By Mohamed Abdi
Due to aging parents, youngsters drifting away from their heritage language, and the lack of unifying institutions, the use of the Somali language by Somali Canadians will disappear within three generations. Somali is a Cushitic language spoken by more than thirty million Somalis, regardless of their geographical locations. It is the mother tongue of an oral society dubbed “The Nation of Poets”. Somalis prefer oral stories and information to books, daily papers, or periodicals; and that is why they are called an oral society.
Every language identifies and defines its people and the Somali language is no exception. It defines the Somali people and sets them apart from other nations. The Somali language remained unwritten up until 1972 when then Somalia’s revolutionary government structured and implemented its use in schools and public institutions. However, it had been operational for only 18 years when the country’s central government collapsed, leaving its citizens in a state of disarray. The country’s civil war has fragmented its people as well as its language. But the toughest circumstance has affected the Diaspora Somalis, especially those living in Canada.
With aging parents, the Somali language’s future is bleak because the next generation in line is not prepared to carry on the use of the language. Somali household heads that came to Canada aged above thirty or forty in the early 1990s are now in their mid-sixties or seventies. So they are aging parents who do not expect to linger that long. Their children’s lack of Somali language disheartens them. Although Somali parents would like to impart the language to their children, the language is not sinking in for them. They do not even consider it to be their mother tongue; English is. They are detached from their heritage language because their mind is so encrusted with English to the extent they do not have any space for their parents’ mother tongue.
Both parents and children face a language barrier. Somali parents speak with their children in Somali, but the children respond in English. The two of them are on two different spectrums. While the children’s English is fluent and flawless, many Somali-Canadian parents cannot communicate in English effectively. However, they feel forced to use whatever English they have to communicate with them. Besides English, French is an official language in Canada, although only one province of the country entirely uses French. So, Somali-Canadian families that speak French must face the same experience.
Because youngsters are unable to speak well-constructed Somali, they shy away from using the language. They feel ashamed when they are laughed at or told to say such a Somali word accurately. And laughing at their way of speaking Somali discourages them from practicing the language, so it is imperative to not laugh at them when they corrupt Somali sentences. Somali is not the home language of the Somali-Canadian community. Home language is considered to be one spoken at home by household members. At home, though, Somali parents talk to each other in Somali, but their children speak with one another in English or French. Hence Somali is not the home language.
What will happen when the diasporic, aging Somali parents pass on? These aging parents dread leaving behind an offspring that is unable to communicate in Somali. And the inability to speak in Somali ushers in the death of the language itself. Their children will continue to converse with each other in English unless they want to hide a secret at which time they speak some broken Somali sentences(This situation might happen when they are with non-Somali speakers).
The real challenge will transpire when children of the aging parents get their families and have children of their own. Now, this is the third generation category ofpeople of Somali descent; during this time, the Somali language will disappear unless something miraculous takes place. The above-mentioned aging parents are the first generation, their children are the second generation, and children of these children are the third generation. According to Statistics Canada: (“1-First generation: This category includes persons who were born outside Canada. For the most part, these are people who are now, or once were, immigrants to Canada; 2-Second generation: This category includes persons who were born in Canada and had at least one parent born outside Canada. For the most part, these are the children of immigrants; 3-Third generation or more: This category includes persons who were born in Canada with both parents born in Canada”). Grandchildren of the elderly Somali-Canadian parents will not speak Somali at all. Unlike their parents who could speak it, albeit in broken statements, the grandchildren will not have that opportunity. How can someone speak or retain a language that their parents do not speak? Impossible.
Some may argue that the rising rate of Somalis being brought to Canada may help rescue the disappearing language. But unless they do things differently, the language condition will remain the same. And it is unlikely they will change course, for the current status of Somalis is premised on division and discord to the extent they cannot collectively work on the common good. Like those who came before them, Somalis new to Canada will begin to wrestle with life’s requirements to make ends meet. They will send their children to mainstream schools, work two jobs or more, and become so tired to do anything else.
Another factor contributing to the Somali language’s quick demise is the lack of unifying Community Centres. The Somali-Canadian community has failed to set up institutions that can work for their collective grounds and well-being, thereby making segments of the community work in silos. Strong Somali centres that can effectively teach the language to young generations do not exist in the country. And division is to be blamed for many ailments that pain the community.
Somali is not only a heritage language but also a faith language. Knowing Somali is to know about Islam; in other words, the Somali language is linked to identity, faith, and connection. Its loss will culminate in the disconnection between family members, meaning those living in Canada will not be unable to understand or communicate with those back home. Although the future of the Somali language in Canada looks bleak, Allah (God) changes conditions in a blink of an eye. So hope must be retained. Nonetheless, the community ought to do something concrete in order to salvage the withering language. Establishing dedicated centres to teach the language might be the first step. Also, speaking Somali at home, encouraging youngsters to use it, and staying away from shaming them when they make mistakes are all good strategies to preserve the declining language.
Mohamed Abdi is a Somali
Email: [email protected]
Mohamed Abdi is a Somali-Canadian writer
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