African Languages on My Brain: Swahili Sounds in My Head

GE DIGITAL CAMERASwahili and I resume our love affair. We try to spend time together every day. We spend the night together, I in my bed and Swahili through the speakers of my computer. Swahili soothes me as I awaken during the night. The foreign sounds stir my imagination and remind me of the sights, sounds and smells of Africa. Swahili becomes my bedtime companion.

I listen to Swahili in my car. I  place the CD in the slot and listen to it without awareness. Sometimes I speak along with the CD but most of the time it is simply background for my thoughts. I don’t like to share my car because I don’t want anyone to change the audio in my vehicle.

By the time an infant has reached 8 months gestation in the womb, s/he has learned to recognize the sounds of his mother’s language. When  this infant is 12 months old, s/he begins to lose the ability to hear some  as s/he attaches and refines the process of making sounds in the mother’s language.

We like to point out that children learn language easily. They make it look easy. It is not unusual for small children to mispronounce words as there mouth matures. It is not  odd for them to struggle with 3 letter blends such as “street” pronounce “yellow” as “lello” or add vowels at the end of words that don’t end in vowels.

We tolerate children’s mispronounciations as they learn to speak. They develop the muscles in their mouth and upper respiratory system. Many of us can tell the difference between a two year old speaker and a ten year old speaker and we take the two year old speaker who expresses hunger no less serious than a 10 year old who expresses hunger. We learn to accept approximations and move on.

Second language learners face a different challenge if they are older. People focus more on how you say it rather than what you say. It takes the relationship into another direction when people judge how you speak rather than focus on the communication process.

Children don’t need to know what a word or phrase means in order to repeat it. People assume that they know the meaning if they pronounce the word or phrase well. They repeat words over and over again just to hear the sound. They often don’t understand what a phrase means and the adults would not know this unless they asked for a definition.

I believe in practicing the sounds. Many of my Kiswahili friends encourage foreigners to listen to the words and “catch’ them. However as an adult, I can read so if I can associate the proper intonation with the letters then the language acquisition process occurs  more quickly because you add visualization to the process.

When I learned language in the past, I spent the first hour of each day sitting at the computer and practicing the sound of 7 languages so that my upper respiratory system could make the sounds and that I would recognize the language when I heard it or saw the words. I practiced this activity for years. I upgraded my computer and my program was no longer compatible with the upgrade.  I mourned the loss of my program.  I loved the control of getting up and getting on my computer and pronouncing the words without any download issues or glitches.

So change comes hard. I am learning to use social networking to improve my language skills. I practice the sounds of Swahili every morning to prime the pump. Train the ear and flex the muscles in the upper respiratory system to make the sounds. This process resembles a singer who practices the scales before singing the song or the musician who simple focuses on playing the notes to warm up for the performance. I find that I need a warm up to switch the brain from English to Swahili. It makes it easier to move into the language, so there is less anxiety when trying to communicate.

Adult learners fear ridicule. People mimic language learners as they struggle with the sounds. Struggling with new sounds, replacing sounds with the familiar sounds of the target language, adding letters is part of the journey which lead to better pronunciation. As children learn their first language, they make us developmental mistakes. The worst thing that adults can do is ridicule their efforts and refuse to meet their needs. The child becomes frustrated and withdraws or tries to meet his/her needs in another manner.

When the language learner engages in any of these behaviors, instead of ridicule or correction, the target language speaker should simply pronounce it correctly and move on and complete the necessary action.  There is no need to make the target language learner repeat the word of phrase over and over again until the language learner’s speech matches the target language speaker. Accept this stage as part of the process and allow the language learner to make mistakes.

The language learner can hear the difference between their speech and the native speaker.  Making them self conscious about pronunciation only inhibits the language learning process. It takes patience and perseverance to interact with a emerging language learner. I find that most of the amateur videos used in social networking sites such as you tube etc. spend too much time explaining. It shows me that the teacher doesn’t understand linguistics and second language acquisition.

I complain about the process but Chanel Iam on facebook seems to be acquiring the language quite nicely using social media. So I need to do what I advise other people to  do all the time, let go of the old strategy and embrace the new strategies.  I can still use a lot of strategies that I used before. I have workbooks with exercises, and CD’s and language programs but incorporate that with Skype and social media. So I listen to the sounds , practice them first and move forward.


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