me, though, was, in his words, “stop the bleeding.”  He recommended naming bad habits and using time spent on them for the goals we want to accomplish.  One of my bad habits is compulsively checking email and Facebook, so I took some time away from those activities this week, and I accomplished a few things that I would not have done otherwise.  I haven’t done the second important piece of advice–examine “why” I want to do these things.  I’ll discuss that in a minute.

Before I list the things that I accomplished, I’ll briefly mention a simple tool that I used.  I set up a spreadsheet on Google Docs.  I put multiple tabs, one for each large goal: start a side business, expand language offerings in the public schools, learn Farsi, learn Somali, develop methods for learning languages at work, and blog.  On the spreadsheet I write individual tasks that I think well keep me moving.  I date when I put tasks down and when I finish them.  I also want to put down a deadline for myself, but I’m afraid of that much commitment at this point.  This way I can actually see what I’m getting accomplished and plan a little more deliberately.

Here are some of the things I actually accomplished.

  • Business.  I have a website that is nearly complete.  It still needs some photos, so I talked to my friend’s wife, who is a photographer, and some international friends at work who will pose with me.  Once the photos are up, I should be done with the site, ending that phase.
  • Languages in Schools.  I contacted a person who has already been working on Somali language in the Minneapolis Schools.  I’m planning on another meeting maybe next Saturday–I ran the idea past my friend/partner.  I’ve put together a list of names to invite to the meeting, and I created an agenda that is manageable for a 1-1.5 hour meeting.
  • Farsi.  I’ve been watching some Iranian sit-coms every evening or every-other evening.  I IM friends in Iran 2-3 times per week at work.  I spoke over Skype with an Iranian friend for about 15-20 minutes.
  • Somali.  I use my limited Somali every day, but I didn’t really move ahead.  Not much happened here.
  • Languages at Work.  I’ve been inputting dialogues for my languages at work packet.  I solicited more translations and ideas from my Somali friends, and we’re discussing ways to re-introduce our Somali table to our company.
  • Blog.  (This is it!)

I’m amazed that I did all this in moments at home and slow moments at work when I would normally kill time.  I’m grateful for this piece of advice to “stop the bleeding.”

I want to look at why I want to accomplish these goals with the hope of encouraging my deeper motivations.  Figuring out the “why” behind these goals appeals to me, because I know that I can motivate myself at my core.  Back in college, when I studied kung fu, my non-English-speaking sifu used to demonstrate effective technique by taking a rope and swinging it in a circle.  He’d point at the small motions of his hand and the large motion of the rope they caused.  When you push from the center, less effort is necessary for an action.  (See photo.)

The technique of finding out the “why” is to ask why I want to do something, and then ask “why” to that answer, five times.  This way I move towards my own center.  So I want to accomplish this technique this week on at least two of my big goals I mentioned above.

I’d love to learn from my readers how you accomplish your goals–or what stands in your way.  I may or may not have suggestions for you; I’d love to learn something from you.

Do any of my readers use accountability groups for setting and keeping short- and long-term goals?  If so, please describe your process.

How do you stay focused on goals?  What techniques do you use?  Do you have examples?

Photo credit: Steve Corey / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Just make progress!

Even with dips--make progress!
Even with dips–make progress!

I’ve been uninspired–but I’m not ready to give up.  Work has been demanding, and my friends and family have kept me busy.  I’m trying to approach my languages differently, hoping the change of pace will inspire me.  I had the flu this last week, which halted some progress, too.  I want to hold fast in my mind that progress of any kind is important progress, even if the results don’t always look how I want.

Last week I Skyped with some new italki pals.  Because Iran is 10 hours later than me, I have to think creatively about how to connect.  Before I leave for work has presented itself as the most convenient time, as it can be free time on my side and it comes right after work in Iran.  Unfortunately, it means I have to get up earlier and plan ahead.  I still have to get used to that.  The advantage is real live Farsi talking!  All the vocabulary I’ve been working on for months is cementing itself finally.

