The Opening of the Way: Learning African Languages

I have been playing at learning Swahili for about 6 months now. I am  researching investigating, writing and creating in English so  the brain cells for  acquiring a a new language with a different structure and culture does not exist .  I am not opening my mouth to make the sounds needed to speak Swahili . I am stumbling and fumbling, blindfolded and trying to catch a spinning elephant which keeps knocking me down and frustrating me.

I reach out to my friend Jason Levine aka Fluency MC “Learning a second language, involves a number of familiar variables . These include age, learning style, and intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, to name a few. What has the most powerful impact is (1) relaxation (2)  exposure and  input . Too many classrooms and self-study experiences  bore and stress students. Only in exceptional cases  they get large amounts of input in the second language. I developed a concept for learning that I call the (new) 3Rs: Relax, Repeat, Remember. When  relaxed and having fun while continual listening, reading, speaking and writing practice,  one acquires a second language with  greater ease.”  Hmmmm, Ok Jason you didn’t tell me how to relax and get in the driver’s seat and arrange this language in my own brain. I am not having fun!

 I reached out to two native speakers Benjamin Milk from Kenya and Nasreddin Jamal Hoca from Tanzania. I decided to follow Jason’s advice and relax. Listen to the Swahili at night while I slept and in my car while I drive and practice in workbooks during the day. I guess my errors in the workbook activities overwhelmed the two native speakers. They sent me free downloads of two textbooks which were excellent and better than the ones produced in the United States. Normally books written in the language learner’s culture perform a better job of making second language learning comprehensible because they can compare and contrast the differences. The two books from my native speaking friends were excellent.

Life gets in the way for most adults learning an additional language and I am no exception. I started communicating with Ethiopiansabout the research that I want to do in Africa and my heart and brain went into overdrive. I felt like an addict who had been given her drug of choice. Research is my first love.  Ok, Jason Levine so much for relaxing, repeating and remembering. I am able to do neither of the three. I started listening to see what I could absorb. Playing with the numbers so that I would not forget them was all the practice that I could manage.

I talked to Awgichew Arega daily and I was totally fascinated by his pronunciation of English words. My brain became a globe that spinned counterclockwise out of control. It spun off of its axis as I talked to his Ethiopian friends. I had no control of my brain; it was in orbit and crashing all over the place. My brain was unhinged and off in a galaxy all it’s own. I was drunk. Ok, Jason how do I relax now!!

hindbrain) trying to emerge. I wrote down what I needed to do for the day with the few brain cells that I had left. I took notes with me so I could remember what errand I needed to complete. My brain was spinning so fast that it made me dizzy. It crashed around the room and I found myself lost in thought when I needed to be working. I forced myself to work on one thing at a time and to continue until I finished.

I started to listen to videos on Amharic language, alphabets, numbers, phrases and sounds as well as the Swahili.”This seemed to calm my out of control brain. There was a small, still voice deep in my subconscious which whispered, “You need to tackle these languages together just like you did with the European languages. Select which languages that you want to learn, Amharic will not release you and then practice those sounds daily.” My frontal lobe stepped up, “we are overloaded already!! How are we supposed to relax with all this new stuff to learn? You still expect us to “earn your living” The mid brain spoke” I can’t remember what I don’t get and I can’t reinforce what I don’t have in the first place.” The hindbrain spoke “I can’t do this by myself, you in the middle and the front need to pull your load”.

Then came the opening of the way. Jeffrey Barlian asked two questions in Global English Forum on Facebook. Jeffrey Barlian“Is it possible for non-native adults to learn and speak English like native speakers? I am consciously aware that I subconsciously mispronounced some words in the recording…What do you think?”Jeffrey Barlian again “Yesterday, one of my colleagues raised an egg-chicken QUEST-ion to me…”Which comes first? Language or Culture?” Is language a way of thinking? Is culture a way of living? Do both serve as way of survival?” I answered Jeffrey, “Yes it is possible to learn a language like a native speaker, I learn some phrases perfectly when I learn another language, and culture proceeds language. Language is a part of culture, culture exists when people don’t talk.”  I went to bed listening to my nightly Swahili. Jeffrey’s question’s wrenched me out of my sleep at 3:30 A.M in the morning. I jumped out of the bed and went to YouTube to listen to four African languages. I got this!!!


