Two months in Tanzania have flown by, and we’re both speaking Swahili. It has gone much better than we expected and we can both comfortably say we can speak Swahili!
Videos of Dana and Jo speaking Swahili
In our previous videos (like for Arabic), we mostly gave monologues. Those are fine, but we thought it’d be more instructive and realistic to show us speaking to our tutors.
That said, we edited out a lot of the times they were speaking (but they were, of course). We say ‘umm’. We don’t know the words for things. But we work around it, and communicate, making ourselves understood.
And that still happens. Today I had to do some washing, so I said to our host (in Kenya) “I need to use the… thing for washing clothes.” (“Nahitaji kutumia kitu cha kufua nguo”). She looked at me quizzically and said “Mashin?”
For context, below is the video of when we were just starting out, our Day 1 video. We had just arrived in Zanzibar and opened our books and learned a few things from a tutor, now friend. “Parachichi”, or “avocado”, was one of Jo’s first words. Telling! It’s still one of our favourites.
We think we came a long way. What do you think? Leave a comment below!
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Answering some questions we get:
Are you “fluent” in Swahili now?
Obviously there are many degrees of fluent. We always aim for functionally fluent; able to either say something or describe it.
For example, a couple of weeks ago I had to buy a fly swatter. I surprised myself by being able to tell a shopkeeper “I’m looking for… a thing you use to kill flies.” (I never found out the name… mostly because people don’t seem to have them anywhere.)
Or Jo is able to negotiate down the prices of avocados. She refuses to pay more than 500 Tanzanian shillings, or about 20c.
In everyday life, it means we can function in any place we’d need to. We can go to butchers, bakeries and market stands, and beyond just talking about food, we have pleasant conversations with the people there, who are often just pleased that a couple of wazungu can speak Swahili. One guy even gave me his phone number, unprompted, saying that he really, really liked me. “Nimekupenda sana, sana” he told us. (“You totally just picked that guy up!” as Jo said. Still got it…)
With our teachers, we have more extended conversations, talking about our lives, dreams, goals, social issues, and so on. So our vocabularies end up being closer to the 1,200-1,500 point.
How did you learn Swahili in two months?
Some of our teachers and a lot of randoms are a little surprised at how far we came, thinking we mean “two years”, not “two months”. It was hardly rocket science — this is what we did.
In total, we studied for about 3 hours a day.
Every day we did
- An hour of class a day (taking breaks… not every day)
- Half an hour of collecting our notes
- An hour of revision of our cards in our flashcard decks (including the time to add notes, re-learn words we forgot etc.). I’m a late convert to using Anki as a way of learning words really efficiently.
- Half an hour of reading articles, listening to news, etc.
We could have done a lot more, but we’re also busy writing on this blog, and generally living life — like visiting Tanzania’s vibrant markets, where so much of daily life happens.
We didn’t use Duolingo, any other apps, or podcasts. We’ve tried them and just find them to be not that useful. If it works for you, fine, but generally we’ve found all those to be a waste of time (which is why we don’t promote them). (The only app we like is Glossika, but we didn’t use it here.)
But we can safely say now that we can speak Swahili. We have learned a lot about the culture of East Africa and what it’s like to live as somewhat local foreigners here, and feel strangely at home.
How many words do you know in Swahili?
I always talk about an 80-20 approach to language learning, learning just what you need, but learning it really well.
I wrote in that you “need” less than 1,000 words to communicate. And that’s true. But we always go a bit beyond, so we can talk about things that are interesting or important to us.
In total, according to our flashcard decks, we both know between 1,000 to 1,500 words (including verbs in just their base forms, not their conjugations, and grouping singular/plural words together).
Was Swahili as hard/easy as we thought?
A while ago we rated Swahili as being somewhat hard to learn. Easy to pronounce and spell, but with totally alien grammar and vocabulary.
In retrospect, this was very accurate. But a language that is easy to pronounce and spell is still one that’s easier to learn.
For example, with less effort, we’re able to say a LOT more things in two months than we could in Arabic.
What would we do differently next time?
It was surprisingly hard to find two things in Swahili: a) good teachers, and b) good resources. So we’d spend time up-front finding those good teachers, and use higher-quality resources… like the one we made ourselves!
Good teachers is just a supply/demand concept. There are many, many more people who want to learn Chinese, plus many more Chinese speakers who are highly educated in not just the language, but in the science of pedagogy.
In Swahili, we found very few schools, very few teachers online, and then a huge range of discrepancies. For the basics, it was fine, but once we got to an intermediate/advanced level, teachers often disagreed with each other.
Like, we couldn’t get agreement on how to say “disadvantaged children”. Or “slums”. (Sorry, that’s bleak, but it’s just the reality of things we were talking about!)
Good resources were also hard to find. These are all the good Swahili resources we DID find. Beyond our first textbooks, there were no good online dictionaries. That’s part of the reason we’ve written our own Swahili grammar cheat sheet, and are writing our own grammar guide to release soon.