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One of D’s biggest disappointments was that his position is no longer considered a language-designated assignment. Some of D’s predecessors received up to 6 months of Swahili classes at FSI, but by the time D entered training, knowing Swahili was no longer judged essential for this job. Kenya has two official languages, and since almost everyone speaks English, the State Department decided to remove the Swahili language designation. Of course, knowing Swahili would still be extremely useful, especially considering the fact that Ambo speaks it fluently. S started taking classes shortly after we arrived in Nairobi but D was initially too swamped with work to find the time – never mind the energy – for lessons. Fortunately, S’s teacher, who had been giving private lessons to Embassy employees for five years, was recently hired to give regular classes at the Embassy. This proved to be the impetus D needed to carve an hour out of his day to join S in taking Swahili lessons.

Swahili is a Bantu language that has a fairly strong Arabic influence – about 30% of the verbs are of Arabic origin. Prefixes and suffixes abound in Swahili, taking the place of English adverbs, pronouns, verb tenses, etc. This means that a beginner can say more knowing only a few words by tacking on the appropriate morphemes to the root words. This also means that whatever one says is likely to be grammatically incorrect because there are nine different noun classes and, in many cases, a corresponding number of declinations for the accompanying adjectives and prepositions. Why, for example, would anyone ever need half a dozen different ways to say the number 2?!?!

If that’s not enough to keep one’s head spinning, Swahili has plenty of other idiosyncrasies. For example, five of the seven days of the week translate literally to “week first”, “week second”, etc. – which would be extremely helpful if Monday was the first day of the week. Instead, the Swahili week starts with Saturday, so Wednesday – despite its place in the middle of the work week – is “week fifth”. Confusing? Not nearly as mystifying as telling time. To tell time, one says the word for hour and the corresponding number. Easy, right? Unfortunately, the Bantu peoples established the rules for telling time long before the invention of modern time-telling appliances. The first hour of the day was logically the first hour after sunrise, which on the equator occurs at 7am year round. Consequently, 8 o’clock is “hour two”, noon is “hour six”, 3 o’clock is “hour nine”, and so forth.

At times, Swahili sounds a bit like baby talk. Mimi, wewe, yeye, sisi, nyinyni, mama, baba, dada, kaka, nyanya, babu, bibi are all legitimate and frequently used words. Given our limited vocabulary and propensity to make childish mistakes, overusing these words somehow feels very appropriate, especially in light of our teacher’s quirkiness, which makes us hark back to our kindergarten days. It’s hard to describe her teaching style other than to say that she is eccentric to the nth degree, but there is no denying that she is also very effective and knows how to teach. Or perhaps one simply learns languages better when one is treated like a kid.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Lissa #

    Dare I ask how hard it is not to laugh when using “kaka” in a sentence when speaking to adults?

    Enjoy the experience!


    October 20, 2011

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