There are more sounds in Amharic than any other language that I have ever encountered. I am attracted to this country and this language because I can hear the sounds!! The brain forgets sounds that are not reinforced at 18 months of age. Mymature brain recognizesthese sounds that it has never heard before far past the time that scientists predict. I made a connection with sounds that I knew at birth but lost the ability to hear. The scientists are all wrong! The globe spinning counterclockwise represents my brain searching for the sounds in Amharic from sounds in other languages that I have learned. I becamefrustrated and confused when my memory did not have them. I accepted science claims despite clear evidence to the contrary.


Awgichew and other Ethiopians sent me some videos with Ethiopian dancers from the Wollo Province. This is an ancient province in Ethiopia. They have a dance, which I practice during the past 3 months. They move their entire upper body. It opens the chest and brings circulation to the stomach and diaphragm; it uses the neck like no other activity that I have ever seen. So I use this dance to open my upper respiratory system and keep it flexible so that I can make the different sounds that I hear in other languages.


Amharic predates the other languages. This dance movement brings circulation to the upper respiratory system, which allows the continuous reproduction of these different sounds, which passedthrough generations with less corruption. This is the only logical hypothesis and conclusion. I excitedly find YouTube videos of the different African languages listen to the sounds. My hypothesis is validated by what I hear. The opening of the way is getting larger.


The opening of the way gets larger as I realize that I am stumbling over my own ego. In the European languages, I took two monthsand invested 1000 hours in active language learning. I spoke the target language 8 hours a day and mostly talked to myself. I answered all my English-speaking people in the target language and could care less that they didn’t understand me. Friends and family avoided me but they couldn’t judge me because they didn’t know the language. Plus avoidance gave me more time to work. I completed workbooks, 2 hours a day, worked on the computer 2 hours a day, watched video or TV 2 hours a day, and listened to the target language while I drove and while I slept. I did several of these activities at the same time. This was my submersion process.

My time belongs to others at this point in my life, family and job. It frustrates me to relinquish control of my own life and to take so long to learn something. It makes me feel stupid and I don’t like this feeling. So now, thanks to the support of all my friends, I am back in the saddle. The door has been opened and I can move through.

I resigned from my job and in 10 days, their problems will not be my problems. I enlist my grandson as my language teacher, he can hold up flash cards and I tell him the answer in the target language.  Eight year olds make great teachers. I listen and practice the sounds of 4 African languages for at least an hour a day on the computer. I complete the activities in the Swahili books at least 1 hour a day. I chew sugarless gum to keep the brain alert.  My frontal lobes shout for joy, they finally receive the stimulation they need to relax and be happy.

The Wollo Ethiopian dance becomes a part of my daily routine to open the upper body to make different sounds.  Chewing the sugarless gum helps develop the muscles in the mouth and jaw to make this process complete. I return to the gym and all physical activities  with Swahili on my  Iphone and earphones  in my ear  to reinforce the language. I talk to myself   and focus  while moving  which  reinforces memory.   The motor cortex, temporal lobes and all parts of the midbrain tingle with anticipation. I continue to listen to the language while I drive, sleep , cook or engage in other mundane activities. So the hindbrain sighs in relief, no more working alone.  So we work on short term memory, declarative memory, and semantic memory and devise a plan for episodic memory. Episodic memory will occur when I have real experiences with native speakers.  Long term memory is within my grasp. I am on my way. The opening of the way has occurred and I have walked through that door.



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27 responses to “The Opening of the Way: Learning African Languages

  1. Thank you for the insight Sis. I too, have been thinking of learning swahili. Keep me informed on your succes. Great Work!

