Kiswahili in My Brain: Acquiring Receptive and Expressive Language

The school in Manda Island Where I will be teaching

“All brains are the same, the brains of the children in Kenya are the same as the brains of the children  in the U.K. and the U.S.A.   ” emphatically stated  my friend Dr. Roy Paget from the U.K. Of course he is correct, all brains are basically the same. They have the same parts and the same functions. If you dissect an American brain or a Kenyan brain, you will not be able to tell the difference in nationality by examining the physiological aspects.  But there are differences — and for those of us in education, those differences are very important.

In order to access information, we must use experiences and our experiences are very different.  Our experiences are what make us who we are. The experiences of a student in the U.K. or U.S.A. or Kenya or Somalia  are very different.  Many experiences of students are Universal , they read, study, write etc. But it is knowing what they read, write and study and being able to make an association with what they read, write and study  that makes  acquiring new information possible. In order to use our brains to acquire new information we must build on the information that is already present in the brain. This is called associative reasoning.

Another Primary School in Kenya

Adults have more crystallized intelligence (fund of knowledge) because they have lived longer.   Children have more fluid intelligence (the ability to problem solve in novel situations) because they are younger and acquiring survival skills. So they don’t need the same level of association to make connections. Both forms of intelligence are important.  Associative reasoning is always present and part of the learning process.

When you are an infant, you cry and someone checks you and see if you are hungry, or wet, or need to be held. They assign words to this process and you make an association, “up” means someone will pick me up and hold me. “Eat” means someone will give me something to eat etc. So we start to make an association between getting our needs met and the words that we use. This process is the same throughout the world with every human. But the words are different and this difference in words make all the difference to the respective child. The words we use to get our needs met are of primary importance. We use gestures which can be universal, but when we need to share academic information, the more value we extend to words as well as the gestures which means different things based on culture.

Manda Primary School

On, Monday I am going to a primary school in Kenya to teach kindergarteners.  They do not know English and I do not know Kiswahili.  I have 2 days to plan lessons for the week. So I have to focus on which Kiswahili I am to learn in order to teach them English. I must plan first for my own learning in order to be able to teach  anybody anything.

Children recognize the sounds of the language of their mother at 8 months gestation. They are able to distinguish the sounds in their mothers language inside the womb. This process continues after birth. As the brain focuses on the sounds of the mother’s language, it loses the ability to recognize sounds that are not familiar. By the time that an infant is 12 months old s/he is unable to recognize some sounds as they perfect the ability to recognize sounds and words to get their needs met. They can relearn any sounds very easily but the brain must strengthen connections between sounds that we need for survival. There is a pruning process, some sounds get stronger and others become weaker. We know that languages learned before 7 years of age are stored in the same part of the brain and highly unaffected by damage. The ability to recognize language when it is spoken is called receptive language. How much we understand of what we hear. Our receptive language is always greater than our expressive language.

So I have 2 days to get some vocabulary into my short term memory and transfer it into working memory so that I can use it . I have 2 days to increase my receptive and expressive language so that I can teach 5 year olds. The average 5 year old should have a working vocabulary of at least 3,000 to 5,000 words. So how many words can I learn in 2 days in order to teach.  I could kick myself for not seeing this before I came and studied harder.

Talking to the staff at the school.

So I  choose 200 words, 100 words a day for 2 days. I  listen and speak those words at least a 175 times each. Research shows that it takes 167 utterances of a word to transfer it from short term to working memory and then finally to long term memory so then I will be prepared for my work. My goal is to develop a 200 word receptive and expressive vocabulary in 2 days. One can not cheat Mother Nature.

I  practice the language to anchor it in the brain. I  make an association between the sound  and visualization of the English  word ,  , the sound and visualization of the word in Kiswahili,  and the actual picture of the item.   I  have to be able to access this information at any time during the next 5 days during the next week and be able to repeat the process.

I don’t need to worry about grammar at this point, only marginally, the words need to  be primarily nouns with a few verbs.  I need maximum impact. It is the beginning of a new journey. Once I expand my brain, there is no turning back. Even if I forget Kiswahili, my brain will never be the same. I will have memories that will stay with me forever. My memories of the  people will be permanently etched  in my mind and the sounds of the language will always be a pleasant memory



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6 responses to “Kiswahili in My Brain: Acquiring Receptive and Expressive Language

  1. Attention, repetition, and intensive practice are the prerequisites of brain plasticity. You´re in the perfect environment to learn. Make the most of it! = )

  2. Sylvia Guinan

    It’s a pleasure to read about your experiences Darleana.

    These are unique articles indeed!!

  3. Abdelmjid Seghir

    You keep being a great inspiration for me.
    Keep it up, if it takes 100 words/day then I’m sure you’ll learn 110 😀
    The idea of associative reasoning reminds me of Vygotsky’s findings, I think that social constructivism and what you pointed to in this post are linked. Culture is a very important determining point in meaning making.
    Excellent work!

    • Yes, Yes, Yes, My brilliant son. You are exactly right! It does come from Vygotsky’s findings. Other people may have “found” or “proved” the same thing but he is regarded as the source.

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