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11 Ways Running is Like Learning a Foreign Language

Two accomplishments I feel rather proud of were accomplished in Africa. Here, I became a runner and here I learned a foreign language. Actually two: French and Somali. Both were incredibly hard and both changed the way I see the world. Amazingly, they have some things in common. Here are eleven ways that running is like learning a foreign language, in my case, Somali.

running and language

1. Its hard.

I thought I was going to die during my first mile-long run in Djibouti and I was already in relatively good shape from doing aerobics. At the end I put my hands on my knees and gasped. “People do this, like, for fun?!” Same with studying Somali. It was hard, required obscene amounts of time and strenuous effort.

2. Progress is slow and steady.

I added a few minutes to my runs each week and built endurance. A 5k turned into a 10k, turned into a half marathon, turned into three full marathons. But that took years. A grunted sentence in Somali, “Me like rice” turned into grammatically correct, multi-faceted sentences that include cultural knowledge as well as vocab, “I like rice that has been cooked on holidays and dyed pink and blue, with roasted lamb and hot sauce.”

3. There are pitfalls along the way.

Injuries, tripping over stones in the desert, getting lost while running in a new city. Mistakes in language usage that leaves one saying, “Do you want my husband?” instead of, “This is my husband.”

4. They change the way you see the world.

I now notice runners everywhere, I notice shoes. A guest leaves a pair of Asics by the door and I know she is a runner. I even know they are Asics. I see the world in terms of running trails and get to know new places while on my feet. Learning Somali has taught me new things about history and justice, camels and color and saying ‘Thank you,’ or not.

5.  They open up new communities.

I didn’t know people existed who use the word “bonk” in normal conversation or who eat Gu on purpose or who think nothing is wasted about four hours spent running solo or who don’t seem to want all their toenails. Not only have I met these people, I’ve become one of them. I didn’t know people who laughed back in their throat like Somalis or who could memorize entire poems and stories simply by listening or who would sweep and mop my house when I come back from time in the US simply because they cared about me. Now I call those people friends.

6. They are never done.

I can cross off a run for the day but I am never done being a runner. It is who I am now. I will never be fluent in Somali. I am now a Somali-language-learner.

7. They make you do embarrassing things.

Running in the hottest country in the world makes me sweat in unmentionable places. On the run things like farts, spit and other bodily fluids have been, um, encountered. Certain stories remain on the trail. Learning a language also brings up embarrassments. Giving speeches in broken Somali, being featured on YouTube under the title, “White Woman Speaks Somali!”, language mistakes (see #3).

8. They make you feel proud.

Not in a boastful, arrogant way. But they make you feel like you have accomplished something hard, worthwhile, satisfying. A marathon. The first novel read in the new language.

9. They draw strange looks from people.

Once at the end of a run in the hot season, a child saw me and was so frightened he tried to crawl onto the back of my guard, who was praying at the time. The kid screamed, “help me! help me!” When I asked the guard who the kid was he said, “I never met him before in my life.” When I speak Somali sometimes people have physically fallen to the ground in shock. Other times they simply stare. That happens a lot while I run, too.

10. They make muscles ache and make the muscles stronger.

My legs will never be the same. I’m no Paula Radcliffe but I think I’ve got some calf muscle that wasn’t there a decade ago. Don’t mess with my calves. Don’t mess with my uvula, either. Or whatever it is in my throat making those kh, q, c noises. The first few months speaking Somali made the back of my throat ache like my legs ached the first few weeks running.

11. They require support.

I needed the people who cheered me on during the marathons and other races, needed to see their faces and hear their cheers, needed to grab the Gu or the water bottle. I am so thankful they were there at the end, sometimes to literally catch me, that they were there while I trained. Biking alongside, taking care of the kids. I’ll never forget the chocolate-covered strawberries waiting for me at my front door when I got home from my first marathon, a surprise gift from my sister who lived states and states away. Learning language requires similar support, cheerleaders, encouragers, motivators. Maybe some fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie deliveries. People who notice the minutest increments of progress and who honor that.

Runners? Language learners?

Anything else the two have in common?

How to Learn Somali

The best way to learn a language is by spending time with people who speak that language.

The best way to learn a language is by taking language courses.

The best way to learn a language is by memorizing grammar.