  2. Jason R. Levine is on facebook and youtube. I was unable to capture his link in the article and I am not sure why. Please check out his page and videos.
    Darleana McHenry

    Fluency MC
    I write and perform ColloTunes™ for people of all ages, cultures, and nationalities to build knowledge in English, math, social studies, science, and foreign languages. Don’t memorize to learn! It’s boring. Plus, you’ll forget it all anyway! Fluency is all about the 3 Rs: Relax, Repeat, Remember.
    Page: 4,020 like this

    • Jason Levine

      Thank you so much for the shout-out, St. Carries! I thoroughly enjoyed this article for its candor and the (sincere!) self-discovery vibe: you can really feel your frustration and enthusiasm all at once! Your intimate knowledge of the workings of our brains vis-a-vis language learning and avid interest in African cultures are clearly providing you with intrinsic motivation, that most precious piece in the language-learning puzzle. Cheers!

      • Thank You my friend. Yes, I have a lot of interests and I do intend to follow the train wherever it takes me. It is clear that mature adults can learn a language and it is one of the best deterrents for dementia.

  3. Karina Diaz

    Hi. Your story about your investigation is great. I’d like to know if you are reading any theory about acquiring a new language. I’m taking a bilingualism class and I really will like to know more about your project and its development.

    • Thank You, I have read tons of books but some of the results that I am getting contradicts the experts. So I guess I need to start publishing in some scholarly journals. I am scheduled to go to Africa May 1 and I hope to be more fluent in the language.

  4. Pretty interesting stuff. It’s funny how we are not all that bi-lingual here in the U.S.. If you travel overseas to let’s say Europe, however, much of the population is bilingual.

  5. Awgichew Arega

    Hi Dr. McHenry. Thank you for sharing. I have read your blog and it is fascinating. I really liked it. Beside my other suggestions, here is a Facebook page you can be a member which is about learning Amharic. Search it as Learn Amharic and click Like. There is nothing that will prevent you from learning Amharic once you are committed to learn it. As Amharic is my L1, I can see that you can learn it if you are into it and practice it more.

  6. Mulusew

    I admire your effort to learn African languages. I am an expert on Amharic language. But I am nor sure how practicing the wollo dance would help you produce the sounds. If you are interested, I may help you in practicing how to produce some of the difficult sounds. looking forward to hear your success

  7. Awgichew Arega

    Hi Dr. McHenry. Thanks for sharing. I have read your blog and it is fascinating. I really liked it. Beside my other suggestions, there is a Facebook page you can be a member which is about learning Amharic. Search it as Learn Amharic and click Like. As Amharic is my L1, I can say that If you are into it and practice it, you will learn it.

    • Thank You my friend. I am so glad that we have met. It looks like we may have a class on Saturdays. I joined the groups. I found others and so I should have some friends to talk to. I emailed Friehwot to ask for ideas as well.

  8. It’s fascinating to read the way you’re acquiring Swahili language, Ms. Stcarries. I’m also in the process of acquiring Mandarin Chinese. Using the podcasts available downloaded fro the internet, I listen to it together with my kid and my wife every day. It’s fun that you can learn to pronounce strange sounds and be heard by others. It turns out that my 7-year-old kid is extremely good and often corrects her parents pronunciation. That’s possible what I think is what Jason refers to as 3Rs. We ought to emulate children the way they acquire a language.
    Another important point to help you learn a language when I learn Mandarin is your close connection with the target language itself. I’m lucky that my mother tongue is Hakka Chinese which in many ways sounds and means similar to Mandarin. Anytime I learn new words, I always try to associate and connect them to words in my mother tongue….and this makes remembering words a whole lot easier.

