Wednesday, July 1

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Practing Swahili

There is at least one major difference between last summer's time in Jakarta and this coming time in Nakuru beside the whole different continents thing: the length of my stay. In the former case, I spent a month in the city. In the latter, I don't even have a return ticket. I anticipate staying at least a year, but I may hang around longer still depending on a number of circumstances I now have no power to predict. You know, stuff like how much do they need me and how much have I enjoyed my time abroad. Understandably, I would like to be a little more prepared this time around. Not that it would be hard. My preparation for Jakarta amounted to reading a few articles on the BBC. One was on efforts by law enforcement to reduce the number of train riders who sat on top rather than inside due to overcrowding. Apparently this can be dangerous. The police would spray top-riders with a dye so those officers at later stations could find and fine them appropriately. But I digress.

Toward this end of preparation, I have begun to study Swahili. I chose to go with the Pimsleur Compact lessons over those offered by Rosetta Stone for two reasons. First, the cost. On Amazon, the Pimsleur package costs roughly a fifth of that offered by Rosetta Stone. Second, the Pimsleur lessons are entirely audio and can be transferred to my iPod. Rosetta Stone depends an awful lot on images and having a computer, and I would rather use the product I can be sure will work regularly even if it may not be as effective as its celebrated competitor.

The first thing to note upon using Pimsleur's compact lessons is that they are more like an audio phrasebook than anything else. Almost no time is spent teaching the fundamentals of grammar. Though it is easy enough to figure out which words are which and to construct a few original sentences, the greatest stress is upon learning basic phrases like "How are you?" (Habari gani?) and "It is here" (Iko huko). This is useful but only to a limited extent since no time is spent building vocabulary. The lessons teach some highly useful phrases including "I would like to eat something" but no food words are offered. The only drinks we learn are beer (pombe) and wine (mvinyo). But this is fine because most of the phrases and mock conversations revolve around picking women up and actually eating or drinking things that are not alcoholic would just delay the ultimate goal. These lines are near direct translations from a couple of dialogues:

"Would you like something to drink? Yes? Two beers, please."

"Would you like to eat something? At my place? This evening?"

At least the lesson is self-aware enough to realize this. One of the mock conversations follows the long attempt of a lonely man to somehow meet this woman again at a later date, changing time, place and nature of meeting every time the women shoots his suggestion down.

So far, I've liked the language itself. Surprisingly, despite the East African preference for throwing around 'n' and 'm' wherever they could conceivably fit, the sounds of the words have not been terribly difficult. I also appreciate the compactness of the language. Apparently they're not very big on independent pronouns or prepositions in that part of the world, preferring to turn them into prefixes and suffixes. Even the future tense is just the syllable 'ta' glommed onto the beginning of the verb. In fact, one can make a complete, reasonable sentence with a single word. Natafahamu. I will understand. You cannot suggest that it does not have a certain elegance.

Of course, all of this may be a moot point. Swahili developed centuries ago as a trade language between Arab merchants and the local coastal East Africans. This accounts for the many nations where Swahili is present. Unfortunately, without indigenous speakers, the language never became popular enough to totally take the place of tribal languages, of which there are hundreds within three distinct language groups. So even though Swahili is one of Kenya's two national languages (the other being English), it may still take some effort to find people who speak Swahili. For the record, the kids at the orphanage all speak Pokot.

For a highly accessible article on the ways in which language structures our thinking accompanied by some fascinating examples, check out this article by Lera Boroditsky.

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