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?

A Christmas Story about a Surprising Baby Named God (not that one)

Quick link: A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God


This is a story close to my heart because it is about my first friend here, someone who was and remains exceedingly precious to me and my whole family. Someone who made me believe that this place, so different from Minnesota, could become home. Someone, without whom, I sincerely doubt we could have stayed so long.

When I needed someone to love my kids, she did. When I needed someone to make me laugh, she could. When I wanted to understand a cultural thing, she untangled it for me. When I need someone to hear my anger or my sorrow, she welcomed it.

This is a story of two women, coming from such different places, with such different faiths and such different ways of living, and finding each other, finding ourselves, together. It is about becoming mothers and about digging into our souls and finding beauty there.

When God and his mother were released from the maternity ward they came directly to my house to use the air conditioner. It was early May and the summer heat that melted lollipops and caused car tires to burst enveloped Djibouti like a wet blanket. Power outages could exceed ten hours a day. Temperatures hadn’t peaked yet, 120 degrees would come in August, but the spring humidity without functioning fans during power outages turned everyone into hapless puddles. I prepared a mattress for Amaal* and her newborn and prayed the electricity would stay on so she could use the air conditioner and rest, recover.

In 2004 when my family arrived in Djibouti, I needed help minimizing the constant layer of dust; Amaal needed a job. I needed a friend and Amaal, with her quick laugh and cultural insights became my lifeline. My husband worked at the University of Djibouti and was gone most mornings and afternoons, plus some evenings. We had 4-year-old twins and without Amaal I might have packed our bags and returned to Minnesota out of loneliness and culture shock.

I hired Amaal before she had any children. She wasn’t married yet and her phone often rang while she worked, boys calling to see what she was doing on Thursday evening. To see if she wanted to go for a walk down the streets without street lights where young people could clandestinely hold hands or drink beer from glass Coca-Cola bottles. She rarely said yes until Abdi Fatah* started calling. He didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t pressure her into more physical contact than she was comfortable with in this Muslim country. She felt respected. She said yes.

Click here to read the rest of A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God

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?

How to Speak Somali Without Saying a Word

I’m not Somali, I’m a Somali-language learner. I relied heavily on Colloquial Somali in my early years. I’m bound to make mistakes in the following post. Please feel free to correct me but no internet-haters, okay? I promise I won’t come around your blog and tell you what a terrible person you must be if you make an English mistake or cultural error, okay? Deal? Also, remember I started learning Somali in Somaliland and have continued in Djibouti so I speak a mix. Anyway, here goes…

Somali is a lively, vibrant, guttural language with loads of gestures. Before I studied it, it seemed like every group of Somalis I saw speaking together were on the verge of a brawl. Probably they were just talking about tea or camels or football. One of my favorite things about Somali is that it is a great language to get angry in. The forceful sounds and exaggerated hand movements are perfect for when this timid introvert loses her temper.

Once I was, rightfully, upset. I started to explain my situation in English but the English-speaking staff where I was didn’t get it. I switched to French and they began to sense my frustration. But it was only when I turned on the full throttle Somali that they grasped the true nature of my anger and did something to improve things.

Speak Somali without saying a word…


Using one finger, like in America, is how you call a dog. Point your palm down, fingers open, then cup your fingers closed – not in a fist – with the thumb outside the fingers.



Necessary/required/you have to

Push the side of the nose with one finger. My arm probably shouldn’t be out so far to the side but the kids were getting tired of taking pictures so I kept it.


Qasab/you have to


Over there

Point with either chin or tongue


waa kaa/there it is



Touch thumb and fingers and shake it slightly back and forth




Full (or a lot or crowded or packed)

Hold the hand in a fist with the thumb out and brush the thumb under the chin, flicking it out


buux/full (as corrected by Liiban, thanks!)


This is an insult men give to women. ‘Nuf said.

Instead of taking a new shot without the hair in my face, I left it in. That’s how this one makes me feel – frizzy.




Touch the temple with the index finger, all other fingers splayed open, and twist the hand at the same time as pulling it away from the forehead.




Don’t you dare

Grab the lobe of one ear between the thumb and space between the first two knuckles of the index finger and shake it. The Somali word for this sort of sounds like what a pirate might say. Argh. The ‘c’ is an ayn, not at all related to the English ‘c’.


car/don’t you dare



I’m never good at this and all my Somali-smile pictures have a goofy upturn on one side of my lips

We are all thrilled, for reals, to be at this wedding

If you are learning a new language, don’t forget about the non-verbals.

What are some gestures your language uses?

By |April 10th, 2013|Categories: somalia|Tags: , |69 Comments
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