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Nuance and language learning

Recently I blogged on how language is about rhythm and flow, not just words and grammar. Another aspect of language learning, and one which seems so distant at the moment, is expression and nuance. When someone raises their voice, are they angry or excited? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

We were sitting in a meeting between student leaders and the chaplaincy the other day and every so often the leader would pause the meeting to summarise in English for our benefit. The greatly encouraging thing was, I didn’t need his summary. Everything that he said, I had already picked up. But I had no idea of the details.

Various people had spoken and given opinions. They were all speaking on the same topic, using the same key words, but what emphasis were they each giving? Did they re-phrase each others’ words to prove their own point? To what extent were they in agreement with each other? Who would need some pastoral care afterwards because of the way the discussion was handled? These are the questions I had no way of answering.

When people ask us if we’re ‘fluent in Swahili’ yet, I want to ask them, what do they mean?

  • Can I hold a conversation about my child and his development? Absolutely!
  • Am I able to understand an explanation of the roles of women in Tanzanian society? Pretty much, at least enough to be sympathetic and encourage the conversation forward.
  • Can I tell the difference between an educated person’s grammar and an uneducated person’s grammar? Often. (Mine is a whole other matter!)
  • But can I recognise a beautiful turn of phrase? No!
  • Do I know which of the three different words I’ve learnt for ‘compassion’ is more appropriate to particular context? Absolutely not!
  • Have I any idea what the overlap of those words with the three different words I know for ‘kindness’ are? Not at all!

Before we came to Tanzania, I knew that this was the stage of language learning I would struggle with the most: having enough language to converse, but not enough to connect. Maybe it’s because I’m a words of affirmation person (we’re talking both quantity and quality!); maybe it’s not having the resources to organise my interpersonal affairs; maybe it’s just the ordinary frustration that relationships always take longer to establish than you think they will; maybe I’m just perfectionistic and impatient.

I like to express love for people by understanding them and responding appropriately. I’m used to being confident in social situations and, if I feel I can’t do that, I prefer to withdraw rather than make a mistake and end up berating myself for it later. But you don’t learn a language by withdrawing, and learning another’s language is a profound act of love and entering into their world. So at the moment, I’m having to radically change the way that I love people. I’m working at participating when I do not feel comfortable and then trying to be gentle with myself about it afterwards so I can do it again the next day as well.

Categories: Uncategorized Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

1 reply

  1. ‘Learning another’s language is a profound act of love’ – absolutely! Praying for you guys as you love people through entering their world more and more through your ongoing language learning.

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