We have language exchange for an hour, twice a week. We sit at a picnic table, speaking English for the first half hour and Somali for the second half hour. In English, I wear my “encouraging” face, nodding with eyebrows raised, while she sputters and stumbles around absentee vocabulary. In Somali, I sputter and she encourages, repeating sentences so slowly they cease to connect — just a list of words I struggle to grasp.
I appreciate her, though. We have a sort of mutual understanding, which is surprisingly hard to come by. We both recognise that the other has thoughts and ideas far beyond what is expressible in a foreign tongue. I can see it in her eyes, the way they search and consider and crinkle around the edges when the right word doesn’t come. She can see it in my hands, in how they tense and flatten with frustration when I can’t transform my thought into Somali. We just sit there, looking at each other, trying to guess what the other wants to say.
It must be something incredible, I think. She is already an incredible speaker in English, even though she’s missing basic words like “stone” and “roof.” To understand her in Somali would be beyond striking, and that has become my motivation. I don’t care about buying things in the market, or answering the phone — no, no. I just want to learn Somali to understand her ideas, the ones that just won’t cooperate in English.
I listen — ii gu celi? — and then listen again. I can tell she’s continuing our conversation about justice, but I lose her in translation. My response is feeble, but I’m glad for the chance to try. Otherwise, our interactions would be defined by English. I would always be fluent, and she would always have to stumble.