A 10-week Intermediate and Advanced Somali course for heritage speakers (people of Somali background), as well as non-Somali community members, will begin next week through the Experimental College.

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When you think of languages to study in school, what comes to mind? Spanish? French? German? Maybe Mandarin? Whatever it is, it’s probably not Somali, the language of millions around the world and the heritage language of tens of thousands more here in the Pacific Northwest.

“You can grow up in Seattle, you could be born here, go to K-12 here, go to the UW. You could live a full adult life and you’ve never heard the words ‘Somali’ and ‘class’ together,” says John Compton of One City Project, a nonprofit devoted to connecting people in our region with the languages spoken in their communities.

And while there has been at least one other basic Somali language course offered in recent years, geared toward service providers, there are currently no formal courses in the Pacific Northwest. That’s despite the fact our region boasts one of the largest Somali American populations in the country.

Now that’s about to change. A 10-week Intermediate and Advanced Somali course for heritage speakers (people of Somali background), as well as non-Somali community members, will begin next week through the Experimental College. The college is a student organization that offers noncredit courses for University of Washington students, as well as for community members.

“There’s never been a chance for us to sit down and to learn how to read and write, [how to] write articles, how to translate things, how to communicate in a professional setting,” says Nazmah Hasaan, an environmental-health major and member of the UW Somali Student Association. She hopes to use Somali language skills to engage members of the Somali community on environmental issues.

“Even though we’re heritage speakers, when we look at a document, it’s like we’re first-graders where you have to sound everything out,” agrees Nawal Ahmed, a pre-nursing major at the UW eager to interpret in medical settings.

Using survey data, Hasaan and Ahmed have worked with the Somali Student Association and Compton to pitch to UW’s Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity a matriculated, for-credit, Somali-language course at the university.

And while they’re waiting to hear back on the proposal, they hope the Experimental College class will be a first step toward proving the need for such a course. They say formal Somali language instruction at the university would help train teachers and service providers who work with Somali populations, and it would encourage a new generation of Somali Americans to keep the language of their parents alive.

“I brought my culture and my language here, and I want to leave it for my kids,” says Dualeh Hersi, a program manager at Amazon who has helped advocate for Somali-language instruction at the UW and will be teaching the course, beginning next week. Hersi says it’s been challenging getting materials together for such an infrequently taught language, but that he’s planning to use what he’s found to build an online database of Somali-language learning resources.

“It’s going to be a trial run,” says Hersi of the upcoming course. “But hopefully this will be the moment when things start to change.”

A movement to bring Somali-language instruction to the UW comes amid larger discussions and protests over race, diversity and representation on campus.

“The Somali population specifically is a population of refugees, often settled in low-income communities,” says Hasaan. “It’s kind of daunting and new for us to be first-generation students from low-income backgrounds from uneducated parents. … Having this class would make it feel like, ‘You deserve to be here.’ ”

It’s a lot of pressure for one no-credit class, but it’s that important, says Hersi, who mingles the political and cultural implications of such a course alongside a passion for a language he says blends beauty and wisdom.

“The Somali language is poetry,” he says.

“Aqoon la’aani waa Iftiin la’aan,” he texted me later. Or, “To be without knowledge is to be without light.”

And what university would disagree with that?