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The Art of Learning a (new) Language

February 1, 2016



Eleven years after her first visit to Tanzania, La Chica has decided it’s time to learn how to speak Swahili. She’s managed to get by with a mixture of Swahili, Maa (the Masai language) and English, but now she’s ready for fluency. Thanks to her brother’s friend, Babu Simba (Grandpa Lion), she has discovered Pimsleur. Pimsleur language courses provide oral lessons, which has transformed La Chica’s command of Swahili. One of her new year’s resolutions in 2016 is to become fluent in Swahili. No mean feat for a girl who doesn’t get English grammar let alone grammar applied to other languages. Every morning, propped up in her bed with a cup of tea, La Chica plays a 30 minute oral lesson. Unlike learning French, Spanish, German etc where there are always some vaguely familiar words, Swahili has none….unless of course you’re into Lion King, but La Chica hasn’t yet seen Lion King so she’s a step behind everyone who has. So she painstakingly listens without fail, every morning, and responds when told to do so. La Chica has tried not to hit the ‘pause’ button on her computer, but…it takes her longer than the time allowed to work out the word order, then to recall which is the correct verb etc. To help her recall, she’s resorted to reminders and associations. So, for example, the Swahili verb to drink is kunwya. Sounds a bit like quinoa, the Peruvian grain, when pronounced the correct way. So when Pimsleur asks La Chica to be an American man asking a Kenyan woman out for a drink she thinks of quinoa, which is a food which reminds her of kunwya. Then, when Pimsleur asks her to say the drink the Kenyan woman wants is a cup of coffee, oh boy, La Chica might as well push stop rather than pause! Now, in real life, if La Chica is able to pause the world while she remembers her word prompts, puts the words in the correct order, and uses the correct beginnings and endings for the pronouns and verbs, she’ll be able to have a conversation, of sorts. And when La Chica goes to the market in Tanzania? She’s learning numbers so she can bargain. But what silly numbers! Wouldn’t it make sense for ‘nane’ to be the number 9? Of course, but it’s 8. And nne, what sort of number is that? (4). There are books and articles written about the elasticity of the brain, but La Chica’s brain feels like an old elastic band that’s become hard and brittle. Hmm, anyone know a good translator?!

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