One of the reasons I wanted to come to Africa, and why I wanted to try to use the language, was to know how my ESL students feel — strangers in a strange land, trying to understand and make themselves understood in a strange tongue. It’s been a good experience for me, and I’m sure it will make me a better teacher someday.
Stephen Krashen became a renowned expert in second language acquisition for several reasons. One was his outrageous claim that “input is enough” – which most now agree was an exaggeration. Output, I believe, helps strengthen the pathways between ideas and sounds, which aids fluency and comprehension. It also elicits “+1” responses, because as people hear you struggling to understand and speak, they try to lower their level of output to match your level of comprehension. They also offer corrections that help the learner improve in expression as well as understanding.
One of Krashen’s theories that is harder to argue with is that an “affective filter” impairs language learning. As I’ve thought about my students’ struggles with learning English, and my own brief and spotty attempts to use Swahili, I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve learned both how strong the filter can be and what kinds of events and experiences can help to lower it.
The first “layer” of the affective filter I’ve experienced is lack of motivation. When I came to Tanzania, I was not sure how hard I would try to learn Swahili, since I would only be here 10 weeks and would be busy with other things. What gave me motivation was a brief talk with my cooperating teacher. I told her I wanted to travel, and she said it would really help to learn just a little Swahili. That was all the motivation I needed, and I dove in. I’m happy to say that after two weeks of travel, I found my three-week intensive and self-directed crash course to be adequate to my needs. I used the language to find the right bus in the middle of nowhere, to converse with strangers who knew no English, to make small talk to kill time, to order food and hotel rooms, to buy souvenirs, to give children a laugh, etc.
The second layer of the affective filter was lack of confidence. I heard other expats say “Swahili is hard,” and I assumed they were right. After spending just a couple hours looking at the basic grammar, however, I found out that patching together simple sentences is really quite simple. Once I started trying out a few, like “I am trying to learn Swahili. You can help me,” I found that I could make myself understood. The antidote to confidence, for me, was a little bit of success. One my fourth day, a man told me I should come back to Tanzania to teach Swahili to Westerners. On my tenth day, I spent two hours talking with a guy who knew very little English.
Right now I’m feeling the “confidence filter” affecting my ability to comprehend. I’ve convinced myself that speaking is easy, but understanding is hard. While I know there’s some truth to that, I also believe I could understand more than I think I can if I could relax a little and stop saying “I can’t.” We’ll see if I make any progress during the next five weeks. I’m also feeling a lack of confidence with speaking because I feel like I’ve hit a plateau on what I can talk about. This is partly due to the fact that I haven’t had time to study the language as intensively as I did during the first two weeks. Still, I’m having some additional successes, and if I press on, I’m sure the confidence will return.
The third layer for me was fear and anxiety. The difference, to me, is that fear is of something specific, while anxiety is more vague. The older I get, the less I care what people think of me, so this filter was not such a problem, but I’m sure it can be debilitating for some. I was talking to a Tanzanian doctor who told me the volunteer doctors who come have a terrible time learning even a little Swahili. My theory is that doctors are very uncomfortable with uncertainty, with not knowing the answer, or with not getting it right. With language learning, though, mistakes are going to happen, and sometimes they’ll be humiliating.
I’ve learned that encouragement can go a long way toward thinning the fear filter. I’ve been given encouragement dozens of times: the gatekeeper who taught me “kidogo, kidogo,” little by little; the bus ticket seller and the motor bike driver who both said, “I love to hear you speak Swahili”; the Swahili teacher at the school who said I’d learned so much in two weeks, “What do you need my help for?”; the guy at the bar who said, “In 10 weeks, you will speak Swahili”; the retired engineer who said I’ve learned more in five weeks than many people learn in a year.
The fourth layer, and the most difficult for me, and probably for many others, is more a personality trait than an affect or “feeling”: it’s simple shyness. I’m a borderline introvert, so talking to strangers does not come easy for me. Many people are a lot more shy than I am, which must be a real hindrance to their language learning. On the other hand, though, some who are shy around people of their own culture seem more extroverted around people of other cultures. I think I have some tendencies in that direction, and some of the expats I’ve met whose Swahili is pretty good seem to be quite shy.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a good solution to the problem of shyness. I only know what works for me. It’s a four-letter word in English, but three in Swahili: bia. You can probably figure out what it means. If not, try Google Translate.