Piercing the Veil : Basic Interpersonal Communication Second Language

I have been playing at learning Swahili for the past three months. It is different this time because I have so many intellectual and emotional demands placed on me that I don’t have the frontal lobes to dedicate to learning something so demanding. I am not devoting the focused attention to acquire Swahili at the rate that I expect from myself. I am in my element, diagnosing learning problems and designing interventions. It doesn’t leave much time and energy to acquire a new skill.

Language Acquisition involves two basic types of language skills social language and academic language.  Two language proficiencies exist Basic Interpersonal Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency CALP). BICS refers to conversational language often called social language or playground language. Small talk doesn’t come easy to me.

BICS develop rapidly and naturally for most learners. Making friends, meeting basic needs and comprehending every day conversation are a part of BICS.  This article will discuss Basic Interpersonal Skills and my struggle with learning language through this process especially Kiswahili and compare and contrast the language learning and culture of other languages.

I am an introvert. I am highly intuitive and I find social situations a drain of energy. I like to read and I have acquired 5 languages in 2 ½ years by reading. I love learning about other cultures and beliefs through reading. I teach myself to read in the language and then I engage people in the culture on the basis of the stories about their culture. I make input comprehensible through this process.

I learned French in Canada. I practiced on the computer and I went to the library daily to read French magazines, newspapers and books that I felt were fascinating. I read great novelist from the past 300 years. I thoroughly enjoyed the process.

When I went to Africa later to reacquaint myself with the French language, I found it much more difficult. I found that the newspapers and magazines blamed the United States for all of their problems and looked to the United States to fix all of their problems. There was no self-analysis, no examination of the culture and practices, which may have contributed to their current situation.  All conversations between Americans and Africans contained this blame and demand for financial retribution. It became burdensome to talk and interact with people when you knew that the purpose of the conversation involved shaming and asking for money for material things.

Most European language textbooks are structured in a way that teach basic information to maneuver your way through the culture, make a doctor’s appointment, negotiate a hotel reservation, take a taxi, order meals in a restaurant etc.  The literature and non-fiction tend to be difficult to attain in African languages. When you find books written in African languages they tend to be expensive.  Most books to learn Swahili are actually phrase books that you memorize in isolation without knowing the underlying rules of the language.

Kiswahili follows the same rules as other Bantu languages. The Arabic influence impacts the language.  Culture operates as the lenses thorough which we view the world. Acquiring a language involves more than simply speaking, reading, and writing the language. It involves thought patterns, perceptions, cultural values, communication styles and social organization. African cultures involve a high degree of interdependency. Personal relationships fuel society unlike the business relationships that fuel American society.

I struggle with the thought patterns, perceptions and cultural values of the African continent. I wrestle with the communal value of blaming someone else for your condition. I don’t mean that everyone shares this belief but it is a continental consciousness supported by loud proclamations or deafening silence. So I hesitate to communicate socially and listen to the lectures blaming my country for all of their problems and the solicitation of money, which comes afterward. The anticipation of these conversations raises my anxiety level.

When I learned other languages, I practiced social conversations in my head based on what I read. I listened to the views and opinions of others. The answers and responses I received were varied and eclectic. Some blamed me and my country for all of the world’s problems but many conversations avoided politics and gave unique twists to different world events.

The piercing of the veil happened when I began to recognize numbers. I can look at a numeral and identify it in Swahili. I can count in Swahili and I can recognize the numeral when I hear the word in Swahili. I have transferred numbers from short term to working term to long-term memory. I have pierced the veil.

I have learned more Swahili than I can bring to consciousness right now. I recognize Swahili when I see it written and when I hear it. I know that behind my anxiety regarding conversations lies in the knowledge of words that I can’t immediately bring to mind or rather to my mouth. I know how immigrants feel when they know that as soon as people hear their accent, they greet them with sarcasm or contempt. It inhibits your ability to communicate.

I know that I am responsible for me. There are computer and audio programs for me to practice, which allow me to get past the initial hesitancy to open my mouth. I have some Language Arts textbooks from Kenya, which give me short stories in context. I can create my own language laboratory to push me out of this state.

The key is moving through the numbers. They are many conversations that you can use numbers. It gives you the autonomy to choose your conversations.  I like the idea of being able to negotiate prices and rates. It gives me a sense of control.

Social conversation comes difficult to me. I am a Scholar, I don’t like small talk. I don’t like sharing personal information with people that I don’t know.   I know numbers and now my language acquisition will grow exponentially in the near future.



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3 responses to “Piercing the Veil : Basic Interpersonal Communication Second Language

  1. Fascinating, Darleana! I love languages and have learned several, for business and pleasure, but never any African languages. I too am a numbers person — I think there’s a certain comfort in the precision of math and numbers that makes it easier to “press on” in the uncertain environment of new language acquisition. You mentioned that most books to learn Swahili are phrasebooks and provide little or no information about the underlying structure. I think I would find this very difficult, as I have always used my analytical capabilities to first understand the language structure, the just add all the building blocks (vocabulary, etc). It seems that such a style of learning (phrasebooks, stories, etc) would be more suited to children, who don’t come to the table with pre-conceived notions. Very interesting — looking forward to your future posts. Paul

    • Paul you are so correct and I need to address this in one of my next blogs. Most language programs are aimed at children because most children learn languages in other countries. Children don’t need to know what they are saying before they say it. They speak and figure it out later which is very different from the adult learner. This is something that I need to figure out before I invite other adults to East Africa.

  2. Thanks for your time for composing “Piercing the Veil : Basic Interpersonal Communication Second
    Language | stcarriesclassroom”. I reallymay really
    be coming back for even more reading through and writing comments shortly.
    Thank you, Mariano

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