no fear

The Swahili Swerve: How to start speaking a new language in 15 minutes!

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zebras in Tanzania

Sounds like a dance move or an exotic cocktail but in fact, the Swahili Swerve is what I call my recent “abrupt change of direction” in my language learning journey. I’d been plodding along quite nicely this year. I brushed up my Spanish to use at a wedding in March, my Polish teacher was here again over the summer so I ploughed on with “the terribly difficult Polish language” (his words, not mine) in preparation for my trip to Warsaw in November. But then all of a sudden, out of the blue, I’m sitting in a jeep at Kilimanjaro airport at the start of our Tanzanian holiday and our driver Tito (who became my Swahili teacher for the next few days) was greeting us in Swahili, “Karibu”. Oooooh something shiny and new! Within the first 15 minutes of our drive, I’d learnt a few phrases and from there I was off!

On arrival at our first lodge, news quickly spread amongst the staff that there was a Mzungu (white foreigner) learning Swahili and by dinnertime I was happily communicating with them and having a great time. Every time I went to the bar, to the buffet to reception or generally wandered around the complex, staff started talking to me and handing me their own handwritten list of useful words for me to learn. They were so sweet, polite, patient and encouraging that over the next week I continued to learn and practice with Tito and talked to anyone along the way who would listen to me.

Handwritten list of swahili vocabulary

So, how is this possible? How can you start speaking a brand-new language and making basic conversation with locals in such a short time? It’s true that my experience of learning and teaching languages gives me a head start, but there’s really no magic here. And that’s why in this post I would like to share my own tips on how to get going with a new language in 15 minutes flat!

  • Rule 1: No fear! Probably the most important rule when it comes to learning and, most importantly, speaking a new language. If you are afraid to speak, you will not progress. End of story. Forget the shame, swallow your perfectionist adult pride and just give it a go, right from the start. This strategy always works for me (see The Polish Project). In addition, the locals were sooo patient and supportive that I never once felt stupid, even when I made mistakes. That was a huge help. Once you get over your fear, your progress will be unstoppable. If you are unlucky and the native you speak to is unsupportive and doesn’t want to help you, find one who does. There are always plenty out there, I promise. If you don’t have the luxury of having a patient native to practice with, YouTube should be your next option. There are thousands of videos with natives giving you the “First 20 words/phrases” in whatever language you want to learn. Listen and repeat out loud as many times as possible. Talk to your friends, family, the cat, whoever will listen. It doesn’t matter if they understand you or not, the point here is to find and listen to your own “language voice” as early as possible.
  • Rule 2: When you’re starting out, don’t learn grammar right away. Focus on useful phrases and learn by heart, word for word. Once you get deeper into the language, you can see the patterns and figure out some basic grammar. But at the beginning, keep it simple and most of all, practical. Learning “Everything is great thank you” or “I’m fine thanks, how are you?” can be used immediately and much more often than “I go, you go, he goes…..” yawn, yawn
  • Rule 3: Be a parrot Listen and repeat, listen and repeat. Every time Tito taught me a new word, he repeated it at least 4 or 5 times and I copied. Not only does this give you chance to get used to the sound of the word and help you learn it (and drive the other person in the jeep i.e. my husband, mad) it helps with accent. It’s no good learning a new language if no one understands you because your accent is all messed up. I’ll talk about the importance of a good accent in a future post but personally, I think it is essential and the sooner you start working on it, the better.
  • Rule 4: Choose an easy language Listen out for words you might already know and create hooks. While Swahili sounds like an difficult, exotic language, it’s actually classed a level 1.5 for English natives i.e. relatively easy. If you want to see progress quickly and you have a choice, aim for an “easy” language. For example, if you are a native English speaker then French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are considered easier than say Bulgarian, Russian or Turkish. Swahili is phonetically easy for English speakers and I was amazed at how many words I already knew. If you’ve ever watched The Lion King, you probably have a lot of words already; Simba, Pumba, Jambo, Hakuna Matata! Finally, a vocabulary “hook” or mnemonic is really helpful when you are learning brand new vocabulary. Try to find a connection between the new word and your own language e.g. the Swahili word for “Yes” is “ndio” which sounds a bit like “indeed” which is close to “yes”. There’s your hook.
  • Rule 5 Have fun with it Learning should always be an enjoyable experience and add something positive to your life rather than cause stress. Will I use my Swahili in the future? Honestly, I don’t know. It is the most spoken African language and around 90 million people speak it so yes, perhaps. Personally, the most important part of my Swahili swerve to me was making a connection with the local people and seeing how much they appreciated my efforts. Their big smiles and positive reactions constantly reminded me of my favourite “language learning” quote:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.

If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart.” (Nelson Mandela)

So true.

Maybe you have a trip planned and want to give a new language a try? Follow my tips above and let me know how you get on. As always you can add comments below or add your name to the box on the right to follow my blog.

Hakuna matata!