Thursday, November 12, 2009

Habari za Kiswahili? (How is your Swahili?)

11 November 2009
Every day after school, Hey-In (Helen, in American) says goodbye to me. It started out “bye,” but now has progressed to “see you tomorrow!” On Fridays, when she says “See you tomorrow,” I correct her and say “see you on Monday” without a thought. For some reason, it took me a while to realize this habit. Helen came to HOPAC knowing little to know English. She is picking it up quickly, but is shy none-the-less. When coupled with her Korean background (of perfection expected in the classroom), she ends up speaking very little in my classroom. And I rejoice when she uses her lovely little voice to say “Good morning,” or when she repeats “See you on Monday” after me.

These phrases seem simple enough, and I use them with my kids every day. I also use a thousand other words to describe area, haughty, salvation, and to get kids thinking about how to solve problems in their own individual lives. Yet, for Helen, these few words are a great start.

Then I realized that I might as well have been talking about myself. I’m still stuck on the “greetings” of Swahili, and often get my “habari za jazioni” and “habari za asabuyi”s mixed up. We correct Tanzanian students on the street when they say “Good morning” to us at five in the afternoon, but get frustrated at ourselves for doing the same thing in Swahili.

I’m still on the greetings. Some day, perhaps, I’ll get on to some real meat! But I’m thankful that my guards, cleaners, house-help, and many other individuals around me are willing to extend grace and laugh with me when I tell them “good night” first thing in the morning.

From everything I’ve learned about teaching another language, to everything I’ve learned about teaching English to native English speakers (eg. reading and writing…), I see it all coming in to play here in my own language learning experience. Today, I sat down to draw a calendar, so I could visualize my days; yesterday, today, tomorrow… weeks (wiki), months, years… I felt like I should sit down and write out the “today is… yesterday was…. tomorrow will be…” signs that have adorned my calendar board for the past two years… but in Swahili, instead of English!

All the things, too, that I learned in Spanish are coming back to me as well. Whereas before, I would say I spoke un poco (which is very true), I’m realizing now just how much Spanish vocabulary I do know. Describing words, especially. I think “how do I say this is Swahili?”, then realize I already know how to say it in Spanish. Nothing like learning a new language to affirm your knowledge of the old!

It’s a slow process. Just as some volunteers at HOPAC are making word cards to put around our classrooms to help our Korean kids, Marie and I are sticking notes around our house to remind ourselves of the Swahili version of our daily vocabulary. And as we sat with Edward tonight outside our house, and as I struggled to remember just what Amka na tandika kitanda chako means (Wake up and make your bed!), I tried to remind myself that I do know some things – even if I can’t remember some of the verbs in Swahili that I want to! Wish me luck!

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