“When I speak my language, I feel like myself”: Language Usage within a Pittsburgh Somali-Bantu Household

Tess Liebersohn

University of Pittsburgh


The goal of this paper is to describe the complex linguistic landscape of the resettled Somali-Bantu refugee community in urban Pittsburgh and analyze it in respect to ethnic identity. Traditionally, the Somali-Bantu have been the target of discrimination and persecution in Somalia because of their perceived low status in Somali society. The majority of the community came to Pittsburgh in 2004 and there has been sporadic arrival of more families from other cities since then. While many of the children were born in a refugee camp Kenya and have never been to war-ravaged Somalia, they still identify strongly as Somali-Bantu. Besides English, a number of African languages are spoken in the community, with Kizigua being the most common, among Kiswahili, Somali, Maay Maay and Arabic. The children of this community were of special interest to this investigation because of their knowledge of their native tongues and English, a linguistic diversity that eludes many Somali-Bantu adults because of various barriers to English fluency faced by working adults. All school-aged children of the roughly 30 Bantu families in Pittsburgh are enrolled in Pittsburgh Public Schools and receive ESL instruction or personal tutoring assistance. All of the children speak one or more of their parents’ native languages in addition to English. Linguistic competence in English among the children ranges from heavily accented advanced abilities to native competence, depending on the age of the child when he or she first came to the US. This paper discusses the results of several interviews conducted with one Bantu family. Interview topics included issues like language choice within the home, code-switching, language competency, personal language identity, and the overlap between linguistic and ethnic identity. Every discussion of ethnic identity inevitably became a discussion of language use, and respondents consistently used possessive pronouns with native languages such as “mine” or “hers,” suggesting a strong link between Kizigua and Bantu ethnic identity. Code-switching by the children was observed frequently. Motivations for this code-switching were found in context, topic, and language identity of speakers and audiences.