Tag Archives: learning

Learning Swahili From Scratch

Why Swahili?

Note that is it not my first attempt at learning a fourth language. A few weeks ago I decided that my French was good enough and it was time to make an addition to the family. Given that I speak Spanish, English and French, I decided to give Portuguese a try (talk about Eurocentrism). After one week I got bored and quitted. It was too similar to Spanish.

I quitted and started playing my favourite game, Civilization IV. When I got to the start menu, I paid a closer than ever attention at the theme song, which I had previously identified as “random exotic pleasant sounds”. I wondered what language that was. It was Swahili. So I suddenly realized that people outside of Europe and Northern Asia… speak. And their languages are truly fascinating! I spent the rest of the day in Wikipedia being amazed at the vastly different syntaxes, pronunciation, alphabets and grammar of the many languages of the world. Now I can say it is one of my primary interests (but then again, what is not one of my primary interests? ;)).

In short: because Swahili is beautiful and exotic. In shorter: because I like it.

Where To Start?

Now I faced a problem. The two foreign languages I speak were introduced to me at school. I had never started learning a language from zero.

I browsed a little on Amazon and this little book, The Loom Of Language: An Approach To The Mastery Of Many Languages, popped up. A life saver. Even though it is centred mostly on European languages, it made me understand languages better, and is a valuable acquisition given that I plan to learn more of them in the future.

Now for the Swahili. To learn it I decided to rely mostly on the information available online. I only purchased one book, the Lonely Planet Swahili Phrasebook , which turned out to contain much more information on the language than I thought.

The phrasebook itself suggests a very helpful website, The Kamusi Project, which is only one of the many free online resources available. So far, getting started in Swahili is costing me almost nothing :).

I am also reading a lot about the origins of Swahili and the history of Kenya and Tanzania, as well as Swahili music and poetry.

Curiosities

  • Hakuna Matata is Swahili.
  • Swahili is the mother tongue of Lt. Uhura, female African character from the TV Show Star Trek (1966).
  • Swahili is the national language of Kenya and Tanzania, and is the third African language by number of speakers.
  • In 1928, a standard written Swahili was created.
  • The Swahili word for itself is “Kiswahili”.
  • Swahili has only 5 million native speakers, but 80 million have it as a second language.

The Most Important Thing

Determination. I am determined to speak decent Swahili in three months’ time, and then I will decide if the language is worth more time of study.

And I know that as long as I am determined to do it, I will do it 🙂

Wish me luck in this new experience, I will update next month with my progress! And don’t forget that Civilization V is going to be out soon 😉

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Basic Guide To Learning

This is not a comprehensive guide to the mastery of any subject (as the title implies). It’s just a set of three principles that it’s good to keep in mind every time we try to acquire some new knowledge.

Learning principle number 1: Everything is connected.

Politics is really Psychology. Psychology is really Biology. Biology is really Chemistry. Chemistry is really Physics. Physics is really Maths.

Have you ever wondered why so many great minds are multidisciplinary? Take a look at  Leonardo da Vinci: “Italian polymath: painter, sculptor,architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer”. Well, turns out, every area of knowledge is connected with all the others. maths can teach you how to paint.

This is especially evident with languages. The more languages you know, the easier it is for you to learn new ones. This is where I discovered the importance of learning all those technical names for the words we already know how to use.

This is why I find it hard to believe that some scientists subscribe to the argument “you can’t apply the scientific method to religion and morals, it’s based on faith”. You either apply the scientific method, or you don’t. There is no such thing as unrelated areas. If you can affirm something is true without evidence in religion, you may be just as willing to do that in physics (my advice: be consistent!).

For further insights on this topic check out Holistic Learning(.pdf) and The Loom of Language(book).

Learning principle number 2:  Background matters.

“I study and study, but I can’t possibly pass this subject! How can it be, if it’s my favourite?”.

While it is a fact that some people are smarter than others, I believe the most important factor that differentiates a dedicated C student from a dedicated A student is when they started caring.

The people who is doing best in my class these high school years happen to be the ones that were interested in the subjects since they were very little. They read books, they asked questions. They have been building a knowledge base for their lifetimes.

On the other hand, some students have recently started caring about the subject at the same level than their A-obtainer counterparts. They probably used to study by repetition, not really understanding the content. They lack understanding of the most basic concepts of the matter, and thus have it extremely difficult to understand the more complex ones.

According to the first principle, the base you need to build for a new area of interest must be wide and comprehend several other areas. For example, if you want to learn Swahili, it’s not enough to learn the basic syntax and pronunciation. It’s also important to learn the history of the language and the culture of the people who speak it, among other things.

Learning principle number 3: Learning is organic.

“School is like Britannica. Learning is like Wikipedia”.

The educational system we have is linear. That means that you start at one point and you follow a line of increasingly complex concepts until someday you know enough and  get a diploma. The content is sorted in complexity order the same way the words are sorted in alphabetical order in a classical encyclopaedia.

There is no traced line from beginning to mastery of a subject or skill. You should not start learning by the basics, if the basics are not what interest you most. Learning must be a pleasant experience, always. Learning is like navigating Wikipedia. You see something you like, so you learn about it. While learning about it, you see related concepts that interest you, so you learn about them. Repeat.

When you learn in a non-linear way (organic if you will), the principle of background matters applies itself. You will not understand the most complex ideas so you will expand your knowledge until you do.

Note that this is closely related to “everything is connected” (as is should be, ’cause everything is connected ;))

For further insights on this topic check out Bring On The Learning Revolution(video), Math Class Needs a Makeover(video) and The Learning Revolution(Facebook Group).

I apologize for the made-up quotes on principles 2 and 3. I don’t know any quote that fits there! 🙂

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Best Things I’ve Done: Learning A New Language.

Update! For an in-depth guide on getting started with languages, check out How To Become A Polyglot.

I first started learning English in school at the age of 6 and French at the age of 12, but I never became fluent in any of those languages until I finally understood the real benefits of speaking those languages.

The moment I realised I really wanted to become fluent in English was when I was watching Blade Runner in said language with Spanish subtitles and I understood one line they said, then read the subtitle line and said “but it’s not the same thing he said!”. In that moment I noticed that there are certain thoughts and messages that can only be expressed in one language. Every time I watch now a film in English with subtitles (when I watch it with someone else) I can see the subs say the same thing the characters say, but it’s not quite the same thing. Many deep levels of film lines are lost in translation.

But then it hit me even harder: “Wait. What about books? All my favourite books are in English!”. Now I really, really had to learn English.

The same thing happened to me with French. I wanted to read Jules Verne and many other writers as they originally intended their thoughts and words. I don’t want to risk missing anything. I don’t believe in translations any more. Lately, I’ve been thinking how great it would be to read Solaris in Polish. It’s one of my favourite novels so it might be worth it.

But there’s one more wonderful thing about foreign languages. It’s the moment you realize you can actually think in a different language. You have to experience that (it sounds like Also Sprach Zarathustra and it feels like awesome). no more translating word-by-word in your head before speaking. Now you are expressing yourself with a whole new set of words and even different rules. Along the lines of the previous idea, you are thinking differently. Such a great brain exercise, isn’t it? You may even be able to express ideas you couldn’t express before. The more languages you speak, the better you understand yourself. It’s like learning new vocabulary, but in a whole new level: learning new syntaxes.

Also, you feel like you understand something you previously didn’t. When you translate in a language word-by-word, you don’t quite think of it as anything more than a different set of words, but when you use it in your head, to think, it’s an eureka moment. That set of strange words and rules finally make sense.

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Filed under Personal Development