Learning from immigrants through Language Love

What we encounter here is again the paradox of victimization: the Other to be protected is good in so far as it remains a victim (which is why we were bombarded with pictures of helpless Kosovar mothers, children and old people, telling moving stories of their suffering); the moment it no longer behaves like a victim but wants to strike back on its own, it magically turns all of a sudden into a terrorist/fundamentalist/drug-trafficking Other. — Slavoj Žižek, “The Fragile Absolute,” p. 60.


Learning community languages appears as a typically liberal approach to learning languages, yet it is actually neither liberal nor conservative.

Americans act strange when the weak “other” begins to gain power. In a recent episode of This American Life we hear what it’s like when the Somali community begins to gain power in St Cloud, Minnesota.

One complaint was that Somalis had “taken over” a local park. Another one was that a large group of Somali women were disturbing the peace walking through the streets loudly.

When they were in Somalia, suffering, the US supported President Bill Clinton’s military intervention. Americans wanted to end the suffering of the people so that they could live a normal life.

But when they actually live a normal life in St Cloud, many citizens wanted them to stop coming. Citizens wanted to remove them and prevent more from coming.

This cycle repeated itself multiple times in US history. We were excited in the North to free the slaves, but got nervous when they started coming in large numbers to Northern cities. We praised the nobility of the Native American warrior, but thought of them as terrorists in the 1960s when they demanded more rights in an armed struggle. As long as they remained victims, we were comfortable; once they showed initiative, they got too dangerous.

Continue reading “Learning from immigrants through Language Love”

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

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

Practical tips for learning Somali in Minnesota, Part 2

a fire to be tended dab qoryo (xaabo) u baahan
[depicted]
a fire to be tended
dab qoryo (xaabo) u baahan
As I said in “practical tips, part 1,” languages don’t require a book to learn. They only require a community. Books help when you don’t have people around, but when you meet people who speak your language, make the most of the encounter. Introduce yourself, tell them how much you love their language, and see if they can help you advance. When I saw this sign, I knew I needed some help.

Doing the necessary work

The next time I went downtown, I saw at the light rail stop an advertising campaign consisting of multiple signs, each in Spanish, Hmong, or Somali. I wanted to learn more about the one depicted to the right.

a fire to be tended
dab qoryo (xaabo) u baahan

I recognized a couple of words: dab “fire” and qoryo “wood.” Please don’t underestimate how awesome I felt to see two words I actually knew in a single sentence!

As I was walking down the sidewalk towards my meeting, I was thinking about the sign. “Firewood”? That word doesn’t occur in the English. How odd that seemed! Was I understanding it correctly?

Why wonder? I stopped the next Somali folks I saw and asked.
See what I learned

Pirates, Sexists, Terrorists: Is this all there is there to know about Somalis?

Who are they? Can you tell just by looking?
Who are they? Can you tell just by looking?

I’m exhausted by hearing the same questions and answers about the Somali community over and over, as if they only contribute sexists and terrorists.

A few weeks ago I went to a talk by a local Somali community organizer, who helps with women’s health. During the question and answer time, the well-educated, well-intentioned audience asked two questions:

  1. How is the Somali community reacting to terrorist recruitment?
  2. Do Somalis treat their sons and daughters the same?

Right on script.

When I write a blog post and look for related articles, all that I can find concern terrorism and occasionally piracy. I see the top three articles right now are,

  • “Somalia – News website editor gunned down in Mogadishu
  • “Minneapolis: 3rd of 8 Muslims who plotted in mosques to join ISIS to plead guilty,” and
  • “News website editor gunned down in Mogadishu.”

I thought I saw a different sort of story, about “building community reslience,” and then discovered it was an anti-radicalization, anti-terrorism grant from the US Justice Department. Even the good news is about terrorism.

I read about how many Somalis are on welfare in Minnesota.

Many people like the refrain of how Somalis “refuse” to assimilate to US culture. They’ve repeated for eight years the story of Somali taxi drivers who refused to transport passengers with alcohol or dogs. I also hear the trope of the Somali cashiers who won’t handle pork products.

When I look up popular Somali musicians or artists in the English-language press, I find that we only know one: K’naan. (Better than nothing, right?)

So here is a “typical Somali” based on what I read in the media:

  • pirate/thief
  • potential terrorist
  • sexist
  • unproductive
  • repudiators of American culture
  • without contribution to arts and culture

Is that really it?

When you speak Somali I feel close to you: Ecolinguism and community division

Ecolinguism brings communities closer
Ecolinguism brings communities closer

“When you speak Somali to me, I feel close to you.” I heard this last week in Minnesota, not from a friend, but a complete stranger—a taxi driver named Mohammed. Upon seeing him, I immediately spoke only in Somali. “I pick up a lot of people,” Mohammed continued, “but when you speak Somali, you are like my brother—wherever you are from.”

Continue reading “When you speak Somali I feel close to you: Ecolinguism and community division”

Week 6 of loving Somali: Reduplication and the kitchen

What does a kitchen in Somalia look like?
What does a kitchen in Somalia look like?

Moving deeper into Somali, I’m discovering more unique, beautiful features of this language. The way of life coupled with grammatical features continue to reveal how exciting this language is. Discovering new verb formations and glimpsing into a Somali kitchen excited my curiosity. At the same time, I think I’m getting exhausted by my rate of vocabulary study; I literally fell asleep on the couch last night with my Anki app. My brain is crying out for different stimuli.
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Week 5 of loving Somali: Camel’s milk and hospitality

Yes, camel's milk. Cheers!
Yes, camel’s milk. Cheers!

What would it be like to live in Somalia, or even just to visit? What would strike me about the culture? Since love is learning to live with quirks that sometimes rub me the wrong way (in my humble opinion), what would I love about Somalia?

I know that I would love their helpfulness. I’ve found so many people already who want to help me with the language and who love doing so. I’m already grateful.

I wonder how I would love Somali hospitality. As an American, I love my space, but I sometimes feel lonely. I’ve found that Eastern forms of hospitality assume that people should be together, that being alone might indicate a problem. The negotiation between guest and host operates constantly. I love Eastern hospitality, but I know that as an American, I feel some tension with it. As an extrovert, I’m glad to experience cultures that value highly connecting with others, so I’ve tended to enjoy myself. If my lessons this week accurately represent Somali culture, I can see that Somalis are wonderfully hospitable. I look forward to experiencing it one day.

I have a couple questions about grammar this week (below), if anyone has a moment to help me. Thank you!
Continue reading “Week 5 of loving Somali: Camel’s milk and hospitality”

Week 4 of loving Somali: Joy, pumpkins, and goat meat

Do you look like a pumpkin? Is that a good thing?
Do you look like a pumpkin? Is that a good thing?

Studying Somali brings me joy. I love discovering this language. Granted, I’m like Christopher Columbus, “discovering” people who didn’t know they needed discovering; I’m not exactly a pioneer. Nevertheless, my “discoveries” bring my mind to a world that at least I didn’t know, coming in contact with people so much like me, yet from a life that is so different. The newness of contact envigorates me.

This week I didn’t study as much as I planned, but I still had the opportunity to see a new landscape. I learned about a market filled with mango, goat meat, and pumpkins. I also got to see new ways of ordering language, of expressing oneself. Maybe my dear readers would like to help me with some of the sticking points I came across this week? This never gets old for me!
Continue reading “Week 4 of loving Somali: Joy, pumpkins, and goat meat”