Sunday, December 26, 2010

Language is Culture...

I learned that ‘language is culture’ this summer while in PILAT at MTI in Colorado. It made sense to me, but I didn’t really understand until I was sitting at MS-TCDC in Tanzania in a Beginner’s Swahili course a couple of weeks ago. Certain words exist in languages because of the culture, and other words don’t exist because of the culture. For example, in Tanzanian Swahili (apparently the ‘purest’ Swahili), there isn’t a word for ‘lay down’ because it would be difficult to lay down on your bed that’s in the living room & that you’re sharing with others, so…you only sleep on a bed. Or how about this one….’oa’ (to marry) is only for men…women ‘olewa’ (get married). I think that eludes to arranged marriages, as well as the different rights of men & women. The words I learned also explain culture. Some of the first words I learned were ‘shamba’ (farm), ‘bustani’ (garden), & ‘mbolea’ (fertilizer)…not the words I would have expected. But, when you realize that the majority of people here farm at least one crop, they’re important to know. As is how ‘time’ works around here. The day starts when the sun comes up, not around say 6am. So….when people started using clocks, they said the numbers a bit differently…subtracting 6 hours from the time shown on the clock. For example, if the clock shows 10am it is read ‘saa nne asubushi’ (4 in the morning), not ‘kumi’ (10)! In class, the teacher also went on to explain that some people in really rural villages still don’t use clocks, so that’s an even bigger challenge when trying to get people to be ‘on time’. Time telling by the sun sounds pretty cool, though:) Learning the explanation of the meanings of some words & how others were formed was really interesting. For example, ‘mwana’ (child) + ‘mke’ (wife) = ‘mwanamke’ (woman, aka ‘child born to be a wife’). The same was for ‘mwanamume’ = man, aka ‘child born to be a husband’ (‘mume’). Or one of my favorites….’barua’ (letter) + pepe (husks….like corn husks) = email….because it’s like a letter that flies away just like the light-weight husks of corn do:) Some Swahili words have just been adopted from English, hence the lovely term ‘Kiswaengligh’. I like those words:)

Another language is culture thing….greetings. Greetings are super important in this culture. To give you a sense of how important…one of my Swahili teachers was acting out a phone call in which he was going to tell someone he was in danger (I can’t remember how this came up, but it’s always something good to know!), & it went something like this (in a whisper):

#1 “Habari za leo?” Hi. How’s your day?
#2 “Nzuri sana. Na wewe je?” Very good. And yours?
#1 “Nzuri sana. Hujambo?” Very good. How are you?
#2 “Sijambo. Mzima?” I’m good. Are you complete?
#1 “Mzima. Nipo hatarini!” I’m complete. I’m in danger….right this moment!
#2 “Nitapiga polici.” I’ll call the police.
#1 “Asante sana.” Thank you very much.

Can you imagine?! Language is culture….greetings before danger:) Oh yeah….also, you’re always doing ‘good’…no matter what:) Each day at language school, we had 5.5 hours of class time, complete with regular meal & chai/coffee/hot chocolate breaks. We took notes, we had homework, we played games, we sang songs…we learned Swahili:) My brain was definitely tired & full by the end of the day! There were a number of times in class that I was frustrated with Swahili….”Why don’t they just say ___, like in English…it’s so much easier!” And then I remembered the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). Mankind started out with one language, but then we started trying to achieve Heaven & fame. So, God fixed that. He had a reason for scattering us all over the Earth speaking different languages. “Ok…I’ll learn it the Swahili way…” :) Twice we had the opportunity to talk with a native Swahili speaker for an hour….the first time I walked away with a headache The second time was better, though:) We also had a ‘field trip’ to the market…most of the vendors enjoyed us trying our Swahili out & appreciated our efforts.

My classmates at TCDC consisted of other Americans, Germans, Swede’s, British, & Dutch. We got to rest our brains some on the weekends, & explored the area a bit. My personal favorite was Mt. Kilimanjaro:)

Now that I’ve returned to Kenya…I’m trying to practice using all the things I learned in Tanzania. I’m also using tools that I learned about at my PILAT training at MTI in Colorado this past summer. Here’s a taste of some of the things I learned & did in PILAT... Let me just say…thank you God for not making Swahili a tonal language & for it using the Roman alphabet!!! :)

Language learning really is exhausting…my brain is thinking & functioning in ways that are new or haven’t been used in a very long time! I’ll be getting a language helper after the new year when everyone returns back to work from Christmas break, but until then I’m just going to town everyday & practicing with who ever will be patient, listen, & talk to me:) I’m also living with a Kenyan family, so I can live the culture & the language. After all….language is culture!

If you’d like to see more of my pictures from Tanzania, click here.

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