In danger of losing the Somali language.: Becoming Minnesotan

Abdisalam Adam, displaying Somali objects and books, 2004.
  • Name - Abdisalam Adam
  • Age at interview - 38
  • Gender - Male
  • Generation - First Generation American / Immigrant
  • Date of Interview - 06.24.2004
  • Eid al-Adha meal, Minneapolis, February 1, 2004.  Minnesota Historical Society.
    Somali girls at Eid al-Adha celebration, Minneapolis Convention Center.

    We Are Here

    Language, Somali

    Essential Question

    We Are Here: What does it mean to this immigrant group to be here in America?

    Cultural Preservation: How does a person weave his or her traditional culture into a new American identity?

    Words to look for


    Background Information

    Most Somalis can speak more than one language.  Italian was commonly spoken in Somalia in the early part of the 20th century, since Somalia was colonized by Italy, and is still sometimes spoken today.  It is also common for Somalis to speak Arabic since it is the language of the Quran, the Islamic Holy Book.   Swahili is sometimes spoken along the coast, since it is the official language of Kenya and Tanzania, two trading partners along the Indian Ocean, and is often learned by Somali refugees who've relocated to those countries.  Borana is a language spoken in northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia.  Finally, English is widely spoken in Somalia because of the British influence and the political and commercial value of the language in the world today and some Somalis who have fled to Kenya or Ethiopia have learned English because English is an official language in Kenya and often spoken in Ethiopia.

    As more Somalis in the U.S. learn English in order to succeed in American schools and jobs, there is a fear that the Somali language will die out.  Somalis generally feel that much of their culture is tied up in their language, so they must keep up the language in order to maintain their culture. 

    To learn more about Somali history and culture, visit our Somali Community page.

    • Chapter 1

    Download Abdisalam Adam 10
    2:26 Minutes | 2.33Mb


    Narrator: Abdisalam Adam (AA)

    Interviewer: Andy Wilhide (AW)

    AA:  Another very important value is the Somali language and how to maintain it. Our children who are born here or who are growing up here, are they going to be able to keep this language and continue speaking it? Or are they going to lose it and assimilate into the mainstream and forget about Somalian? That was the language that they spoke or their parents spoke. That also is going to be really challenging. Right now, I’m worried that when it comes to the Somali language, we seem to be losing it, and we have not done much about preserving it. I’m not aware of any institutions that the community have formed to teach it. I have not seen material being written to preserve it, so I see a real challenge there.

    I feel that regardless...definitely, English is the number one language. Yes, we should learn it. We should speak it, and everyone should be very proficient in the English language. At the same time, it does not hurt, and it’s very beneficial, for one to speak another language. So speaking Somali and keeping our Somali makes you even more valuable and more of an asset in a global world. If you speak Somali, maybe one day you may become U.S. ambassador to Somalia as long as you speak the language and you know both systems.

    It’s always beneficial to speak many languages. The U.S. is feeling that today, the need for people to be able to speak other languages. If you speak Somali, Arabic, Swahili, Italian…Somalis generally are multilingual. We have Somalis who speak many languages. We should maintain that value and should not lose our language, I believe.

    AW:  Of the many languages, what languages are you talking about?

    AA:  You may find Somalis who speak English, Arabic, Italian, Swahili. They did not speak this before the breakdown of the Somali state, but, as the refugees pass through Kenya, many of them have learned Swahili. In Somalia itself a long time ago, the educational system was in these three languages: Italian, English, and Arabic. So it’s typical and quite common to find a Somali who speaks a number of languages.

    Related Glossary Terms


    Noun:  An official representative of one government who conducts business with another government.


    Noun:  Something that is desired becuase of its value.


    Verb:  To absorb into a community by adopting that community's traditions or culture.  (assimilates, assimilating, assimilated)


    Adjective:  Helpful or good to something or someone.


    Noun:  A group of people who share a common understanding of the same language, manners, tradition and law.


    Noun:  An established organisation, especially one dedicated to education, public service, culture or the care of the destitute, poor, etc.


    Noun:  That which is common; the norm.

    Adjective:  Common; usual; conventional.


    Adjective:  Worldly, as opposed to spiritual. 

    Noun:  Something used or made for the object of study.


    Adjective:  The ability to speak more than two languages.


    Verb:  To protect; to keep; to maintain the condition of.  (preserves, preserving, preserved)


    Adjective:  Good at; skilled; fluent; practiced, especially in relation to a task or skill.


    Noun:  A person forced to leave his or her own country and seek refuge in a foreign country out of fear of persecution or violence or because of poverty or natural disaster.


    Noun:  The quality that makes something desirable or valuable; the degree of importance one gives to something. 

    Verb:  To regard highly; think much of; place importance upon.  (values, valuing, valued)


    Minnesota Historical Society. Becoming Minnesotan: Stories of Recent Immigrants and Refugees. September 2010. Institute of Museum and Library Services. [Date of access].
    nid: 526