Muslim Immigrants Learn English

Learning English is one of the main struggles for many immigrants who come to Minnesota. As part of KFAI’s Muslims in Minnesota series, reporter Sarah Boden explores how immigrants who share a faith in Islam accomplish this daunting task.

Smatterings of English and Spanish mix with the mostly Somali language spoken at the Dur Dur Bakery and Grocery store on Minneapolis’ East Lake Street. Hohamoud Abdullahi Diis works eight hours a day behind the counter. He communicates using hand signals and other gestures for his non-Somali customers.

“When you first came to the US did you know any English?” a visitor asked.

“I understand, but I can’t speaking…” Diis tried to explain.

“Is becoming more proficient in English something you want to do? “ he was asked.

“Yeah, I need more English,” Diis said. “I want…I want to teach—learn English. But I don’t have time. Sometimes, I not going to class.”

Diis’ occasional inability to connect with his customers is a common problem with immigrants to America, according to Martha Bigalow, who trains English as a Second Language teachers at the University of Minnesota.

“We don’t do anywhere near as good a job as other countries do in offering free and easily acceptable ESL classes,” Bigalow said. “Our adult basic education classes have been cut. A lot of times classes are not offered at times assessable to working adults or moms with lots of kids. A lot of times there is no childcare available.”

Public policy often gets in the way of people who sincerely want to earn English but just are not able to because of funding for programs and the lack of incentives for people to attend them.

Somali is a Cushitic language of the Afro-Asiatic family. Other Cushitic languages include Oromo and Hadia. The Somali alphabet, athough similar to English, presents challenges to native speakers striving to become bilingual. The sounds of certain letters differ from Somali to English, and the sounds of P, V, and Z do not exist.

Ramla Bile, whose father owns and operates DurDur store, explains: “It can be very difficult because you’re really starting from scratch and people have a tendency to try and use what they know,” Bile said. “So then things come out wrong and what people are saying, they don’t mean at all.”

All nouns in Somali, like Romance Languages, have genders and each verb is conjugated. The sentence, “I went to the big store,” would be constructed in Somali, “Store, big, I went.”

Despite the obstacles the vast majority of immigrants want to--and do--learn English, even those who plan one day to return to their country of origins, the University of Minnesota’s Bigelow said. Nur Ali Abdi, who also works in Dur Dur’s butcher shop, explains it this way said it’s not just because it’s useful in this country.

“The English language is a beneficial language,” Ali Abdi said. “English is the number one international language. It will not be, I think, something that, hat make people who are going back home will just put aside the English language.”

Minneapolis has a very educated Somali population, with the largest amount of politicians of the Diaspora. For many immigrants, the loss of status due to a lack of fluency in English can be psychologically painful.

Ifrah Mansour is an Elementary Education major at the University of Minnesota who moved to the United States in 1998. She tutors at Seward Tower East in Minneapolis a couple days a week as part of her work study and sees the hurt this loss of identity causes.

“They have this prestigious position (in their home country) and then they come here and they find themselves at the bottom,” Mansour said. “It’s really heart breaking. It's one of the things that saddens me.”

Ifrah smiles a lot and has a very easy, patient disposition making her a favorite with the adults who come for English lessons at Seward Tower. On the way into the center, one of her pupils asked when she will be available for tutoring. Many of her pupils have her cell phone number.

Ifrah said coming from the same cultural helps her students learn because she can commiserate with the struggles they are now facing.

“Sometimes, of course, I do play the middle person with the other tutors,” she said. “They will send the person they're working with and say Ifrah can explain that to you. It's not just tutoring. It’s also explaining and being the kind of cultural bridger person.”

Back at Dur Dur, another employee, Nur Hadi Ahmed, invokes what his Islamic faith says about learning.

“We do have the saying from the prophet Mohammed: ‘seek knowledge from the day that you’re born to the day that you’re dead,’” Ahmed said. “We’re obligated to learn some more.”

Nearly every American has ancestors that at one time resembled the melting pot of employees and shoppers at Dur Dur. If current attitudes are a guide, employee Ahmed said, those ancestors were made to feel substandard if they didn’t speak English.

“All the human beings are the same,” he said. “Maybe we got different language, different customs, different religions…but mainly all the human beings are the same.

Ahmed suggests people remain polite even if it’s difficult to understand newcomers to the language. Chances are, they’re learning as they go.

By Sarah Boden