Learning Kiswahili and My Mature Brain

I have been in Kenya several days. I generally speak on English. It is interesting. The Kenyans speak Kiswahili to each other and then English to their visitors. They speak English with the air of someone who has learned English in books and exams. You can get the confusion in their eyes when your language breaks from the standard protocol. They struggle with the accent of a native speaker. They don’t have many personal relationships with foreigners so that generally use the script that they need to sell something. So I have to repeat myself and say it slowly and then have them repeat what I say and watch the light come on. I have to strike a balance with being a model for an English speaker and hearing enough Kiswahili to anchor it in the brain.

I noticed the waiters name on his shirt and pronounced it. He gave me the supreme compliment. He said that I have good sound. He remarked that I sounded different from the other tourists. It was a coup. I can make the sounds in Kiswahili. I can hear the sounds, which is good. I can make the sounds, which is even better. I have to practice in my head and then breathe and say his name. There is no equivalent in English for the two consonants pronounced distinctly at the beginning of the word.

I need to hear the language constantly in a way that is comprehensible so that I can remember it. Yes there is Kiswahili all around me but because I don’t recognize any of the words, it is impossible to remember them. So my first has to be working on comprehensible input.

So I acquire comprehensible input by listening to my tapes hours on end and then having these same conversations with a native speaker. There have been studies to show the effect of age, language task demands and proficiency in the target language on modulating activation in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain. It is time for my left prefrontal cortex to kick into overdrive.

Greenenough, Black, and Wallace (1993) have shown enhanced synaptic growth in young and aging rats raised in complex environments, and Karni et al. (1995) have shown expansion of cortical involvement in performance of motor tasks following additional learning like learning a new language and culture. The cortical map can change even in adulthood in response to enriched environmental or learning experiences. Leaving your country and traveling to another country where the country and customs are so different would fit the criteria for enriched environment.

The brain as undifferentiated neural activity initially registers exposure to unfamiliar speech sounds. In layman’s terms, an unfamiliar language is registered by the brain as noise. Neural activity is diffuse, because the brain has not learned the acoustic patterns that distinguish one sound from another. As exposure continues, I will (and my brain) learn to differentiate among different sounds and even among short sequences of sounds that correspond to words or parts of words. Neural connections that reflect this learning process are formed in the auditory (temporal) cortex of the left hemisphere for most individuals. With further exposure, both the simple and complex circuits (corresponding to simple sounds and sequences of sounds) are activated at virtually the same time and more easily.

When you combine that noise with music, it starts to adhere to a pattern that is soothing to my brain. So today, my goal is to find some Swahili music to listen to and spend more time with my tapes and speaking to Kiswahili native Speakers and give my brain the workout it needs to differentiate simple sounds and sequences. One thing that I do appreciate is how warm the Kiswahili people are and how gently they correct you. They smile and nod encouragingly so that it reduces any embarrassment. I wish that my own countrymen would do this when people speak English. So I have learned something. I will make sure to smile and encourage English speakers when I return home, no matter how busy or rushed I might be.



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5 responses to “Learning Kiswahili and My Mature Brain

  1. Congratulations! It´s so important that you are able to hear the sounds and produce them. Music will help you for sure. The auditive and rhyhtmical stimuli is powerful, no wonder we remember the songs we learned as children.

  2. Sylvia Guinan

    What an indepth description of the language learning process.

    This is a very valuable contribution to both brain-based learning and how to observe one’s own personal reflection on the learning experience.

    • Thank You, my friend. I truly believe that one must learn something that is a complete challenge periodically to be able to teach others. It adds another dimension to the relationship with your students which is invaluable. I really want to encourage Americans to learn Kiswahili.

  3. Marlene

    I just came across your blog while looking for teaching opportunities in Kenya. I too would love to learn another language. I am a teacher and Spanish would have been very helpful for me to know. It was very difficult to communicate with my spanish speaking families. I am planning on going to Kenya in the near future to teach English. Any suggestions?

    • Lamu Kenya is a beautiful place to be in Kenya. It is safe, cheap and the people are friendly. If you are interested in teaching there, I can connect you with my contacts who would love to welcome you. Kenya has a shortage of teachers.

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