My limited experience with Kiswahili

by Yaska Sahara

As the title of this post implies, I have limited experience with the Kiswahili language. But I have enough to know that it is an amazing language. I feel that Bantu languages do not get enough love. On top of German, Spanish and French, people are starting to learn other major non-european languages such as Japanese, Mandarin, Hindi and Korean, beginning to learn that the world is not just ‘the west’. But where is the Bantu appreciation? This language group has various intriguing languages, unique and amazing for their sound, pronunciation, grammar and the unique vocabulary denoting cultural quirks of those speaking it.

While written word has preserved romance languages and various languages of Asia, because of a lack of written work in Africa, much of its rich poetry, stories and revelations have been lost, as they were only spread by mouth.

Kiswahili is an incredible mix of various language families as it was originally made by and for trade. You can find Romance language words, Arabic words and originally Bantu language words all mixed.

It is, sadly, quite difficult. Some things are extremely easy while others are very alien to people unfamiliar with a Bantu language, like how negative and positive verb conjugations are almost entirely different. Example: ‘Ninakunywa chai’ is ‘I drink tea’. But the opposite is ‘Sinywi chai’. I sometimes found it hard to remember these but got more and more used to it. It just takes a little bit of added effort. Learning any language, there is always a certain part that requires a little more effort. Things that are difficult depend on your learning experience and native language.

I spent about two months having private lessons, two hours five days a week. It was slightly tiresome at times, I will admit, especially as I only had overheard conversations and the odd word as my frame of reference. Unlike my preceding language learning experience in which I had been learning Spanish while already having a proficiency in French. I will be making some comparisons with my Spanish learning experience. I have a post on it, check it out.

Despite the difficulties, the large majority of these lessons were very enjoyable. I had a kind-hearted, hard working man teaching me. We both had to adapt to each other, me to his style of immersion in the language and detailed grammar studying. And him to my fascination of the evolution of languages, leading me to ask somewhat difficult questions. Imagine if someone asked you why the grammar structure has become the way it is in your native language. We don’t always know these things, focusing only on the language. My teacher Bosco rose to the challenge and discussed with me, he researched or asked other teachers. He also took the time to ponder and compare with me. For example, I told him there were words I knew instantly because they were similar to some Hindi words, which he was intrigued by. This is because Swahili and Hindi have both had interaction with Arabic.

This is one thing about learning with a teacher from another culture, not even necessarily from that of the language you are learning, both you and the teacher learn a lot more than you could have ever predicted.

While staying in Spain, I managed to go from almost nothing to a comfortable level of proficiency in two months. I spent two months studying Swahili but the results were not the same. I was learning Kiswahili in Rwanda, where it is now an official language, and there are efforts to speak it more, but it is not widely spoken. Hence, I didn’t have immersion outside of the classes. I’d spent more hours daily with Spanish. And, as previously mentioned, it was closer to languages I knew. So it is safe to say I am not even close to holding a conversation with a pleasant flow in Swahili. But I regret nothing.

I regret nothing because I had a good time learning what I did. Even if I don’t remember every word I wrote down or all the grammar rules, I now have a good base, I have a feel for Swahili and for now, that is enough. I was disappointed at certain points during my learning experience and at how much slower I was compared to when I’d learnt Spanish a mere month before.

But a month in, I had a cool experience which gave me some hope. I went to a small, very intimate film event, the Mashakiri Film Festival at Kigali’s Impact hub. There was a short film in Kiswahili. I was delighted to find myself recognising words here and there ‘kutaka’, ‘kulala’, ‘kula’, ‘pesa’ and a few more.

I continued to find myself amused at words, their formations and meanings… For example, your aunt, your mother’s sister, is your ‘mama mdogo’, which literally means ‘small mother’. I found this interesting and cute. I’ve started to enjoy calling my mother’s sisters ‘mama mdogo’. In comparison, in my culture, my mother’s mother is my ‘Nanima’, also literally translating to ‘small mother’.

Another encouraging and motivating experience I had was when I took a trip to Virunga National Park, in the DRC, where Swahili is spoken. I found myself understanding a great number of basic conversations between the locals. It showed me once again never to underestimate the brain’s capacity to absorb information. It took a remarkable amount of resistance to not go and subtly but not so subtly try and eavesdrop on literally any conversation, even a simple market exchange.

Even now, a few months after I put the Swahili learning on hold, I remember a good amount and can understand a few conversations, or certain words and sentences here and there. I definitely plan to pick up Kiswahili again. It is a truly amazing language and I wish to able to use it as it is widely spoken in various African countries. Keep an eye out in the future for an update on my Kiswahili learning.

At the moment though, as per my style of language learning, I wish to float to another language, get a base in it and on and on. I enjoy learning multiple languages at a time and having a base in a few vastly different languages to ensure I can have more ease picking up languages of different types in the future. I will definitely be writing a post about various ways in which I have absorbed and actively studied language so do keep an eye out.

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