There is great demand for English lessons in Moshi, so my English is the capital I need to buy Swahili lessons on the cheap. Wherever I go, as I strike up a conversation in baby-talk Swahili, people want to play. Lessons take place ten times a day, in two-minute conversations with the gatekeepers and the drivers and the maintenance workers and the kids. The words that came so hard the first couple days are more easily committed to memory. The “sticky little ball” has not lost its glue. Today one of the gatekeepers said, “Tutaonana badai” (see you later), so I practiced it on everyone I met.
I took the school bus with some of the older students to “mjini” today — the town center — and visited the Nakumat, which is the western-style grocery/department store. Rather than wander the streets afterwards, which the students advised me against, I bought a Coke and talked to the newspaper vendor, a very bright gentleman named George. He would love to give me Swahili lessons, but it’s a ways to go.
I came home and walked the route I took the other day and ended up at the little outdoor bar/restaurant by the shop. A nice looking young fellow was buying a beer, so I said, “Habari,” and he came over and engaged in conversation about language learning. He said something that would’ve made Don Larson’s heart skip a beat: that he learns English by taking every opportunity to talk with people like me.
He was with a friend, so he brought the other guy over and we proceeded to teach other. The highlight of the conversation was after I asked him what “ku” meant as a prefix. He wasn’t sure, so we came up with a bunch of examples, and we found it was similar to “to” in an infinitive phrase.
Example: “Ni(I)na(present tense)penda(like) ku(to)fundisha(learn).” He learned something about English; I learned something about Swahili. A beautiful moment.
His name was Hillary, which he said I could remember by thinking of Hillary Clinton. I reckon I will never forget it after that. We agreed to meet tomorrow for more conversation.
When Hillary had to go, I said, “Tutaonana badai,” but he corrected me. “’Badai’ means later. Say ‘Tutaonana kesho.’ See you tomorrow.” I did.
It’s interesting how my dad’s influence is dovetailing with what I’ve learned in my grad classes in English as a Second Language. After Mom died, we found a sweatshirt in her closet that said “bathe yourself in comprehensible input.” Apparently some students had given it to Dad a few years back. We also found a picture of him wearing the shirt.
I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but now I know it was a reference to Stephen Krashen, who revolutionized second language acquisition back in the 1980s by saying things that also must’ve made Dad’s heart skip, because he’d been saying similar things for the previous 20 years.
“Comprehensible input” is just what it says, and successful language learning (by children or adults) involves receiving input slightly higher than your level. It’s not hard to do when you run around jabbering like a lunatic or a toddler. People naturally talk down to you.
Another of Krashen’s concepts I’ve learned about in the last year — and the last week — is the “affective filter”: that web of emotions, fears, and anxieties that puts up a barrier against “comprehensible input.” This week it’s been almost a physical sensation of that filter becoming frayed and porous, allowing the “sticky little ball” (one of Dad’s terms) to do its work. It feels like my brain is growing softer, more pliable and sponge-like. I have a strange sense that it works best when you’re outdoors and talking to real people than when you’re sitting in a cell in a schoolhouse and talking into a plastic rectangle. Maybe that’s partly why people in developing countries commonly speak three, four, or five languages.
When the affective filter comes apart, it starts to feel like learning is natural and easy instead of impossible. It’s like when you dump the puzzle out on the table and think “Why bother?” but then when you start to put the edges in place, you think it may not be so bad. Big pieces, like sentences (to twist the metaphor a bit), are impossible to learn, but language isn’t made of big pieces but little ones, and they fit together in predictable ways. Swahili is a little like Ojibwe, which I studied for a year back in the ‘90s: both have long, scary words that aren’t so bad when you take them apart into stem and prefix and “infix” and suffix. (Yes, I know I’m skimming the surface of the deep ocean that is Kiswahili, but you gotta start somewhere — and the beauty of language is that you don’t need to be an expert to use it — else we’d all be mute.)
