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When you’re the tortoise of language learning, not the hare

I’ve been thinking recently about language learning. It goes so quickly at the beginning. At the end of our four month course when we first got here, I wrote and gave my first talk in Swahili. A bit over a year later I could go off script during sermons, or preach only from notes.

I can still do those things and now I do them with greater ease, more natural phrasing, wider vocabulary, more fluency, but it takes longer to make progress. That’s to be expected: you can learn basic stuff fast, but the more sophisticated something is, the longer it takes to learn. So though most of the time words rattle off my tongue, sometimes I start a sentence and have to go back and re-phrase it, because it was basically just a translation from English, which doesn’t work in Swahili. Other times I reach for a word I know I know, but it comes to me 20 seconds later. 20 seconds is a long time in a conversation, or in the middle of a sentence. This frustrates me. I want to be better. And after six years, shouldn’t I be better, word-perfect even?

There are reasons for all these things: we moved to Dar where Swahili immersion is harder; I don’t have a work permit so it’s even harder to pursue; we had another child; the first one got older and more complicated, requiring more of me and my brain space; and my twin sister got sick and died which basically sent my brain into power saving mode.

Then today in my language class, we came across this proverb: Mwenda kasi mngojee achoke. The one who goes fast has to stop because they’re tired. It’s a version of the tortoise and the hare fable. It’s used as an encouragement to young people who are impatient at how long it is taking to get ahead: don’t cut corners or run too fast, because if you get lost you’ll know the way better. It encouraged me that maybe going slower with language gives more time to understand culture and to let that seep in.

After we had been in Tanzania two years, we started groping at the idea that prosperity gospel wasn’t what we thought it was, or what we had always been told. We’d had enough language to hear the words a year before, but we were not at that time able to see and hear the nuances, and did not have enough experiences to feed our understanding of the words we theoretically understood. The feedback loop between life and language enhanced our learning greatly. However, though we experienced something of a Copernican revolution in our understanding at the two or three year mark, we still had – and have – much to learn. We made the shift, but our understanding was still in black and white, and we’ve been colouring it in since then.

I was talking to someone recently who expected to learn Swahili in a year, and then begin their evangelistic ministry in earnest. I felt a twinge of envy, that in just a year she could speak about Swahili in the past tense, as something she had learned. That feels like a big call to make! But I also felt a little concerned, because you can be awesome at Swahili and miss the way Tanzanians think. You can end up talking past one another, or worse, assume that they need your correction. And while you might be able to fast-track language, you need time for cultural understanding.

I didn’t say anything to her: it’s not my place, and also I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t just speaking out of my own insecurity. Nevertheless, it gave me a different perspective on my time here, to think that though at times I stumble my words, perhaps the slower pace has given me an opportunity to develop my cultural understanding, so that the language has more context and I have more in-depth understanding than I might have if I had gone faster.

 

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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