The best way to learn a language is by only have oral lessons and never studying grammar.

The best way to learn a language is by…

There isn’t really a best way to learn a language.

Work hard. Have fun. Use it. Make an idiot of yourself. Use some materials.

learning somali

Many people ask me what are the most useful materials for learning Somali. I think that I have used or at least perused every Somali grammar book that exists, including ones written with pencil and photocopied hundreds of times.

Here are my best recommendations.

Colloquial Somali Book by Martin Orwin

Colloquial Somali CDs

Somali Reference Grammar

Somali Textbook (we call this the brown book though I hear it also comes in blue)

Somali-English Dictionary/With English Index

Yes, some of these really are that expensive. But if you are serious about learning Somali, I would still recommend them. Especially that obscenely expensive dictionary. We paid that much, years ago, and for several years, used it multiple times every single day. It was a good investment.

Have you found other good materials?

Language Learning

Quick link: Language Learning Methods – Whatever It Takes

Today I’m writing about learning languages over at A Life Overseas, sharing a few of my techniques and lessons learned.

language learning2

There are all kinds of language learning methodsLAMP (Language Acquisition Made Practical), GPA (Growing Participator Approach), community education classes, hiring tutors. Some methods require people to only listen for a set period of time, no speaking allowed. Some require classroom study. Some prohibit grammar study. My personal favorite is one called: Whatever It Takes in which you do every possible thing to learn a language.

Click here to read more Language Learning Methods – Whatever It Takes

What I Learned When I Failed to Learn Somali

Today I am sharing an article I had published yesterday at The Smart Set: What I Learned When I Failed to Learn Somali.

Its about, well, read the title. Yeah, that.

I’m so happy with the feedback I’ve already received from the Somali and Djiboutian community about the piece – Waad mahadsan tihiin! It is a deep honor to be welcomed into your culture and language and to be received with warmth and encouragement.

The Smart Set published Big Knife Thursdays back in late July. As a follow-up, guess what Henry got for his thirteenth birthday? A big knife. A big, machete-style knife. Maggie already had one. Oh boy.

Here’s a clip from the piece about learning Somali.


There are 16 ways to form a sentence using the same six words in Somali. The man cuts his beard with a razor. His beard with a razor the man cuts. With a razor the man his beard cuts. With a razor cuts the man his beard. And on and on.

It doesn’t work in English.

Somali uses small changes, a ‘u’ at the end of a word instead of an ‘i.’ Waa, or waxaainstead of baa which affects the placement and stress and subject and object of words in the sentence but which means nothing by itself.

This makes Somali a challenging language to learn for non-native speakers.

Somali also has words specific to the life of camel-herding nomads, words with no direct translation into English. Words for the Ethiopian women who carry bundles of sticks on their hunched-over backs. Different words for different genders of camels, different ages, whether or not a camel has given birth.

This makes Somali a challenging language to learn for non-native, non-nomadic, non-camel-herding speakers.

Click here to read the rest of What I Learned When I Failed to Learn Somali.

The Aim of Language Learning

New post at A Life Overseas today.

Practicing body parts

Practicing body parts

I posted a note on Facebook about a language lesson and received this comment, “Are you still studying language? I thought you’d be fluent by now.”


It has been more than a decade. What’s my problem?

I can make a list of excuses. I speak two, sometimes three languages. I had two-year old twins when we arrived and added another baby. My family endured an emergency evacuation, searing conflict, work crises…I could say this particular language is just plain too hard: there are few textbooks, the two that exist are error-filled and not my dialect. The written form is young and still working out spelling kinks. Or I could say I’m stupid or I’m not a language person. Or I haven’t worked hard.

In other words, I could blame language difficulty on situations, the language itself, or my failings.

Read more here. And join the conversation at A Life Overseas, or here. Comment, Facebook it, Tweet it out. I would love to hear your own successes and funnies and failures and frustrations and tips when it comes to language. Believe you me, I’ve had my share of all. And then some.

Anyone want to marry my husband? Eat the toilet? Plant corn seed in the liver? Am I tired or am I giving birth? Do I want garlic or tuna fish on my salad? Please put the ground beef in the air conditioner. Did I ask about washing before prayers or about the F-bomb?

And so it goes.

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