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Experts raise alarm over lack of advancement of written Somali language

A Somali girl writes in her exercise book during class at a school run by the Hawa Abdi Centre in the Afgoye corridor on September 25, 2013. [AFP PHOTO / AU UN IST PHOTO / Tobin Jones]

By Abdi Moalim
Thursday, February 27, 2014

Somali language experts are calling on educational institutions and the government to help expand the use of the written language, as many schools in the country do not use an official language curriculum.

The current Somali alphabet is based on a Latin script adapted by Shire Jama Ahmed. It was chosen among 18 competing scripts as Somalia's official script in 1972.

Immediately after its adoption, the government of Mohamed Siad Barre began an aggressive literacy campaign to teach citizens the new alphabet and promote its widespread use.

But more than 40 years later, language and education experts say the Somali language has suffered considerable setbacks in its written form due to the collapse of the government, subsequent decades of war and the downfall of institutions of higher education using Somali for instruction.

There is no fear that the spoken language will become extinct since the number of Somali speakers is increasing throughout East Africa, said Professor Mustafa Abdullahi Feynus, a researcher and member of the Intergovernmental Academy of Somali Language (AGA) who teaches media and journalism studies at Mogadishu University.

The challenge, he said, is in the proliferation of the written language because it is has not been the official language of school instruction since the civil war, and because there has not been sufficient development of books to teach students fundamentals such as grammar and spelling since then.

"No one is producing the educational tools of the Somali language. Therefore, the number of children learning [how to properly write] Somali will be very small," he told Sabahi. "The books should have been developed because academic books are renewed once every five years in the rest of the world."

In addition, he said, schools in Somalia do not have an advanced language curriculum.

After the collapse of Somalia's central government in 1991, thousands of private schools emerged to fill the gap left by the decimated state-owned schools, however a lack of oversight and a standard curriculum has resulted in disparities in the quality of education.

A national Somali language curriculum and more academic institutions that conduct research and build on the work done in the 1970s and 1980s to develop Somali language standards -- such as updating Somali dictionaries with the correct use and spelling of technical and science vocabulary -- are needed to expand and solidify the standard use of the written language, Feynus said.

He said the Regional Somali Language Academy, which was opened in Djibouti last June, is one organisation that is doing such work.

Developing the Somali language

Pen International's Somali Centre, which promotes reading and writing in Somali and organises literary programmes, held an event at Mogadishu's Amira Hotel on February 20th, one day before International Mother Language Day, to raise awareness and celebrate the history of the Somali language and script.

The event hosted linguistic scholars and other people who are interested expanding the use of written Somali.

Somali Pen Chairman Abdinasir Moalim Yusuf told Sabahi they are making great efforts to strengthen the Somali language.

"Somali Pen used the event of the International Mother Language Day for intellectual discussions, a book show and trainings for creative people such as journalists, poets, writers and artists while rewarding the individuals and organisations that take part in spreading the language," he said.

Ahmed Mohamed Dhiisow, a Somali writer and editor of Mogadishu-based Hamar newspaper who attended the event, said young journalists grossly violate the rules of writing, making the language hard to understand.

"They do not get trainings on the rules of writing. Also, some websites do not have editors and the person who writes the story is the one who uploads it onto the site," Dhiisow told Sabahi. "It happens that Somali journalists take trainings in other languages that they are interested in, but each person uses the Somali language as he pleases."

Amin Yusuf Khasare, a veteran journalist, writer and editor of the website SomaliTalk, had the same criticism and said the country was dealing with a lack of literate people.

"The many newspapers that used to get published have been displaced by [radio stations], which transmit news on the airwaves as they please without looking at the rules [of the language] and grammar," he told Sabahi.

"The airwaves of Mogadishu have about 30 radio stations compared to only three newspapers that get published," he said. "This has lowered writing and reading skills."

For his part, Yusuf said Pen International's Somali Centre is working to engage all Somalis in restoring the proper use of the written language.

"We want everyone to do their part in advancing the Somali language," he told Sabahi. "Our goal is to provide training to all people who are activists on matters related to language. We are also planning competitions related on how to improve the language.


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