Failing to Learn Somali

Building the bridge between language and culture


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There are 16 ways to form a sentence using the same six words in Somali. The man cuts his beard with a razor. His beard with a razor the man cuts. With a razor the man his beard cuts. With a razor cuts the man his beard. And on and on.

It doesn’t work in English.

Somali uses small changes, a ‘u’ at the end of a word instead of an ‘i.’ Waa, or waxaa instead of baa which affects the placement and stress and subject and object of words in the sentence but which means nothing by itself.

This makes Somali a challenging language to learn for non-native speakers.

Somali also has words specific to the life of camel-herding nomads, words with no direct translation into English. Words for the Ethiopian women who carry bundles of sticks on their hunched-over backs. Different words for different genders of camels, different ages, whether or not a camel has given birth.

This makes Somali a challenging language to learn for non-native, non-nomadic, non-camel-herding speakers.

I moved to Somalia, started studying language in 2003, and used a Somali-English dictionary with a Southern dialect — a book called Colloquial Somali with a northern dialect and written by Martin Orwin — and a black notebook and pen which I slipped into the makeshift pocket-pouch formed by tucking my cotton Somali housedress into my underwear. The pouch brought the added benefit of giving me wider hips and neighbors stopped worrying about the skinny, sickly American.

The dictionary was helpful only as far as the words I searched for could be found in it, were spelled correctly, and were used in the northern village of Boroma where I lived. I conquered Colloquial Somali but remained confused about some of Orwin’s grammar explanations. I emailed to thank him for producing the only reasonably logical Somali language grammar book and told him that though I was edging on conversational, I was far from fluent. He responded with a generous, apologetic email. He said he was sorry for all the mistakes in the book.

The black notebook and pen proved my most useful, reliable language learning tools. I made vocabulary lists and wrote and memorized complete sentences word for word. I once sat with a language tutor and worked out every combination of word order using the same six words. We came up with 16 sentences.

I earned a degree in Linguistics. I tape-recorded conversations and listened to them again and again until I could understand every word. I practiced guttural q’s and x’s and kh’s until my vocal chords were raw and aching. I memorized proverbs, folk tales, songs, poetry. I read children’s books and did elementary school homework with our neighborhood children. For ten years.

In Djibouti, 2012, the Somali language celebrated 40 years of existence as a written language with a conference at the University of Djibouti. In October 1972 Somali’s president Mohamed Siad Barre introduced written Somali using the Latin alphabet, which replaced the Arabic script previously used. Somali linguist Shire Jama Ahmed played a key role in this transformation. As a language learner from an English background, I am indebted to Barre and Ahmed. Somali is hard enough to learn without needing to learn the Arabic script as well. Though it never reaches the upper echelons of challenging languages to learn, listed by the Foreign Service Institute, practitioners disagree.

According to one essay, Somali has all the hard sounds of Arabic, some of the tones of Mandarin, irregular plurals like in German or Arabic, and uses cases like Greek or German. Somali prepositions are perhaps the most complicated, and complained about, aspect to learn. Though there are only four prepositions, they include two deictic particles that indicate location relative to the speaker and may be combined with the prepositions or verbs to form entirely new words. The lack of resource material adds to the difficulty of learning Somali. When I studied French I could watch television and read Harry Potter novels in French. Somali has not yet achieved this level of proliferation and hasn’t even decided on a consistent spelling system.

I attended the celebratory conference in Djibouti and sat near the front, next to a Somali-American friend.

I barely understood a word.

Were they using the words about camel trains? Camels urinating on certain sides of holes dug into the desert earth? Or camels in a long line, tied together with ropes made from shredded blue and red cloth, braided together? Were they using southern words like the one that meant lay with your wife in the south and meant fuck in the north and I only knew the northern meaning? Were they talking too fast, too technically? Had I really learned so little?

I don’t know. Like I said, I didn’t understand much, I had failed to learn Somali.

Actually, I did understand. I caught almost all the words buzzing around. What I didn’t catch were the subtleties, the nuances, the way they all worked together in a sentence. I heard phrases and knew they couldn’t mean what I thought they meant.

‘They both got sneezed out of the same place’ could not possibly mean what I heard. Later, I learned that ‘they both got sneezed out of the same place’ meant the two people referred to looked identical. Somalis loved with their livers, not with their hearts.

‘The woman came to the doctor with a hyena bite and he gave her a rabies vaccine.’ This made sense to me and wasn’t funny but the crowd exploded into raucous laughter that didn’t die down for minutes. Later, I learned ‘hyena bite’ is a euphemism for sexually transmitted disease and the doctor himself wasn’t aware of this. He treated for rabies when he should have treated for syphilis.

And right there, sitting in the University of Djibouti lecture hall, surrounded by Somali scholars and government officials and friends, with a massive Radio and Television of Djibouti video camera in my foreign face, I knew that I had not failed to learn Somali, though my ability was more inchoate than I like to imagine. I learned the vocabulary and the verb conjugations. I learned color words and the punch lines in stories about Igal Shidaad, the clever coward. I had, sort of, learned Somali.

But, I sat there not understanding the difference between a hyena and syphilis, not knowing about sneezes and twins, not knowing that when my leg fell asleep I should shout, “quick someone who is blacker than me come and pinch my leg!” And I knew that at the same time, I would never learn Somali, not fully.

This is the fascinating aspect of language learning, it ushers the student into an entirely new world. Memorizing and using new vocabulary words is a way of stripping off and stepping away from self. It violently imposes a new way of seeing the world. I had to shake off the exaggerated confidence, relinquish the pride I’d gained with each new level of proficiency.

Because, ultimately, what I learned while striving to learn Somali is that language is more than definitions and grammatically arranged sentences. Language is how a person, how a culture, experiences the world. Now, my words are a combination of English and Somali. I don’t expect to fully learn Somali because, palimpsest-like, I can’t entirely shed my English-speaking self, though little by little it diminishes. Native levels of fluency elude me. I am left with the collision, the welding and widening of worlds, and now I love with both my liver and my heart. • 11 September 2013