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Early language learning reflections

At the end of our first week of language learning, there’s a lot to like about Swahili. It’s way more phonetic than English (goodbye diphthongs!) and the grammar structure is more like Hebrew, except the verb stems are long enough that they don’t disappear. Plus, there are no gendered pronouns (how interesting for a patriarchal culture!).

It also feels manageable. Every day brings noticeable improvement; our conversations are that little bit longer and more complex. We don’t yet feel frustrated with our progress!

Our tutor Nicholas (from KIU) is wonderful. His emphasis is on language we will actually use, so there are no artificial vocab lists for us! He encourages us to get out and practice our Swahili as much as possible and designs the lesson around what we will need that particular day. He’s also very patient with Elliot, happy for him to be in class, crawling all over us or eating or playing as we learn and chat.


3 things about learning someone else’s language:

1. Culture is embedded in language. On our first day, we learnt to greet people according to their status. I was told I should greet my house help with ‘Shikamoo’ (reserved for elders). Even though she works for me, I am to give her the respectful greeting, not the other way around, because she’s older than me. Similarly, the egalitarian nature of Australian society came out to us while attempting to explain to Nicholas why Australians shorten everything, and are happy to use slang even with elders.

2. Language = time. Some of the locals have expected that we just want the basics of Swahili but that we intend to continue with English as our main language. When we say that we want to have excellent Swahili, they are surprised. One of the first things people ask us after we say this is how long we will be in Tanzania. It seems our commitment to language speaks volumes about our intentions to be here long term.

3. The effort makes a difference. We can’t say that much yet, but we can say more than the average tourist. You may know the Swahili greeting ‘Jambo’. It’s what Tanzanians typically say to white people. But the form changes if you’re speaking to multiple people or replying on behalf of multiple people. When I used the correct form to respond to a teenager and his friend at the market, his face registered surprise and then we began an actual conversation.

2 things about learning language for the learner:


1. Knowing your learning style makes a huge difference. I am a total kinaesthetic learner. (We already knew this. On our Reformation study tour, I kept getting in trouble for touching things at museums!) Arthur is much more reflective. In class, if Nicholas gets Arthur to do a verbal exercise before me, Arthur gets stuck while I’m itching to get in, but if Nicholas asks me first, I’m happy because I get to have a go and Arthur’s happy because he has a chance to observe before he has to speak. When we go to the market, I bowl around talking to everyone and making thousands of mistakes. Arthur waits until he knows he will say it just right.

2. Intense language learning doesn’t just take up a lot of time. It’s also mentally taxing. By the end of class we’re both desperate to do something ‘mindless’ and physical — running for Arthur, aerobics for me.

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

4 replies

  1. Great to see you at home! Language learning is exciting, energising and taxing at once and a real commitment to life and engagement with people there. Cool!

  2. Great to reflect on as I start Koine Greek! Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to ‘belong’ to anyone (classicists?) so I don’t get advantages 2 & 3 :(
    Happy studying!

    1. Yes, James, it’s quite different to studying dead languages. Funnily enough, our Bible college language study is helping our understanding here – the other day in church, Hebrew (with Arabic in common with Swahili) was the key to working out that the sermon was about blessings and curses!

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