Mom Asks: How can I improve my child’s Somali language skills?



By: Sirad Shirdon

One question that I often get from Somali parents is how to improve children’s Somali language skills.  Exposure to language rich environments is crucial in developing children’s oral and written language skills. A strong foundation in a child’s first language (L1) will help facilitate a child’s acquisition of their second language (L2). According to the Linguistic Interdependence theory (Cummins, 1979), while all languages have surface differences, there are competencies that are common amongst all languages. Some features of language common across all languages systems are content learning, abstract thinking, literacy and problem solving. A child is able to transfer these common competencies in their learning of their L2, which would thus facilitate their acquisition. For the Somali child, the higher their Somali language skills are developed, the higher their second language development will be. As a result, many researchers have advocated for the use of using children’s L1 in the instruction of L2 oral and written language (e.g., Garcia, Kleifgan & Falchi, 2008; Castro, Paez, Dickinson & Frede, 2011).

For Somali children, there are many benefits to learning Somali including better acquisition of the English language.  What are things Somali parents can do to improve their child’s L1?

Turn off the TV!

Too many of our children spend a lot of time in front of the television or other gadgets (e.g., phones, ipads). Aside from the implications of watching TV on a young child’s developing brain [see Your child’s developing brain and television], children will develop an attachment to their favorite shows and early on, begin to develop positive associations with the English language. While there is nothing wrong with this, for some children this can lead to an early privileging of the English language over the Somali language. I’ve interacted with many parents who lament that their preschool aged children refuse to speak Somali, in favor of English. Early on, children understand the currency of the English language and want to use it exclusively, which results in the loss of their Somali language skills. Turning the TV off will improve children’s social relationships with their parents, siblings and other relatives in the home; if the language of the home is Somali, then these improved social relationships will extend to positive associations with the Somali language.


Engage your child in conversation by asking them questions. Begin with basic questions (e.g., what are you doing? What does the cow say? Are you hungry?), and when you think your child’s understanding of the Somali language is improving move on to more complex questions (e.g., why are you sad?).


Another way to build your child’s language is to comment on everything in your environment. When you’re engaging in a routine activity like washing the dishes or cooking dinner, use it as an opportunity to tell your child about what you’re doing. Be mindful of the words you’re using—use action words, talk about the colors, the sizes, and shapes of the objects you are working with. Every environment provides opportunities to build children’s Somali language skills!

Play with your child

Engaging in play with your child is a great opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your child, an activity which improves your child’s cognitive development and a great opportunity for exposing your child to Somali. One example, is that when you’re playing with blocks you can narrate what you are doing: “Look hooyo, I am stacking the blocks one on top of another. I’m gonna put the big one here, and the small one here. Let me count how many blocks there are….1-2-3-4-5. There are 5 blocks!” In the context of this one activity, you have exposed your child to a variety of Somali words including adjectives (e.g., big, small), prepositions (e.g., on) and numbers.

Share Somali stories, lullabies, songs and riddles with your child

One of the best ways to teach your child the Somali language is to share Somali stories, lullabies and riddles with your child. When I was young, my bedtime routine with my mother was for her to sing me to sleep with the children’s song, ‘Hoo wayye hoo waa”. My siblings and I also grew up with our parents sharing Somali children’s stories including Suul Cowre, Cigaal Shidaad, and Dhegdeer. As a child, this improved my understanding of the Somali language and culture, and until today there is a feeling of tranquility when I recall these experiences, as their associated with a cherished childhood.

Building up on your child’s vocabulary

When your child is beginning to speak Somali, they will begin with single words. When a child says a single word, respond with a phrase. For instance, if your child says ‘car’, you can respond with, ‘that is a big car’. This will help your child in building up to phrases (e.g., big car, small car, red car, fast car etc.), and eventually to sentences.

Acknowledge and praise your child’s attempts to speak Somali

I cannot stress the importance of praising children’s attempts to speak Somali. In the diaspora, it is not uncommon for adults to comment on children’s Somali language skills (or lack thereof). Comments at times can be derogatory, and reduce children’s confidence when speaking Somali. By praising children’s Somali (as basic as it is) you improve children’s confidence, and they are encouraged to continue trying to speak Somali. If a child speaks Somali, respond with praise: “I love the way you said that – your Somali is improving by the day!” If corrective feedback is required because the child did not say a word/phrase/sentence properly, rather than saying: “That’s wrong, this is how you say it,” model the correct way of saying it. When done enough times, the child will pick up on this and self-correct.


Sometimes, our children will not verbalize their requests because they believe their parents already know what they want. While that maybe true, by giving children what they want when they gesture (e.g., pull you or point to the object of their interest), you maybe unknowingly reinforcing the idea what children do not have to verbalize to request actions/objects. The next time your child points to an object, say “I can see you are pointing to something. What are you pointing to?” Once they verbalize their request, respond with praise (“I love it when you ask me for things using your words”) and then give them the item. For the child, this will reinforce that using Somali words for making requests is indeed a good thing, an act they will continue as it allows them to achieve their goals (by way of effectively communicating their needs) and receive repeated praise.

Immerse your child in Somali speaking environments

If you’re able to, regularly visit with your Somali speaking relatives. Being in these contexts allow children to be exposed to the Somali language and provide many opportunities to practice their Somali skills. Encourage your relatives to engage your children in Somali. Given that many Somalis live away from family members, connecting with your family virtually (e.g., Skype) may be a great idea. When my siblings and I were younger, we would record audio cassettes to send to our grandparents in Kenya. While the day of audio cassettes are well behind us, technology has provided us with the ability to make video calls to family back home. If this is done regularly enough, not only will your child build strong relationships with your family back home, but this will provide them with ample opportunities to practice their Somali skills.

We hope that these tips are helpful for you, in your quests to help foster a love for the Somali language within your children.



Castro, D., Paez, M., Dickinson, D. & Frede, El. (2011). Promoting language and literacy in young dual language learners. Child Development Perspectives, 5(1), 15-21

Cummins, J. (1979). Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research, 49, 222–251.

Garcia, O., Kleifgen, J., & Falchi, L. (2008). From English language learners to emergent bilinguals. Equity Matters: Research Review No. 1. New York: Teachers College Press.


3 thoughts on “Mom Asks: How can I improve my child’s Somali language skills?

  1. This is such a wonderful article! Have you thought about posting any of your resources in Somali for newcomers to English? As an ESL teacher, I lack resources for parents in their home language. This would be a fantastic site to refer to all my Somali families!

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