  9. Jacquelyn

    P used to be married to a Gambian, His language was Wolof. I learned a little. I don’t think it has a written language. I could be mistaken. I got my legal name Jacquelyn N’Jai some spell it N’jie. They are the same name. I remember he used to always say nubnalla (I love you). I also knew someone from Liberian who spoke Vie language. I’d love to learn as many African languages as I can. I think as a teacher, our schools should offer African languages as a second language. Swahili is good too. I worked at a school called Imani. Children called us Mwalimu means teacher. Keep up the good work.

  10. Hello i found you on Our Africa Heritage. I read from your face book that you wanted to learn Swahili but just for the information Swahili was brought to distroy true African languages. Like some people in Kenya dont know their languages they only know swahili

  11. Jeffrey Barlian

    Dr. McHenry, I am so GREAT-ful for your welcoming me and Fluency Mc and some other friends to your linguistic journey. It has SURE bean a bumpy ride, but we love the ADD-vent-SURE and l-EARN a lot applied linguistic during the trip. I really enjoy the way you present your QUEST-SEARCH.
    Your ‘complaint’ about being not able to relax led me to ob-SERVE ‘Why so’ ? And then I played one of Jason’s great videos, ‘Valentine’s day’, and tried to be relaxed as to lay down and just go with the flow. As my hearing sense catching the rhythmic pattern of the music in a soothing therapic way (Which for me means that I am in a ‘relaxed’ condition, ready to enjoy the l-earn-ing experience, while nodding my head to keep in tune with the music), my eyes were luxuriously treated by the displaying words on the screen, accompanied by the marvelous visualization through picture to represent the ideas/meanings of those words/phrases. The equivalence of the words/phrases/sentences in tarGET langu-AGE were ex-POSE-d through pictures, which are a global tongue, and resulted in the emergence of the the linguistic equivalence in the source language somewhere in the learner’s brainware. I really love the idea of using music as a medium to teach language proficiency. In fact, I’ve bean using this method for some time. It’s amazing scenery to watch people play music on their gadGETs with their earphones on and their eyes sticking onto the screen and sing along with the tune in karaoke mode. It’s a FUNtastic learning experience I assure you. St. Carries, Are you using this goodie oldie goldie technique in acquiring those languages? It’s best if we can combine language, music, and dancing. So how does our musical intelli-GEN-ce influence our linguistic intelli-GENce ? How do we connect our bodily-kinesthetic intelli-GEN-ce to our linguistic intelli-GEN-ce? I strongly assume that musical intelligence influence your linguistic intelligence and it works the other way around too . But the QUEST-ion is what is your evidence? What RESEARCH that scientifically proves so? Perhaps to st-ART with, we can say that music is therapic, music is FUNtastic, music often adhere to predictable patterns of rhythm and rhyme and it’s pleasurable and easy to recall. Relax and enjoy the music for it will well-lead you to the stage where you can ACT-ually and EVENT-ually engaged in the process of acquisition of the language which will result in Langauge PRO-ficiency.
    The second R of Jason’s Law is Repeat. Repetition is no less important. It is the mechanism of injecting data into your brainware. Another implicitly explicit vari-ABLE is Imitation or the practice to acquire native-likeness. Repetition and imitation, I strongly believe, are two stages that play vital role in the learning or acquiring process. Jason suggests just that! Imitate the native speaker to speak native-like. Another vari-ABLE is Association through visualization. Repetition is also the forming of habit. Learning a language/languages is forming a habit formation. Habit is a result of constant and continuous practice. It is “conditioning”, say the behaviorists. Perfect practice not only is perfect, but it also is PERMANENT. Another crucial notion about repetition is that it serves as a REIGN-for-CEMENT. It’s amazing to find out that it only takes 8 S-e-c-o-n-d-s to ‘move and store’ the comprehensible Input from your STM to LTM. 8 S-e-c-o-n-d-s ! All you need to do is just consen-TREAT and focus.
    The Last but certainly not the very least on Jason’s model is remember. We remember thinks through imitation, repetition, association, visualization, trans-FORM-ation, and habit FORM-ation. Do you have this kind of instructional material to experience those triple R’s, St, Carries? Is there any other way/technique that in which we can use this triple R’s model without music but still achieve the same learning outcomes. I am really curious to have your valued two cents, St Carries and Fluency Mc.

