"I wish I had learned more Swahili..."

Since my return to Tanzania a couple of weeks ago, I have met many expats who have told me that they wish they had learned more Swahili - many of whom are only halfway through their time here. I have also met many who speak very good Swahili. I don't really believe that some people find learning languages easy while others struggle disproportionately. Sure, some may pick things up quicker than others, but I refuse to accept that some people simply have language aptitude and others do not. Why? Because I used to be one of those "I'm not good at languages" people, until I realised that actually there are ways and means for learning languages. These ways and means require conviction, confidence and tenacity! The latter two being skills that I have only recently developed.

I am running out of ways to respond to the statement, "ah, I wish I'd learned more Swahili by now." I want to say things like, "what's stopping you?", "don't fret about the past, start today, let's start now... hujambo!" The last person who said this to me, I simply said, "you're not the first person I've heard this from." Perhaps not my most understanding or tactful reply - it certainly stopped the conversation until I could save it with another question! The thing is, learning a language is hard, but it's not impossible (as this guy will tell you). I studied French for 7 years at school and only got a C at A-level and I definitely wouldn't be able to hold down a conversation with a French person today. I learned for 7 years, and I can't talk to a French person much beyond "je voudrais" or "c'est jolie!" However, with some conviction, confidence and tenacity, my conversational Swahili improves all the time. So, this is a blog of encouragement for those of you who wish you could learn more Swahili! Detailed below are a few tips that have helped me on my way.

Get good foundations
Go on a week long intensive beginners course (like this, or this longer one at SOAS), buy a good text/grammar book (I use this one), get a tutor (very affordable in Tanzania, I can give you the number of mine if you're interested) and work on it EVERY DAY! This sounds daunting, but it really needn't be. Put 15-30 minutes in your diary and set a timer. Here's some things you might consider doing during this time slot: 

  1. Learn greetings (I'm still getting mine wrong, but that's ok!),
  2. practice and write out grammar points,
  3. go through vocab flash cards (I've recently started using Anki flashcard app which uses time intervals to remind you of words just before you forget them),
  4. watch a Swahili soap (I'm addicted to this one on YouTube),
  5. read a few pages of your text book and try the exercises,
  6. use lots of coloured pens, postits, stationary - whatever works for you.

Just 15-30 minutes per day. That's all!

Talk to someone every day
I really used to lack confidence for talking to people in a foreign language. I'd have those doubtful thoughts running through my mind; what if I say something wrong, will they laugh at me, they'll think I'm stupid etc. The first few times I asked for something in Tanzania I said "ninataka", which means "I want." After several frosty receptions to my requests, I went back to the text book and consulted the part on ordering food. It was then that I realised that in Tanzania, it is more polite to say "ninaomba", which literally means "to beg" or "to pray" but is generally used as "to ask." As soon as I made the transition, to "naomba", my interactions with people changed dramatically and this made me feel good! Learning a language is an inductive process, it's important to put it into practice each day and learn from the responses you get.

Get a tutor
Unless you are very driven, I would recommend getting a tutor. I did a whole one year beginners course at SOAS which taught me good grammar, and after 3 weeks of living in Tanzania, I still could barely say more than one sentence at a time. It was only after I saw a tutor that things started to improve. I wanted improvement quickly, so I saw her 4/5 times per week and after 3 weeks, I saw a noticeable difference. I could have simple conversations just in Swahili, and my Tanzanian friends were telling me how much I'd improved. This was massively satisfying!

Another reason why I would recommend having an intense level of lessons in the beginning is that the more you can see the returns of your effort, the more you will feel encouraged, the more confident you'll be and the harder you'll work. If you see your tutor once and only practice a couple of times per week, your progress will stagnate and you're likely to give up. But, once you get over the brow of the learning curve and can have simple conversations with people, you can only continue to improve.

Choose your friends  
If you intend to spend all of your time with other expats, then you are unlikely to learn much Swahili. This may be a trade off that you decide you're not willing to make, but removing yourself from the expat circle and making some local friendships will increase your exposure to the language. I remember when I was 16 I worked in a hotel restaurant and we had many Chinese staff. Our restaurant manager would forbid them from speaking their own language in the staff room when we were on our break. I remember at the time thinking this was a little harsh on my Chinese colleagues, but now I realise that there is no way they were ever going to learn English just by living in England while speaking only to each other in Mandarin or Cantonese.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think it is impossible to learn Swahili without making Swahili speaking friends, but it's worth thinking about fun ways to get language practice in, and hanging out with a local friend or engaging a local acquaintance in conversation is likely to be something you can commit to without too much hardship.

Don't be a perfectionist
Everyday I say numerous things wrong, I often start conversations in Swahili and switch to English as soon as it gets too hard. I've learned a lot from all the times I've said something wrong and processed it afterwards! It really is ok to say something wrong, so don't wait to have everything perfect before you start talking. Just like walking, you need to fall a few times to get it right, and the quicker you start making mistakes, the quicker you'll learn. 

Another thing that is linked to perfectionism is worrying what other friends will think if you try to speak Swahili and get it wrong. I would really encourage you to not worry about what others are thinking, you have your own goals and achievements, you know what you're about and you want to learn Swahili. What others may think is really inconsequential to you and your goal.

Finally, please don't wish you had already learned more Swahili by now, you are actively discouraging yourself with statements like this. The past is gone, and what is important is how we learn from the past and the changes we make today. Even in a few days you can learn all the necessary greetings to get a smile on the locals' faces. Start small, build slowly, put time into it, and don't beat yourself up about lack of progress. Every new word is an achievement.

And, if you are still not convinced, here's a TEDx talk for more inspiration!