I wrote a little in Farsi this week.  One small feature I like about italki over Livemocha is the “Notebook” feature, where you can write whatever you want.  Native speakers are encouraged to comment and/or correct it.  I wrote about being sick!  I had to learn “headache” and “fever,” which are helpful to know anyway.  The fact I was living through the precise situation, wrote about it, and received feedback on it very quickly helped me learn.

I watched the movie, “Day Break” (“دم صبح”), while I was sick.  I couldn’t do much but lay in bed, but I thought I might as well watch something in Farsi.  I’m glad I did.  The movie was well-acted and produced, and portrayed how one’s regrets and fear of death can trap someone in life.  I learned some Farsi and a lot about life.  I learned about the website viki.com, a treasure-trove of high-quality foreign TV shows and movies.  They also have an iPad app.

This combination of active and passive memory work helped me a lot.  I discovered I’ve been doing too little passive memory work.  All my word-memorization during the past several months focused on active memory.  Then, when I talked to the neighbors, I couldn’t understand a response.  Hearing and understanding require work and are necessary.

On a side note, Somali went less well this week.  One of my Somali work friends said on Friday, “You didn’t speak very much Somali this week!”  He noticed before I did.  Thank goodness I have people who can call me on my language use and habits.  I’m just breaking even there.

For encouragement, I watched the great Polyglot Discussion: a roundtable discussion over Google+ of seven well-known polyglots.  They traded views and advice about learning languages.  The advice was not particularly new, but I find a discussion among enthusiastic participants invigorating.  Frankly, it’s one of the reasons I crashed in bed with an Iranian movie rather than a TV show in English.

I have a couple of projects I would like to work on.  I would like to produce some kind of language-learning materials for informal settings.  More specifically, when I speak over Skype or when I meet at the language table with people.  I would like to find a way to take advantage of native speakers, without putting pressure on them to teach when they are not comfortable doing so formally.  So I would like to put together some dialogues with simple vocabulary–like in many textbooks–that apply to the work setting or lunch.  I want to be able to talk about finding means to study languages, eating lunch in the cafeteria, and dealing with the stress of work.  I need to go back to look at some resources that I have for inspiration.  These sorts of resources would help all of us participants learn more and feel more productive.

In the end I learned that I should be easy on myself and work on my language as I can.  When I can, I should do active memory work.  When I’m tired, I can do passive memory work.  I’ll try to get up early when I can so that I can chat on Skype.  In my spare time, I’d like to work on some curriculum.  In the end, making any progress is progress all the same.  It doesn’t always have to be pretty.

Have you been making progress recently?  Any kind of progress?  Be honest!

Anyone want to help make some curricula like I described?

Overcoming fear to end a slump

Overcome fear by action (Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Overcome fear by action (Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

I’m living a language slump—since the summer, my Farsi has not advanced much. Learning a language, I explain to people, is like filling a bucket with holes. At this point, more is coming out of my Farsi “bucket” than is going in. I know less on December 1 than I did on August 1. This lack of progress makes me feel defeated—and ultimately fear blocks me and keeps me from moving forward.

The surface sources of my slow progress are clear. First, my schedule changed drastically as I moved to a new state and to a new job with a radically different daily schedule and set of expectations. So I spend little time going through my words during the day or looking for new ones. Second, the foreign language I run into most often is Somali, not Farsi, so that language draws more of my attention. Moreover, beginning a new language (like Somali) keeps my attention much more than the intermediate doldrums of Farsi. Third, I’m working on building a Somali/immigrant language movement in my city, and that takes time for communication and organization, which takes time away from potential Farsi study.

Sometimes I long for a teacher. One reason is I want the accountability of a regular language meeting. Another reason is that I need controlled, intermediate input. The input from podcasts and newspapers can be overwhelming; it takes a lot of chewing to digest it. When I spend focused time on them, though, I get something valuable out of it. I want someone else to help me overcome my slump.

