African Languages On My Brain: Returning to Kiswahili

GE DIGITAL CAMERA GE DIGITAL CAMERA GE DIGITAL CAMERARecently I returned to Swahili, contrite about my absence. I always feel that I lost a window of opportunity when I didn’t go from listening to Swahili for long periods of time and speaking the language more. I chose to study Swahili and then switched to Amharic and Oromo. So my  receptive language included all three languages, yet my expressive language really included none of the languages. I understood some of all three, enough to know when people were scamming me in front of me.

So I returned to Swahili, the language of my original desire. I kept thinking that I would be fluent now if I had stuck with it.  But I didn’t stick with it. I learned lots of other things which proved to be useful. I need to rid myself of this feeling that it can ever be too late to learn.

When I learned languages before it seemed that life was much simpler. I studied the language using computer programs repeating what the native speaker shared. I listened to lots of tapes and CD’s and went to sleep listening to tapes. I listened in my car as I drove allowing the language to sink into my subconscious.  I checked out movies in the language from the video store. I bought workbooks in the language and practiced the exercises. My full time job for at least 8 weeks involved studying or using the language. I traveled to the country where the language was spoken with one objective, to use the language in a natural setting volunteering to work in refugee centers or teaching street children.

I listened to the radio in this language and read magazines and books in the library. I visited the University and started conversations with people at my guest house and in the coffee houses.  I avoided Americans unless they spoke the language well enough to carry on conversations in the target language. I traveled to various parts of the cities  or regions and interacted with locals at every opportunity.

I loved the novels in each country. The novels tell you things about the culture that the locals never share. The newspapers and magazines give another layer to the culture.  I loved this part of my life. It allowed me to acquire a language to intermediate level of fluency in 3 months. I loved sharing ideas about my profession or current events.

I miss this part of my life. I carried so many books and tapes, compact disks in my luggage. Then I bought more books while in the country.  I traveled with 2 suitcases and a carry on and most of them were my language learning materials.  I traveled throughout the Western Hemisphere and I explored so much of the countries.

Africa proved to be more complicated. I learned some German in Namibia. But Namibians shared such a painful history with German that it made me feel bad to force them to practice with me.  In Benin and Senegal, people often attempted to use the language to manipulate me. The consciousness of lack permeated the television, movies, radio, magazines, newspapers and daily conversation. Generally once we got past the greetings, the conversation turned to Americans giving them money. So Quebec proved a more reliable place to learn the language and Africa a place to practice the language.

So now my life is different. I need to earn a living and interact with lots of people who speak only English and have no appreciation for people who speak other languages. I write competitive  proposals in English and find it difficult to pull out of English and engage in other languages. I don’t relax a lot in African countries.  I understand the disparities in income and social economic status but it does not make it any less comfortable.

When I interact with people whose income exceeds mine over 100 times, I intend to get intimidated. My response would be to withdraw but then I am still financially independent so even then it is not the same. I know that I am viewed as a gateway to a different life. So you wonder if people might choose the short way to prosperity rob you or set you up to be robbed or the long way, manipulate you out of your resources. Not exactly the foundation for trust and learning something new. The brain’s ability to learn may be dampened in fight or flight.

I don’ carry tons of  language books, CDs and tapes  to Africa. I  load them on my tablet and Iphone. I can use youtube  and facebook but somehow this doesn’t seem as efficient as my previous method. I need internet connection or electricity which may not be always available. After a struggle, I don’t engage in language learning for the same amount of time as before.

I must say that I don’t have the energy left over after dealing with all the aspects of managing a non profit and creating curriculum for an afterschool program. The brain often feels saturated which isn’t a good element for learning.

I don’t find Mp3s on the phone or the computer to be as easy to control as the cassette player or the CD.  My routine varies a great deal. I need to be in a place with internet to access you tube. I find that a lot of the material tailored to foreign language learning is not as scaffolded as the professional material by linguists. So there is a huge gap that the learner needs to leap.

Swahili is a great first African language to learn. Swahili became the language of East African trade long ago. Native speakers strive to meet foreign speakers half way because they want the trade relationship. Learning Swahili reminds me of learning Spanish. Spanish speakers encourage people to learn their language and demonstrate a lot of patience with foreign language learners. So do the speakers of Swahili, plus there is a greater variety and diversity of language programs in Swahili.


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