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Dec 10

Learning Swahili from the Locals

“Jambo! (hello!),” the security guy cheerfully calls out to us as we hurry down the path to the hotel restaurant. “Jambo!” we respond.

“Jambo!” the waitress says with a smile, pulling out my chair as we sit down at the table. “Jambo!” I say, “And, um… asante sana (thank you).”

“Karibou (you’re welcome),” she answers with an even bigger smile.

“Can you stop here?” we ask our guide, Edward, on one of our game drives. “Hakuna matata! No problem!” he says, grinning.

“Are you ready to move on?” Edward asks us a few minutes later, when we’ve finished taking our photos. “Sure. Thanks!” we say.

But Edward doesn’t move on. Instead, he looks at us in the rear vision mirror… “Oh… sawa, sawa (sure/okay),” I says.  “Sawa, sawa!” he acknowledges, with a warm smile.

Compared to the languages we’ve attempted to learn in other destinations we’ve visited so far on our grand tour this year, learning Swahili in Kenya has been a breeze. And it hasn’t been through any efforts of my own. It’s the locals who have made it so.

Normally, as soon as we arrive in a place, I buy a phrasebook and dictionary. Sometimes we use other resources. In Italy, we used the funky Earworms CD. In Ceret, I sat in on a French class. In Buenos Aires I did a crash course to practice all the Spanish I’d forgotten since our last trip…

But I didn’t even think about buying a phrase book in Kenya. I was under two misconceptions: firstly, that most people speak English, and secondly, that Swahili would be way too difficult to learn. I couldn’t have been more wrong on both accounts.

Little did I realise, but every single person we would meet in Kenya would happily serve as our language teacher. I am not exaggerating when I say that everyone we have met has greeted us with ‘Jambo!’

The Kenyans’ eagerness for teaching foreigners simple greetings and basic vocabulary – ndio (yes), la (no), haraka (hurry), poli poli (slowly, slowly) and so on – and their insistence that foreigners speak to them in Swahili, made learning Swahili one of the easiest languages I’ve ever learned. Without even trying to learn!

By the end of our two weeks in Kenya, I had a dozen greetings and common phrases that I was using on a daily basis and another 20 words I had jotted down in my notebook. Imagine if I had actually done some study!

It made me wonder why people everywhere don’t help visitors to their countries learn their language this way? In our experience, most hotel staff or staff at tourist sights will speak to a native English speaker in English if they can. In most places, there doesn’t seem to be an expectation that English speakers should learn the language of the country they’re visiting, or that locals should help them. Why is that? I like the Kenyans’ approach. I know I’m going to take the same approach from now on. What about you?

6 comments

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  1. Andrea

    That’s so awesome. What a wonderful way to get to know a place and it’s people. I feel like I never get tourists who don’t speak English coming up to me for help in Australia, but I’ll be mindful to help people out with phrases going forward. Sounds like a great place!

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Andrea – but that’s the thing – I think there is this expectation that people should learn English when going to an English speaking country, but they don’t expect English speakers to learn German when they come to Germany. Germans will speak to them in English. We’re in Austria now and people simply speak to me in English once they realise I’m an English speaker, and they won’t attempt to use German *and* English in an attempt to teach me some German. And I find that the way in most places. Curious, isn’t it?

  2. ashley

    so true! you brought back all the swahili i learned when i was in kenya. what a fun language to learn and use. Hakuna matata and poli poli sort of sums it all up!

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Ashley – it was great fun! I can’t imagine how much I would have learned had we have spent another month there. Love the Kenyans’ attitude!

  3. Tyler Muse

    I’d heard that the locals were friendly, but never knew they were so eager to teach! That must have been so refreshing and enjoyable. I think it’s cultures like this that keep me traveling and wanting to connect with the locals. Sounds like a great trip.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Agree! I know – they were so sweet. Made it so much fun.

      From a tourism perspective, I think it’s definitely the way to go – greeting tourists in your local language and helping them learn a few words. I wish Cambodians would do it more. I think because tourism is still so young here they still find it amusing when foreigns speak Khmer words. Every time we greet people or say thanks, it gets a giggle. We ignore it, but it must be off-putting to less travelled and less confident people. I’m trying to figure out ways to tackle it apart from having to contact every hotel GM I know and ask them to tell their staff not to laugh at guests’ language attempts. Ideas?

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