  12. Jeffrey Barlian

    I am sorry for the unwell-organized piece of writing. I typed it on the Word and copied and pasted it and here it comes,,,,

    I’d like to share my linguistic journey in wrestling with language acquisition and language learning, if you want me to. English as a Foreign language…

  13. Jeffrey Barlian

    If Jason has his triple R’s, I have got my triple E’s. Expo-SURE, Exploration, and Experiment.

    I ALL-ways tell the learning participants in my classroom, physical or virtual classrooms, that “ex-POSE-sure to tarGET language is a minimum requirement to acquire that languAGE”. I usually ask them: “Have you bean exposed to target language today? In your reading textbooks, In your watching TV news some kinda interesting vids, in your having chit-chats with your friends, in your listening to your music, in writing your academic assignments and writing your diaries? In your social interaction with the people who use the target language as to construct your knowledge and proficiency in that language. It is truly true that Learning second or subsequent languages will affect our whole being, emotionally, physically, and intellectually. It is a total commitment, A total involvement. It’s a new way of thinking, a new of living. The QUEST-ion is simple, “Are you committed to it?”. Your answer to the QUEST-ion is crucial as to determine the success of your learning process. “Proceed as to succeed”.

    The following E is Exploration. Explore the new world of thin-KING, the new world of living. The semantics, the pragmatics, the syntax, the error analysis, the discourse analysis, the inter language, etc., as well as the tradition, the social values, the beliefs, etc. Digging up all you can as you wrestle with acquiring the language. Digging up as to dis-COVER the ART and the FACTs, of the hidden trea-SURE, the ART-i-FACTs.

    And finally, the E which stands for Experiment. Most of the learning participants and even those who guide them, are afraid of making mistakes. What’s wrong with making mistakes? making mistakes are an essential part of learning process. Firstly it is normal and secondly, we learn from our mistake. Every time I pick up new phrases or expressions I am nuts familiar with, I ALL-ways try to find ways as to have the confirmation from Native Speakers or Great Teachers. For example: To put in someone’s two cents which means to give opinioN (Is there any other way/technique that in which we can use this triple R’s model without music but still achieve the same learning outcomes. I am really curious to have your valued two cents, St Carries and Fluency Mc). I AM NUTS SURE IF I use the the expression properly, but i believe the Native speakers (my Native speaker friends) will recognize what I am trying to express…:) .
    So conduct those experiments and conquer the target language.

    Exposure, Exploration, Experiment are funda-MENTAL experiences as to acquire target language.Experience is the only source of
    KNOW-ledge in this case. Write and paint your “Blank Slate” and share the content with us….:)

    I know….What a long mumbo-jumbo this comment is! But at least, this is how I express my experience which underlining my belief and principle in teaching and learning English as a foreign language. :))

    • Ahhhhhh Jeffrey, you have been holding out on us. I love this!! I think it is especially pertinent for those who conduct business in target language and yet have no personal conversations and experiences in the target language. I see a void when people use one language with family and friends and another language with others. So I love it exposure, exploration and experiment. This is what I am doing. Exposing myself through Youtube videos, computer programs and workbooks. Exploring by putting words and phrases together in new ways and experimenting with people who speak the language. I love it. You defined my process so eloquently 🙂

  14. Jason Levine

    Boy, am I ever arriving late! Jeffrey, your 3Es are SENSATIONAL! I can’t wait to hear more about them from you and St. Carries! I can’t believe I missed your comments about my materials; I’m going to post them NOW on my FB pages. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

  15. Jeffrey Barlian

    Thank you very much, St Carries and Jason Levine. I am so glad that we shared the journey together. I myself can’t wait to have another ‘journey’ with you ALL. 🙂

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