I’m pretty sure Dad latched on to Krashen because he was getting attention (or notoriety) for saying the kind of things Dad and Bill Smalley and their friends had been saying since the ‘60s. Dad described it in a paper called “Deschooling Language Study” (the only Internet references are related to the work of David Roberts) and implemented it at the Toronto Institute of Linguistics, and with Southern Baptist missionaries, and in language “schools” in the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Individuals have used methods like it around the world to learn hundreds of languages. Similar ideas were published by Tom and Betty Sue Brewster in a book called “Language Acquisition Made Practical,” which was widely used, mainly by missionaries, in the 1970s and 1980s.
Dad, who was a great teacher but not a great writer, couldn’t find a publisher for his work, so he finally self-published “Guidelines for Barefoot Language Learning,” back before self-publishing was cool — and when it was a lot harder and more expensive. As I said in a previous blog, my brother Jeff and sister Becky did a lot of the work on publishing and marketing the book, and I did a bit of proofing and editing and word processing on an old Epson with PeachTree or WordStar software.
My first experience of playing around with barefoot language learning was in Indonesia in 1986. Fresh out of college, I tagged along with Dad and spent three weeks living with a family in Bandung, where Dad had a close relationship with a language school. I got daily “input” from my host family and practiced it around the neighborhoods. After a week, my host father, a pastor, made me get up in his church and give a speech in Bahasa Indonesia, and he challenged his congregation to put more effort into learning English, using me as an example of what can be accomplished in a week.
I felt then like I do now — a baby-talker in a grown man’s body — but apparently my progress was as unusual then and there as here and now. I went home and quickly lost what I had gained, but I still remember my intro: “Saya berbicara bahasa Indonesia sedikit” — I speak Indonesian a little.
After three weeks in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Berkeley, I dropped out and left social science behind for good, and I never got a chance to practice language learning more intensively.
Ah well, 30 years later, here I am, with few regrets, many good intervening years, a decent list of adventures, and an awareness of the irony that Dad got his way in the end. A Ph.D. from Berkeley would’ve been nice, but being a Berkeley dropout has a lot more street cred, and now I’m lucky enough to have another adventure (Thanks, Diane!), and a chance to finally go barefoot with the ghost of my father — which is appropriate, since our relationship was more than a little Hamlet-like.
I’m by nature an introvert (as I explained in a recent blog), so when I’ve thought about doing what I’m doing, I haven’t been able to picture myself wandering around talking to strangers. But once I screwed my courage to the sticking place (Macbeth, not Hamlet) and let loose with my first “Habari,” and the smiles appeared, my defenses started coming down, and the results have been surprising — to me and to the locals I babble to. Bonus: beer is a good social lubricant, and the neighborhood bar a perfect spot to meet teachers.
Frank was right the other night, when he rejected my claim that children are the best language learners. The magical language acquisition device is not dead, nor weak, just a little flabby from disuse. Sure, it may not function the same as it does for a child, but the studies show that adults can learn language as quickly as children. Dad would probably say the secret is learning like a child does: barefoot, outside, in real conversation about real things.
When I came home tonight, Samuel the guard came to meet me, and we conversed in broken English and broken Swahili for a good 10 minutes, until my brain was full. It’s nice to have him there at night, walking beside the actual parapets, while other ghosts walk atop them in my dreams.
Tonight I taught him my secret sentence, “Ninajaribu kujifunza Kiswahili,” translated into English: “I am trying to learn English.” He repeated it a few times, and when he got it right, he puffed out his chest like a pigeon. We repeated after each other: “You teach me English; I teach you Swahili.” “Wewe kujifunisha Kiingereza; Mimi nakufundisha Kiswahili.” (I’m sure my Swahili grammar is not perfect, but that’s the point. It makes sense anyway.)
“In 10 weeks,” I said, “you will speak English very well.” Substitute “Swahili” for “English,” and that’s the same thing Frank and Hillary told me.
“Welcome to home,” Samuel said.
“In English, say ‘Welcome home,’” I told him.
“Welcome home,” he said, “Karibu nyumbani.” He puffed out his chest again.
“Useki mwema,” I said, meaning “good night.”
“Usiku mwema,” he corrected.
“Tutaonana kesho,” I said.
“See you tomorrow,” he replied.