I’m currently in Tanzania, where I’ll be in some training the next two weeks. This isn’t my first time here, though. In 2008 I was here for a study-abroad semester, and in 2013 I was here for some PGA training. Before coming in 2008 I had a semester class to learn some Swahili, the main language of the country. By the end of that, and the semester here in Tanzania, I wasn’t by any means fluent, but I could carry on conversations and (often) get my point across. However, being out of the context and focusing on other languages (mainly French and Jula), I forgot all my Swahili. When I was coming back in 2013 I couldn’t remember anything.
However, before coming back in 2013 I got together with a guy from my church in Burkina Faso who is from Burundi and speaks Swahili. I asked him to re-teach me some. He’d give me a word, and it was like a faint memory from the past broke through – “That’s right, ‘chumvi’ is salt. I had totally forgotten, but now I remember it’s still in the back recesses of my brain somewhere.” However, by the time I got to Tanzania, I couldn’t even really greet anyone in Swahili. But some colleagues got me on a 10-hour bus ride to go visit friends, and I managed to make it there using English. While I was there, my friends were studying Swahili, having been there for just a few months. I joined them in their Swahili classes, and it was like a fog was lifting. The teacher even asked me to do the homework, and though my vocabulary was very limited, I was able to write the kinds of sentences she wanted. And you know what? By the end of that week, I was able to carry on simple conversations again! I went to a tourist shop I had been to in 2008 and was able to carry on all the transactions and all the chatting that went along with it in broken Swahili! (But I know there were probably at least snippets of Jula and/or French in it.) By the time I took the 10-hour bus ride back to the capital to start the training, I felt confident that I could speak enough Swahili to greet people, maybe buy a snack along the way, etc.
Fast forward 3 ½ years. I’ve been back in Burkina Faso, living my life in Jula and French and now starting to learn My Language (the language of My People). But I’m heading back to Tanzania. Oh no! At least this time I remembered a few phrases – salt, I want, how are you. Still not very much, though a little better than last time. However, now that I’ve been back it’s been like the box that’s in the back corner of my brain and is labeled “Swahili” has been cracked open. I see a sign with a word on it, and even though 5 minutes ago I couldn’t have told you what the word meant, now all of a sudden I know it. I hear someone talking and understand words that they use, though I myself couldn’t have used them in the same conversation. Sometime I recognize a word and need to ask the definition, but the definition sticks a lot faster than if it was brand new. But even crazier than that is that if I think hard enough and try to remember a word, there are some that have come back without me even hearing them. How does that work? It’s a word that’s been stored in that little “Swahili” box, unused, for 3 ½ years. No one else even got it out and dusted it out for me, but somehow by being around Swahili and having other people (or even signs along the road) dust off some words, it’s like the box is open and other words are free to escape and become usable again. Whereas when I first got here I couldn’t say much more than “How are you? I’m fine,” less than 48 hours later I could say things like, “I come from Burkina Faso. I can speak French, English, and Jula, but I can’t speak Swahili.” How in the world did that happen?
I know that I’m a language nerd, enjoy learning languages, and learn them faster than most other people. However, what I don’t know is if everyone else has these language boxes in their brains that get cracked open when they’re dusted off, and words just start escaping into your mouth and the usable part of your brain. For those of you who have learned and forgotten a language, then gone back to where that language is spoken, could you let me know what your experience is? Am I just an odd-ball, or is this normal?
Either way, I enjoy it. It’s fun to feel like I’m re-learning a language over the course of a week, and to have no idea what I’ll be able to say tomorrow that I can’t say today. It’s an amazing phenomenon, and I can’t help think of what an amazing God we have who made our brains work like this!
(By the way, the picture doesn’t have anything to do with this post, other than I took the picture at the zoo yesterday. And he liked when I called him by his Swahili name – twiga=giraffe.)