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Minnesota college offers Somali language classes

October 13, 2018

NORTH MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — A diverse set of foreign languages are taught at area colleges, but until last month they didn’t include one of the languages most frequently spoken in the region.

Students in various courses at Minnesota State University could say there are at least huit, acht, ocho, atte, atta, sahdogan, nishwaaswi and “bay” language options available — depending on whether they’re enrolled in French, German, Spanish, Norwegian, Swedish, Dakota, Ojibwe or Chinese.

Traveling up Highway 169 to Gustavus Adolphus College or Highway 60 to St. Olaf and Carleton colleges, students could add Japanese, Greek, Latin, Russian, Arabic and Hebrew to their list of choices.

Starting this semester, thanks to instructor Garaad Muse’s recent lesson, students at South Central College could announce in Somali that there are now “afar iyo toban” languages offered within “lixdan” miles of Mankato. The newest offerings are right in Mankato-North Mankato — Ojibwe at MSU and Somali across the Minnesota River at SCC.

“I’m very glad,” Fanah Adam, a Somali American who is an admissions adviser and designated student officer for international students at SCC, told The Free Press . “That’s kind of my dream.”

Adam isn’t alone in expressing pride that SCC is the first college in the region — the first in the Minnesota state colleges and universities system — to offer Somali. After all, it’s either the third or fourth most spoken language in the state, behind only English, Spanish and, possibly, Hmong. Focusing more tightly on Mankato and North Mankato, Somali is easily the third most used language, according to census statistics.

“The opportunity to offer this course is exciting for South Central College but exciting for the community as well,” said Judy Shultz, dean of liberal arts and sciences.

Maybe most excited of all is Adam, who designed the course curriculum and has been working for five years to bring the class to the North Mankato campus. Originally, Adam was going to teach the course starting in 2014, but there was little advance notice it would be offered and not enough students signed up.

There was a bigger push this summer to get the word out, and 16 students enrolled in a class that started by teaching the fundamental elements of the language and will advance to basic grammar by the end of the semester. An advanced-beginner course is likely in the spring semester, assuming many of the students want to keep learning Somali. The beginner class is also likely to be a continuing part of the course list at SCC, particularly as word spreads among business leaders, local governments and nonprofits.

“There’s a lot of business needs, a lot of government needs, social services, public schools,” Muse said. “Housing is another one, and also law enforcement.”

Because of union issues that kept Adam from being allowed to work as an instructor, Muse was recruited to teach the course and commutes every Tuesday and Thursday from Shakopee, where he’s a trainer at the Amazon sorting facility.

“And it’s going very, very well,” Muse said of the first half-dozen classes.

In this day’s class, students were learning Somali numbers and were likely pleased that the system was a little simpler than English, where a person has to know the specific names for all the numbers from 1 to 20. If English was like Somali, people wouldn’t have to know the names for 12 and 13 and 15. They’d just say “2 and 10,” ″3 and 10″ and “5 and 10.”

“So, you’re reusing ‘toban’ throughout 19,” Muse said, referring to the Somali word for 10, and showing how a person just adds the single-digit number to “toban.”

“How would you do, like, 121?” asked Jennifer Gareis, of New Ulm.

“You say ’100 and 20 and 1,’” he explained, then pointing to the Somali words for each number.

Gareis, who took Spanish at New Ulm High School, said Somali seems easier, liking that the sounds of the letters consistently match the pronunciation of the words.

“As long as you have the alphabet down, you can put it all together,” Gareis said.

Pursuing a degree in social work, Gareis said it made sense to sign up for the Somali class, particularly since she hopes to land a job in the Twin Cities, home of one of the largest populations of Somali immigrants in the United States.

“I figure that’s a hot ticket on my resume,” she said of the language courses.

And whether or not she’s ever fluent, Gareis expects future Somali clients will appreciate her effort to bridge the communication gap.

“I think they’ll show gratitude,” she said, adding that the course is also teaching her about Somali culture.

Muse was impressed by Gareis’ performance in the first month: “She’s doing great. The first quiz, she got 100 percent.”

The class has a surprising number of Somali immigrants, including Chano Abader — a 20-year-old SCC student who immigrated to the United States at age 13.

Abader said she speaks Somali at home, but speaking the language is different than reading it, writing it and explaining its grammar. Her mother wasn’t able to go to school during her childhood, a common circumstance for many in post-civil war Somalia.

“My mom doesn’t know how to read and write, so how can she teach me?” Abader said. “I have a lot of Somali friends, and they all kind of have the same story I do.”

So the children learned English and English grammar in their American schools, and this is a chance to pick up the same lessons in the language of their heritage.

For southern Minnesota residents whose families have been in America for generations, the Somali classes offer an opportunity to better communicate with the newest immigrants to the area. As student Cheiron McMahill emphasized, that means understanding both words and cultural norms.

Muse went through a basic two-person conversation on the classroom screen, showing the Somali and English versions with the conversation ending with one saying “Waxaad tahay qof wanaagsan”: “You are a good person.”

But would it be socially appropriate, McMahill wondered, for her to say that phrase to a Somali person she didn’t know well? Would it be seen as being too intimate? Or could she say it to a Somali American in, say, a grocery store?

Muse laughed. Not only would it be appropriate, he said, it would be absolutely astounding to the recipient, who would tell all of his or her friends about it.

“If you say, ‘You are a good person,’ they will be so happy,” Muse said. ”‘A white lady in a store told me I was a good person!’”

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Information from: The Free Press, http://www.mankatofreepress.com

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