Swaghili Lessons

You know how people say that as you get older, it gets harder to pick up new languages? I feel like that’s partly true – but it’s also hella fun.

I have studied seven languages in the past 20 years to varying degrees of success, excluding my mother tongue. Most of them (French, Latin, English, Spanish, Ancient Greek, Italian) are Indoeuropean languages. Once you know two or three of those, the other ones are pretty much a walk in the park.

The other language I’ve tried to wrap my head around, Turkish, is rooted in an entirely different linguistic family. This not only means that you have literally nothing to hold on to when studying new vocabulary, but the grammar also follows a completely different logic. If you think that German has monster words, learn some Turkish and think again.  Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınız is one Turkish word that has to be translated to an entire sentence: “You are reportedly one of those that we could not make Czechoslovakian.” (Thanks, dad, for the admittedly a bit outdated reference.)

Fortunately, the next language I got my mind set on does not have tongue twisters like that – at least as far as I am aware. Nevertheless, Kiswahili (or Swahili, the prefix Ki- marks it as a language) poses its own challenges to anyone who is willing to learn it. Even before you take your first lesson, you have to know what kind of language you want to learn.

It depends on your use for the language: Do you want to speak the standardized Swahili sanifu, like they do on the Kenyan coast or in Tanzania? Or do you want to converse in Sheng, the Swahili-English hybrid slang of Nairobi? “You can’t really study Sheng”, a Kenyan friend of mine tells me. “It changes too quickly.” Either way, you’d be well advised to first understand where the lingo comes from.

The East African coastal language we call Swahili is a mix of Bantu and Arab words and grammar at a ratio of about 80/20, my language teacher explains. Another thing he tells me (on several occasions) is that he wants to marry his wife’s sister, in addition to his current wife. “In our culture, that’s allowed!”, he proudly proclaims. He is a funny little guy, always unironically wearing an oversized suit and nerd glasses. Let’s call him Bernard for the sake of anonymity.

Bernard is teaching me and my friend Sophie, and he has his very own method. For getting us to practice our oral skills*, he has us form sentences using the words we have learned so far. Considering that we are only five classes in, that sometimes means we have to get creative with our word combinations. Here’s a dramatic recreation of what that sounds like:

Bernard: “Make a sentence with an animal and a verb.”
Sophie: “Kuku anaamini.”
Ruth bursts out laughing.
Bernard (looking bewildered and slightly indignant): “What? ‘The chicken is believing?’ A chicken cannot believe!”
Sophie: “But how do you know that? Maybe they can!”
Ruth (still trying to catch her breath): “This is turning into a deep philosophical discussion.”
Sophie: “OK, I have to admit, I actually wanted to say ‘The chicken is thinking.'”
Bernard: “What? But chickens cannot think, either! Ruth, you make a sentence now.”
Ruth: “Paka atanyesha.”
Bernard: “WHAT? The cat will rain?”
Ruth: “Oops. What is the word for drinking again?”
Sophie (whispering discreetly): “Kunywa.”
Bernard (clearly on the verge of outrage): “Cats do not rain!!”
Ruth: “But doesn’t it rain cats and dogs in Swahili? In English it does!”

Since we started making those example sentences, a pattern has emerged. In Sophie’s sentences, tall giraffes climb mountains, lions like parrots, and big elephants see beautiful mango trees. In mine, bad children get beaten by their fathers, three hyenas eat a grandmother, and lazy old men make fun of fat white people.

Turns out Sophie’s brain is a magical place filled with animals doing cute things, while my soul is a dark, rainy abyss where children get beaten and everyone is constantly at risk of being eaten. Who would have thought?


* “Haha, she wrote oral skills.” Get your mind out of the gutter, please.

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