In fact, teachers are waiting for me. Through Livemocha—where I haven’t checked in for months—I have tens of friend requests, many from Iran. Iran is ten hours later than me, which means that at 8 or 9 pm my time, I could have an early morning session with someone in Iran, or at 6-7 am my time, I could meet with someone in Iran at the end of the work day. These folks want to learn English, too, so we could do a language exchange.

To be honest, I’m afraid to make the time commitment. My old job used to have a flexible schedule, and I spent 80% of my time by myself. Now I have to be places at particular times and work with people the entire time. Flexible, alone time—especially if it can be at home—has become a terribly valuable commodity.

I have a fear of shortage; this is the real obstacle to my Farsi progress. I’m afraid that I don’t have enough time.  Fear has stopped me, and fear has become my normal state. I need to confront fear and overcome my static inertia, thus moving my self forward again.The next step is to assume the opposite: I have enough time.  By making that initial investment, I will overcome the inertia and get moving.  Investing in a teacher would work; a 30- to 60-minute per week commitment would improve my Farsi by a lot.  These lessons would lead to visible progress—and enjoyment and connection—on a regular basis, so I would feel encouraged to work here and there (e.g., vocabulary cards and podcasts) and to visit my elderly neighbors more often.

What does fear keep you from doing? How do you confront it to overcome the inertia it causes?

Progress and perseverance in learning languages

Persevere! Don’t stop progressing!

I try to work on my languages every day, which can be a challenge.  Frankly, I’m getting frustrated with myself that I’m not spending more time on them than I am.  I feel like I don’t do enough, that my progress is too slow.  People, though, have an easier time beating themselves up about what they’re not doing than seeing what they are doing, which is not entirely honest.  This point of view focuses on only one part, the negative, rather than look at the big picture, usually positive and negative.  I want to take an honest assessment of where I am and what I am doing with my languages.

For several weeks I have not been studying vocabulary cards or creating new ones as much as I used to.  Part of the reason is change of work (at my previous job I had a lot more control over the workflow), and part is change in dedication.  So recently I decided to dedicate 10-15 minutes of vocab study per night before bed if I haven’t had a chance to look at them during the day.  I’m looking for places in my day where I could be studying my vocabulary cards but am not.


The language I’ve decided to focus on for this year, 2012, is Farsi, but that is becoming more difficult because I have to be more deliberate in speaking it.  The only native speakers I know are our elderly neighbors down the street.  When I see them outside, I say hello, but I don’t “pop by” as often as I probably could.  Farsi podcasts have not occupied as much of my time recently as they have in past, either.  I haven’t read Farsi articles or created new flashcards for a month.  Progress in Farsi has clearly slowed.


Somali is taking up a much larger percentage of my language time.  I share a cube at work with a Somali, so I always use my phrases (eg, “We’re very busy today,” “Let’s go for a walk,” “How do you say . . . ?,” “See you tomorrow,” “Say hello to your family”).  To be honest, I speak Somali nearly every day, if but for a few minutes of stock phrases.  I learn new phrases once a week or so.  For some reason it’s been easier to focus on phrases than words.  I’m pleased that a new temp will come on Monday who is Somali.  I’ll be able to speak more!


This week I also needed to dust off my Spanish for a quest.  I had to find a place close by where I can buy yerba mate tea (a tea consumed in central South America).  So I had to start calling around.  The woman answered the phone in Spanish, and did not slow down once she heard my strongly-accented, gringo Spanish.  They didn’t have it (“only Mexican groceries”), so I went to go drive around.  I found a market that had some yerba mate, and when I brought it to the counter, the check-out lady asked me how much it cost.  I proudly told her it cost $3.49, but I couldn’t explain that there was a price tag underneath, stuck to the shelf.  Through pantomime, she understood “underneath” (abajo).  When I tried to get her to tell me the word for “shelf” she couldn’t understand my pantomime.  Fortunately, her friend worked it out for me (estante).  Amazingly, the entire conversation happened in Spanish–no English.  (This encounter makes me want my kids to learn Spanish, as it made me think the Twin Cities have more monolingual Spanish-speakers than I thought.)


