Want to learn a useful foreign language? Try Somali

Abdi Mohamed Ali, left, helps Rachel Eagan pronounce Somali words in an evening class held Tuesday at Foster High School. “You need to speak to Somalis,” to learn, Ali says. (Photo by Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

An evening class at Foster High School in Tukwila is helping people learn Somali. It’s not an easy language, but in a region with a lot of Somali immigrants, a few words go a long way.

The steam from sweet Somali tea floats out of white plastic-foam cups as a handful of people weave in between desks tentatively greeting each other: “Barasho wanaagsan” (good to meet you).

This cheery Tukwila classroom, on loan from Foster High School, is hosting a series of weekly Somali-language classes through December.

It’s the second such course offered by the nonprofit Somali Community Services Coalition and it’s a rare opportunity for those who work and live with our region’s sizable Somali community.

There’s no Somali-language classes available elsewhere,” says Nick Valera of the coalition, “I think there’s one that started in Minnesota recently … other than that there’s nothing that we’re aware of.”

Tonight’s students are paying $150 and spending one evening a week here for the next three months for a number of different reasons.

Many are teachers and tutors who work with Somali English-language learners. Some live in areas that have large Somali populations and want to be able to communicate with their neighbors. Others are here because they need a basic knowledge of Somali to effectively do their jobs.

Rachel Eagan, an AmeriCorps VISTA employee who came from Buffalo, New York, to the Northwest, “because it has a bigger global community” works with the East African population in South Seattle. She says basic Somali language skills will help her with her after-school programming.

Instructor Doug Person points to the screen during the Somali class held in Tukwila. Registration is still open for fall classes. (Photo by Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Instructor Doug Person points to the screen during the Somali class held in Tukwila. Registration is still open for fall classes. (Photo by Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

“Now when the kids try and teach me words I’ll know they’re not swear words,” she jokes.

But the communication barrier can also be serious.

Beth Paquette is the school-district nurse in Tukwila. Often named as one of the most diverse in the nation, the Tukwila district serves many of the thousands of Somali students in Washington state who qualify for English language learner services.

“I wanted to be able to talk to my students who are new to the country, when they struggle the most,” says Paquette. “The students would come to me and say, ‘I’m sick,’ because that’s the only word they know, and then it’s really difficult to try and figure out what’s bothering them.”

Paquette is serious about the Somali language. She took the first course (offered last spring) and is back to learn more. But she admits it’s a challenge, especially pronunciation.

“Somalis sometimes say [Americans] speak from our noses,” says Doug Person, the course instructor, who learned the Somali language (and how to make the Somali tea he shares with students) while living and working in Somali refugee camps for many years.

“Most Somali sounds come from down here,” Person explains running his fingers up and down his bearded throat.

Somali pronunciation is so complex that Person has brought in Abdi Mohamed Ali, who arrived in Seattle from Somalia in 2009, as an assistant who guides the class through exercises that help students practice new sounds.

I have to admit, the first time I saw written Somali (which, like English, uses the Latin alphabet) it looked a little like what happens when your cat walks across your keyboard. But to hear it spoken by Ali is to listen to a throaty and lyrical language that I can’t help but want to try and speak myself.

When I asked Ali what the key was to truly mastering the language, he answered, “You need to speak to Somalis. It doesn’t matter if you make a mistake … the more you communicate, the more you make it perfect.”

In Ali’s advice I also heard something else: a hope for more interaction between the Somali and the non-Somali population. That desire to build community is shared by the students — who on their break chatted about favorite Somali restaurants and swapped information about respectful forms of greetings.

“When [the kids’] parents come to pick them up, I’ll just smile and say, ‘wanaagsan,’ and their faces just light up,” says Paquette. “They know I’m trying.”

If you’re interested in trying, too, registration for fall is still open, and another course will be offered in January: www.somalicsc.org

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
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