Cracking the Code: Learning African Languages

I don’t remember when I consciously made the decision to learn other African languages at the same time as Swahili. I think that the decision was made for me when I kept hearing speakers from other African languages and I would perseverate on the sounds. I absorbed  the  contrasting  sounds and compared the sounds that  I had heard in other European languages. I recognized sounds that I had never heard before. It was difficult for me to pay attention and respond to their questions because my mind was stuck on “ hmmm where did that sound come from”. I found myself annoyed with people who distracted me from this activity with their limited vocabulary and world view.

I am an introvert and enjoy the internal world of thoughts, feelings and fantasies, and there’s a physiological reason for this.  Researchers found introverts have more brain activity  and specifically in their frontal lobes. When these areas are activated, introverts are energized by retrieving long-term memories, problem solving, introspection, complex thinking and planning, Their brain pathway also switches on the “rest and digest” side of the nervous system, so they can slow down to conserve their body energy to do all that thinking.

Extroverts enjoy the external world of things, people and activities. They have more activity in the back of their brains, the areas involved in processing the sensory information we’re bombarded with daily. Because extroverts have less internally generated brain activity, they search for more external stimuli to energize them. Extroverts tend to do well with learning a new  language because it is an external activity which requires a lot of interaction as part of the socialization process. Extroverts are better at the give and take in social situations which means that they are comfortable making mistakes as long as they are interacting with external stimuli or people.

I approached African languages from a language teacher with major trepidation. My personality was changing. I knew that I needed to interact more in the language but I didn’t want to be lectured and chastised for misprononciations. I didn’t have the patience for  people in my immediate environment whose primary concerns revolved around what they were going to buy, eat or wear. I couldn’t stand to be around t hem. Progress to the next level  requires interaction with native speakers and preferably a teacher.

Pauline Lin describes the intimate and personal nature of  languages used within her family. Taiwanese is the language spoken by her parents and siblings which is a highly personal experience. They use other languages with others. This is not done to exclude others but to communicate in an intimate way with family members.

African languages are very similar. They have a mother tongue which they maintain for identity purposes and then a popular language which they use to speak to people outside their culture or community.  So the language resources that are available for European languages do not exist in the same multitude and variety in African languages. Which leaves you with the option of working with a native speaker.  This a good idea, accessing the resources that are available, and utilizing strategies developed from other languages and apply them to the target language.

Jason R Levine  developed a concept for learning that he refers to as the  3Rs: Relax, Repeat, Remember. When we’re relaxed and having fun and  continually listen, read, speak and write, we  acquire a second language with  greater ease. What happens when the native speakers are hostile to your acquisition of the language because they view you as an outsider? What happens when you don’t have all the audio visual and technological resources that you have in English to increase exposure? You work with what you have and you make the best of it.

I  love Jeffrey Barlian’s  triple E’s. Expo-SURE, Exploration, and Experiment. Expose yourself  to the  target language every day. Read  books,  watch TV news interesting videos,  chit-chat,  listen to music,  write  academic assignments, journal and   social interaction with the people who use the target language so as to construct your knowledge and proficiency in that language. Learning second or subsequent languages  affect our whole being, emotionally, physically, and intellectually. It requires  total commitment and   total involvement. Explore the new world of thin-KING, the new world of living. The semantics,  pragmatics,  syntax,  error analysis, the discourse analysis, the inter language, etc., as well as the tradition,  social values,  beliefs, etc. Dig up all you can as you wrestle with acquiring the language. Experiment. Learn to be comfortable   making mistakes.

Playing with languages and looking at them from different perspectives without the need to get it right, but simply for the pleasure of learning appeals to Introverts.  Introverts are intelligent problem-solvers with good concentration. They  enjoy working alone. So I came to the teacher student armed with strategies and resources from my friends. I admit to stomach flutters at the thought of struggling through Swahili and Amharic.

I watched youtube videos and practiced the sounds as well as my computer programs. I knew that speaking  to a native speaker would be different. I decided to follow Jason’s advice and relax.  Both teachers were excellent. They understood the concept of a struggling learner.  I wonder if they were such patient teachers because  they had acquired English and taught others to speak English. Maybe they were just talented. Amharic with Tezeta Gebramlak  and Swahili classes with  Nasreddin Jamal Hoca who were excellent teachers and deserve to be commended.

It was easy to relax, repeat and remember  when the teacher reviews and reinforces your attempts at the target language. Jeffrey Barlian triple E’s came into place Expose, Explore and Experiment.  I noticed the similarities between Swahili and Amharic even though one is a Bantu language and the other one is  a Semitic. Both are syllabic languages which require forceful enunciation of consonants and utilize  different  muscles in the mouth and neck.

Tezeta Gebramlak  suggested that I practice Arabic in order to make the sounds in Amharic easier. There are more resources for Arabic and it would be easier to find resources and people to practice the language. Nadeen Ar proved to be an excellent  Arabic teacher. The lessons shared aspects of Arabic that were different from the other languages and then there were aspects that were the same.

I learned that long and short vowels meant something different in other languages. I learned about punctuation which changed the sound of vowels.  I learned new words and it was intriguing. I reviewed some old words that I knew from before. It was interesting. I learned that having a good language teacher facilitates the acquisition of the target language.  I have experienced my share of good ones and bad ones and this time, I have hit a home run.

NIRANJAN SINGH  on Linkedin stated Like any other language, learning African languages should be planed with the aim at developing basic skills to the desired degree of excellence. Learning to read, learning to know, learning to be and to live together; the four pillars of learning are equally applied for development of proficiency and application of the languages in day to day life. The link provided may be proved as self contained and self sufficient resource material for attainment of learning outcomes in learning African languages at all levels. I can agree with this to some degree but I think it places a lot of pressure on the learner. Maybe we can start with the joy of learning and enjoying the process.



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9 responses to “Cracking the Code: Learning African Languages

  1. Keep it on” as i said, you are great women a person with full of love of others, and I am with in every step just behind you and ready to help you as you may need my help! count me in! even if our culture, our challenges and our distance is keeping us far and far from achieving our dreams one day i belief this distance will be reduced to nothing and our challenges will turn to our glory of achievement!

  2. James Wetu

    great work,you are destined for bigger opportunities. thanks

  3. Woohh i just like this article, so impressive…
    one thing i can say is… you are such a great talented student + hardworking,
    God bless you.

  4. Hi there, great post! I really love how you approach language learning and particularly Amharic and Swahili are also dear to me. We at Glovico also offer Swahili and Amharic classes. In our case as lessons via Skype with native speakers. This is our approach to generate additional income opportunities in African countries and allow people worldwide to learn these languages.


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