• ashirk@gmail.com
  • Kijabe, Kenya
education
On language learning

On language learning

I am embarrassed to make this post over 7 years into moving to Kenya, but honesty often brings encouragement. I remember a conversation with a doctor from Kijabe when I first moved here and asking how his Swahili was – he looked slightly away, and said “not as good as I had hoped it would be.” I judged and dismissed – sure that mine would be perfect by the time I reached his amount of time in Kijabe.

Instead, I have used the same line with the same sheepishness more times than I can count. Kenya is a country of many many languages. The two official languages are Swahili and English, but daily I hear tribal dialects spoken around me. Our team has clinicians from many different tribes. Our hospital is in the area of Kenya that has historically been primarily Kikuyu.

I struggle with languages. I struggled with Spanish when I was in college and lived in the Dominican Republic. I struggled with Chinese when we lived in Taiwan. And I have struggled with Swahili more than either of those. I took three months when we moved here, and often my lessons with Edward, our tutor, devolved to him asking me colors by the end of the lesson because my progress was so poor.

David advanced and improved, he could talk to random people with ease, and I felt like my mouth was left cotton dry whenever I tried. Early on, I learned if I mixed kuelewa, kulewa, and kuolewa (which all sounded the same to me, I could go from asking a mom if “do you understand?” to accidentally asking “are you drunk?”. It seemed that my language incompetence had the potential to cause offense of the highest magnitude.

I am surrounded by students with fluency in both English and Swahili daily, and I lean on them to limit my bumbling and increase my efficiency. My understanding has grown, and in medical conversations if I concentrate I can usually catch most of a patient’s history – but I find myself frozen in moments when I am alone and need to ask a question or express understanding or compassion. . .

So this year, I decided to start formally again – with duolingo (a fantastic app for increasing vocabulary and grammar) and with determined humility. I am asking for clarification on phrases I should have understood long ago. I erased all social media on my phone and replaced it with Swahili lessons. I am on day 165 in a row today, and understanding simple things, like my friend telling her daughter to close the door in Swahili yesterday, or the intern saying he didn’t have enough blood seem like daily victories. Madeline is taking her second year of Swahili at RVA, so she is helping me with the most basic of questions.

I know how important this is, but many days my 42 year old brain seems to throw up barriers. Perhaps, this will be the year where this language wall falls down – where I can follow meetings, and they don’t have to switch into English just for me. It is happening, slowly by slowly (as pole pole translates from Swahili), and I am encouraged.

Still cautious, as the way to encourage you in Kenya is to laugh with (at) you, but hopeful.

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