I speak my other, better languages somewhat regularly.  We have a French table that we started up at work.  I also met a couple Russians this week, so I had some conversations.  I learned less than with the above languages, but these encounters help me maintain my level.

Clearer vantage point

From this more honest vantage point, I see that I’m still working on and using my languages.  When I think of “progress” I’m thinking narrowly about Farsi and Somali, and less about my more established languages.  I see that learning a language where I have regular contact with native speakers makes a big difference, which is why learning Somali goes more smoothly than Farsi.  It also makes me think that on-line resources where I could meet Farsi speakers to Skype with would be a good idea–if I could set aside the time.  More visits to the neighbors would also be a good idea.  In the end, I’m reminded that I can be a perfectionist, and that progress often goes more slowly than I want it to.  Progress is progress in language study as long as there is perseverance–I really want to remember this.

How is your language going?  Are you making some sort of daily progress?  Are you honest about how much progress you’re making, or do you over- or underestimate?  How about you other learning/writing/etc projects?

You can learn a new skill!


English: An easy way to teach yourself guitar,...
Image via Wikipedia

In this podcast entitled, “Learning To Play Music At Any Age With Gary Marcus,” Prof. Gary Marcus, professor of psychology and director of the New York University Center for Language And Music, narrates how he learned guitar at a late age with sub-par musical talent.  His story comes in the context of his extensive research in the area of how adults learn tasks.  He also addresses the “10,000 hour” theory, and shows where it does not apply and surprising places where it does apply.

His talk helps contextualize how applying oneself with discipline allows one to learn new things, which furthers my own, anecdotal knowledge about language-learning.  One should not use the excuse “I’m too old” as an excuse not to learn a language.  Instead, one should use one’s mature time-management skills and wisdom to figure out how to work in language study.

This goes well with my friend’s post, “What every language learner should know. part 1,” where she says the most important skill for learning language is the ability to make a schedule.

Take courage!  You can do it!


Stuff happens

Work In Progress
Image via Wikipedia

So with the end of January and the beginning of February, I need to reflect on my progress so far, and my projected progress for the future.  This is necessary to do as one moves from one month to another.  As one can see from the date of this post, though, “stuff happens.”

The end of January and the beginning of February were wonderful, but not kind to language-learning.  My wife’s birthday took place (a big one), and we had out-of-town guests.  My wife left town the next weekend for an important business meeting.  That meant that I had family business to attend to, and much of the time for those activities came out of language-learning time.

I didn’t make my benchmarks so far in February.  The most important thing to do now is assess what marks I didn’t make and how to adjust.  Assessing is a learning experience, because I don’t like changing benchmarks I’ve set.  In the past, this would have been a good time to give up, or at least weep over my inadequacies.  Now, though, I’m going back to my schedule and revising it, so that the schedule reflects reality better.  It’s a painful process, but one that every language-learner must learn to do.

First I will comment on January.  I was successful in accomplishing my goals in my textbook, in learning words, in Livemocha, and in blogging.   I did not accomplish my goal of 8 Pimsleur lessons (I did 7), or in a video.  At this point, I have a script for my video, but I’m looking for feedback from Livemocha friends.  I hope to do it soon, but February may see my first and only video for these two months.

Now I will turn to February and its rocky start.  I felt like a failure, to be honest, but now I’m seeing things are not so bad.  This is the advantage of writing out goals: data to examine.  I did not write out any new language cards for a while, so I will reduce my number of words by 15 (about half a week).  I kept my old cards on me, and I’m sick of them.  I’ve gone through some of my textbook, but slowly, so I’ve reduced my expected number of chapters this week by one.  Similarly, I’ve reduced Livemocha by 2 lessons.  I think I’ll blog less, too, this month.  I have been listening to Pimsleur, so I did not fall behind there.

I feel like I fell off the horse, but it’s time to get back on.