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The cruel thing about language learning

I feel like my Swahili is growing in leaps and bounds since I started my literature class at uni. One of my hopes with the class was that I would grow in my listening comprehension and this is definitely happening. I am picking up and understanding more of what is going on, not so much because I now get every single word but because I kind of get in the zone and everything comes together. Until it’s my turn to contribute, at which point I become tongue tied.

Every month I attend Binti Sayuni and at one of these I participated on a question-and-answer panel. You can read about one of the questions I responded to here. I felt able to answer questions confidently because I had understood the content of the main sessions and I felt I had useful things to say. The topic was relationships, including talking about sex, and we had been talking about how sex was a beautiful and good gift from God. This is quite a radical idea in Tanzanian culture so many girls didn’t believe this easily. However, I felt that we also needed to speak directly to those who didn’t believe it because of an extra barrier: their experiences, including those who had been sexually abused. So I started to say a few things. Part way through, I became quite emotional and I felt that I did not have the sophistication to speak in Swahili on this very sensitive topic. One of my co-presenters noticed this and came to my aid to translate.

The thing was, I knew he was translating me correctly because I understood everything he was saying. He was using vocab that I have, and constructions that I know. But I couldn’t have done that myself without preparing it beforehand.

It’s like comprehension and composition are constantly competing with each other, one drawing slightly ahead and then the other. It’s hard to feel like I’m progressing at all because the feeling of ineptitude remains. Whereas before I was thrilled just to understand anything, now that I understand so much more, I’m not content with that. I have things to say, and a desire to contribute, but I do not yet have the ability or flow to do so well.

People in Australia might say to me they’re impressed that I’m studying literature at uni in Swahili and I feel quite proud that I generally follow the arguments made in lectures; but even if I understand what’s going on, my ability to communicate that and participate is still limited. However sophisticated what’s going on in my head is, I still look like an idiot most of the time! The post below says, ‘Keep calm and learn Swahili’!


Categories: Uncategorized Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

3 replies

  1. You don’t think that you are being too hard on yourself?? Lots of language is learnt from listening first so it is time well spent to do this. Remember how Elliot learns with lots of listening and following instructions and then starting to verbalise himself a few words at a time. Remember about being patient – at least with your language skills it is not so long!

  2. Great stuff! The secret (!) to learning to speak a language is using it! Some secret eh! :-) Reading and writing and even listening to an extent, which you are doing, are in fact separate skills to speaking. You might sound like a goose, but you just need to do it.
    Once you are doing that, you then need to become less self conscious ( ho, ho she says!) and start listening to others AND yourself and become more attentive to all the non verbal cues. Its a bit like learning to drive, you just gotta do it! Nothing can replace it.

    If you manage to do what I recommend, your Swahili will flourish! That’s a money back guarantee! :-)

  3. I agree with Meredith! You would never expect Elliot to participate in an English Literature class less than 18 months after starting to learn English (or even 18months after starting to speak English). Praying that you can indeed “Tulia bwana na ujifunza Kiswahili” and have patience whilst doing so.

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