Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Learning swahili

Swahili must be one of the easiest languages to learn. I mean really… any 5 year old here can speak it. So why can’t I? LOL

I’m gradually learning a little Swahili thanks to some phrasebooks and very patient locals who don't mind repeating things 3 times for my mzungu ears. Luckily Swahili uses the Roman alphabet and pronunciation is more or less similar to Italian so it’s easier than Khmer but nonetheless a challenge. Learning as I am at a galloping pace, after 3 weeks, I can say hi (Jambo) and key phrases such as “Mimi zungumza Kiswahili kidogo sana” (I speak very little Swahili). OK, so I know a little (very little) more than that by now and the latter phrase is redundant as it’s blatantly obvious as soon as I open my mouth that my Swahili is close to non-existent but it makes a great icebreaker and always gets a laugh.

Travelling around I’ve had the chance to dabble in a few languages over the years and it’s always fun but equally often frustrating learning a new language (or more typically for me, snippets thereof). Personally I’m still working on English, but the muscles in the brain that get exercised learning another language are a great feeling (so long as you don’t mind a sore head at the end of each day lol). Rewiring synapses this way is a great workout for the brain but the biggest reward, is of course communicating with a whole new group of people. It also seems to me that you can’t really learn too much about a culture without learning at least a little of the language.

I found an interesting post on Facebook yesterday from Antonio Graceffo on Wrestling with the Vietnamse Language. Not sure if you’ll be able to get to it without being on his Facebook friend list but worth a read if, like me, you’re a fan of languages and would like to learn more of them. One of the key messages was about the importance of learning a language by listening instead of the more traditional approach of memorising words and phrases. He argues convincingly that to be truly fluent means you should be able to understand a local no matter how quickly or colloquially they speak. He also suggests that being fluent means you are able to articulate the subtlest complexities of your life rather than just be able to get around, order a double shot latte or survive at the markets. He recommended a learning approach that I hadn’t heard of before which is called ‘Automatic Language Growth’. ALG is interesting in so much as it focuses much more on listening in the initial phases at least than it does on speaking.

This story from Dr. J. Marvin Brown's book, “From the Outside In” reprinted at pretty much sums up the ALG concept:
Zambi came from the village of Makui in central Africa a hundred years ago and her parents arranged for her to marry a man in the village of Mujambi, which spoke a completely different language. She arrived there not knowing a word of Mujambi and nobody there knew any Makui-not even her husband. During the day, while her husband was hunting with the other men, the women took Zambi along with them as they did their basket weaving and gardening. At night everybody sat around the fire and listened to stories. Zambi’s daily life could be described as ‘silently tagging along’. After a year of this she understood almost everything that went on around her and could say a few words and phrases. After 2 years she was quite fluent, and after 3 or 4 years she was almost like a native Mujambi villager.”

Admittedly that is a long slow and time consuming way to learn a language but it seems to me that I might become better at languages by spending at least as much time just listening as I do learning words. That is after all, how we learn our native tongue - by tagging along as toddlers and gradually learning by listening. We’re lucky to in that we don’t just have to ‘silently tag along’ anymore. We have audio recordings, YouTube videos and multi-lingual television to help our listening opportunities. I think I’ll resist the temptation to spend my day watching Tanzanian soap operas though. Around here there are no shortage of opportunities to ‘silently tag along’ or to visit a village and enjoy a friendly exchange of English & Swahili monologues sitting in the dust at any of the local villages. Somehow I doubt I’ll be here long enough to become fluent in Swahili but you never know. One day soon I’d like to pause somewhere long enough to become fluent in another language (or three) but for the moment, it’s fun dabbling...

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