Sunday, May 30, 2010

Learning Swahili

Diane and I got a very good start with Swahili during the three-week intensive language course that we did when we first arrived in Tanzania. Since then I've continued to make an effort to keep using and studying it.

There's a lot of good news for English speakers who want to learn Swahili. With only one or two exceptions the sounds are simple and familiar. (One of the odd sounds I know from my parents' dialect of Chinese!) The grammar has a lot of consistency and regularity. Even the exceptions often have a kind of pattern to them. Almost always the stressed syllable in a word is the next to last one. Writing is in the same alphabet as English, minus "q" and "x". The spelling is completely phonetic and a breeze to master. Very often I can hear a word I don't know and am able to find it in a dictionary on the first try (think about that for someone who is learning English -- our spelling is horribly complicated and difficult).

But there's some serious bad news as well. 8-D Nouns, adjectives, modifiers, and verbs are all heavily inflected, that is, the words change form. One way this is done is in singular versus plural. That's not so bad since we have that distinction in English. But the other way hinges on "noun classes", of which there are seven. Each noun class has its own ways for forming inflections.

The modifiers include some -- but not all -- of the numbers. For example, the word for "two" has a different prefix depending on whether you are talking about persons, shoes, oranges, trees, or peppers, for which "two" is then "wawili", "viwili", "mawili", "miwili", and "mbili", respectively. Verbs are similarly inflected depending on the noun class of the subject and of the object, if any.

Taken individually, each noun class appears to be manageable. But trying to keep all of them straight in actual conversation rapidly overloads my linguistic abilities and slow brain. Even a short sentence can easily contain, say, three nouns that belong to three different classes. For instance: "Those two people bought these two sweet oranges and two large peppers". Proper Swahili requires every one of those words to be formed correctly (except for "and"). Sigh.

The noun classes are enough of a difficulty that our Swahili course intentionally avoided spending much attention on them in order not to get bogged down. Our teachers gave us some good reference materials and sent us on our way. With hindsight I see that was a wise thing to do. With practice I am slowly, slowly, beginning to get the inflections right.

As someone who is not especially adept at learning languages, especially conversation, I find that I have to do two things. First, overcome my shyness and embarrassment, and keep using Swahili. Maintain the ability to laugh at myself and accept that for a long time to come I am going to come across as a complete idiot. Second, continue to explicitly study: vocabulary, grammar, usage, whatever. As an adult I am not going to "pick up" Swahili merely by being surrounded by it. But I do know from past experience that persistence pays off. Looking back to ten months ago when we landed I do see that I have made progress. I really am learning an African language. -Earl

Later: A week after posting this, I showed it to a Tanzanian friend who pointed out a mistake with one of the nouns that I used. This just proves my point that the inflections are easy to get wrong. 8-D


  1. I believe persistent and practice will always pay off if you allocate enough time. I have attempted to learn German by purchasing audio CD's but was never able to fully focus on the learning experience because of distractions and other priorities on my mind. I also found learning a new language can be very boring and I didn't really have anyone I could practice speaking German with. I think class room instruction coupled with daily use of the language makes it easier to learn. Thank you for providing very descriptive insights of your experiences. It is always a pleasure to read them. Much Love and Prayers Always!

  2. Tracy, have you tried Rosetta Stone for learning a foreign language? Their approach is software-based and interactive. It uses pictures, voice, written words, and typing to really practice and reinforce what you are learning and in a way that is not boring. There are no translations! Having used Rosetta Stone products for both Swahili and Spanish I can say that they really work. You need to use them on a PC or a Mac and they are a bit expensive, but they are well worth the money.

    For Spanish, another thing I did was take some non-credit classes at a community college with a teacher who used a method that initially involved only listening and following commands. Again, no translations, at least at first. Like Rosetta Stone, her method is more like how children learn.

    - Earl