Swahili Lessons

I’ve been trying to teach myself Swahili. Everyone here seems to speak Swahili more fluently than English, and you always learn more about a culture by learning how they structure their thoughts into words. Plus people seem to like it when I make an effort to speak Swahili, so I want to get better and actually be able to say sentences.

However, learning Swahili is turning out to not be a straightforward task. First off it’s hard to find any sort of literature on the language; I was lucky to find the last copy of a Swahili phrase book in a book store back home, but a phrase book was all I found. I was really excited to find it because it seemed much more comprehensive than the little phrase book I bought here last year. I’ve been reading it in the car, but every time I use a phrase that I’ve learned from the book, I’m told that it’s not quite correct. It seems that Kenyan Swahili is different from whatever Swahili is in this book. That frustrates me. I get that a small book can’t cover every nuance and variation of such a widespread language, but my problem with it is that it never acknowledges that you might encounter differences depending on where you are. The book simply refers to East Africans as though they’re all one homogenous culture. (Surprise surprise, right.)

So I’ve decided to take the book with a grain of salt, and to supplement it by asking people to teach me things. This is proving complicated as well. One friend told me that I should be careful not to have too many teachers, because I’ll get many conflicting lessons. He also said I should ask children instead of adults because they’re less likely to manipulate/lie to me for their own benefit or entertainment. (But are they though??) I did get a brief grammar lesson about verb tenses yesterday, and I don’t think my teacher mislead me, but I don’t really have any way of knowing.

What I really want is a workbook like the ones I had for French class in high school, so that I could at least learn the basics, but has anyone even written a workbook for Swahili? Plus, almost everyone speaks Sheng, the slang form of Swahili, which changes far more quickly than I can keep up with. It almost seems like some native speakers have trouble keeping up as well, because when I ask them how to say something they have debates about it.

I could give you some heavy handed metaphor about how I’m trying to nail down something that defies definition, and how I’m learning some broader lesson about their culture, and how I need to let go of my need to get things right and neat and correct. But that would be way too corny and awful, I’m not gonna do that. Suffice it to say that I will keep trying to learn Swahili even if I don’t know how I’ll go about it. I can tell you that I’m learning about basic nouns, and personal pronouns, and a few verb tenses. But it is far more complex than I imagined and I would have to stay here much longer to really get a grasp of how the language works. All I can do is keep listening, keep asking, and keep aware of how much I don’t know.


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