On Attrition (Re-Learning Swahili with Duolingo, P.1)

If someone asks me how many languages I know, I really don’t know how to answer. “They come quickly, and leave quickly,” I tell them, and it’s true. I study languages fast, and reach proficiency quickly. This usually happens when I’m living in a country where the language is spoken. Then, when I leave, it slowly starts to melt, dripping away until it’s gone. It’s almost like the remnant is a smell — something I recognise, and can place, but it’s not quite the same as eating it again.

I studied Swahili for two years, as a college student. The real adventure of my Swahili-learning journey was that my Swahili classes were actually conducted in French, which is already my second language.In any case, I studied a lot on my own, and reached a good level of proficiency. My final presentation was a discussion of the migration crisis in Europe, in Swahili, as an example of what sorts of topics I was capable of discussing in the language.

Then, I moved to Kenya for six months. While my work environment was in English, I used Swahili every day. I lived in a rural area, and English was uncommon. I used Swahili when I hitch-hiked to town, when I went to the market, when I bought anything, ate anything, talked to anyone outside of work. I used to joke that I worked in English, but lived in Swahili.

However, when I left Kenya, my Swahili atrophied. My language-learning focus shifted to Amharic, and then Somali. The Swahili I once knew began drip, drip, dripping out of my brain. Linguistic atrophy, I believe they call it. Now, I can hardly form a sentence — a truly painful realization.

Now, I am in Somaliland, trying to learn Somali and Arabic simultaneously, while already working to maintain my Amharic and French. It’s enough — it really is — but there’s always this nagging in the corner of my mind, urging me to fix up my Swahili, to dust off the vocabulary and return to the language. It wouldn’t be that hard, my brain tells me. Just some elbow grease. Put in the work.

So, I’ve started using Duolingo. Believe me, this is a strange thing for me to say. I’ve never been all that interested in the platform, as I see language connected to place and experience. Learning a language without in-person practice, without specific vocabulary words I’m searching for, communication gaps I need to fill — strange concept, at least in my mind. The idea that Duolingo will feed me a pre-determined vocabulary list, regardless of which words I actually want or don’t want to learn… I just don’t love it.

However, as a review tool — a tool to maintain a language I used to know? To go back and remind me of words I’d hidden in the attic of my brain? To dust off the cobwebs? To get that daily routine going, to keep it from slipping away again? This is working great. I’m surprised at how well this is working. I think it’s the routine, the mindlessness of it. As long I just do it, it happens. There’s so little to think about, so few excuses to get in the way of actually just putting in the elbow grease. Strangely enough, while the mindlessness is what kept me away from learning a new language on Duolingo, the mindlessness is what’s keeping me there to re-learn a language I already knew.

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