On Hitting Stride (Re-Learning Swahili with Duolingo, P.4)

I imagine this is what it’s like to be a plumber, faced with a blockage, where the water is just barely dripping out. After tinkering for a bit, something budges, and suddenly there’s water rushing out of the pipe again.

It all makes sense again, both slowly and suddenly. The vocabulary, the grammar, the language has come back to me, come out of its dormancy. At this point, Duolingo is falling to the side of my routine — its exercises are simply too easy. I keep doing them, but I’m getting 100% consistently, on everything. I take the quizzes to skip ahead, and behold — I skip ahead!

Of course, Duolingo is just one tool, and I think it’s time I move back towards other tools, a combination — books, grammar guides, conversational audio clips, TV shows, movies, reading the news in Swahili…. you name it, I’m going to do it. I promise — Duolingo might be easy now, but I’ve still got a lot of work do to! Just need to keep putting in the elbow grease.

Regardless, it does feel good to re-hit that stride, to realize that it’s just hidden in the depths of my brain, not gone entirely.

On Scaffolding (Re-Learning Swahili with Duolingo, P. 3)

Having studied both Arabic and Swahili, I’ve always felt stronger in Swahili. I studied Swahili for two years in university, lived in a Swahili-speaking country, and did so that within the past decade. Arabic, on the other hand — I did a brief study abroad in Jordan as a high school student (over a decade ago), neglected the language for a decade, and then began taking twice-weekly Arabic classes for the past three months. At this point, I’m honestly not all that strong in either language, but I definitely thought I was better in Swahili. Regardless, out of curiosity, I recently took the “placement tests” for both Swahili and Arabic on Duolingo.

Spoiler: I didn’t place out of ANY of the Swahili skills.

This, frankly, was a bit of a shock to me. Any skills? I don’t know ANYTHING abut Swahili? I find this a little bit hard to believe (because I definitely know some things). But, when you evaluate language knowledge by asking someone to translate a handful of specific words and phrases, there’s a definite probability that I simply won’t know those exact phrases! Sauce, for example. I didn’t know how to say “sauce.”

Now, for the double-spoiler: I placed out of 26% of the Arabic course. TWENTY-SIX PERCENT!

This was even more of a shock to me. I hardly knew anything — but many of the questions were phrased in such a way that I could guess the answer. It’d give me a sentence, and have me translate using a word bank. By knowing a few words, plus the suffixes for “my” and “your,” I could usually get it correct. In fact, I got almost every question on the placement test correct, generally by guessing.

The whole point of this story is that, as a language-learner, it’s a great reminder that scaffolding is everything. Scaffolding means easier exercises first, oftentimes matching or with a word bank, followed by more complex, “productive” (write the sentence yourself) exercises. I think what happened with the Duolingo tests is that the Arabic placement test was entirely lower-level, matching-style questions, with very few productive exercises (I didn’t have to type a single sentence)! On the other side of the spectrum, the Swahili placement test was entirely productive, with very few word banks or lower-level questions (which is, admittedly, quite challenging). I don’t know exponentially more Arabic than Swahili (quite the contrary). The results of the test reflected the test, not my language knowledge.

In educational jargon, we call this test validity (and these tests… sorry, Duo, not valid).

On Self-Acceptance (Re-Learning Swahili with Duolingo, P.2)

If there’s anything harder than accepting your own faults, it’s accepting your own regressions. For those who have lost certain capacities due to injury or illness, the phrase “I used to be able to” holds so much pain. Of course, whether physical or otherwise, we all have lost capacities, and will continue to do so. That’s what being human is — a progress of gaining and losing, growing and shrinking in different ways. To become anything is an active process, and there is no stagnation. Either we rise or we fall — we cannot stay, poised in midair.

The hardest thing about catching yourself from that falling, however, is admitting that you were falling in the first place. To improve, we need to admit fault. We need to admit that we were not as good as we once were. We need to admit that we don’t actually remember that basic vocabulary word, that we don’t know things we used to, that this is harder than we expected it to be. Moreover, the fact that it’s harder than we expected is okay. It’s okay that we’re not as good as we once were — that’s why we’re here, working on it.

Mimi ni mwanafunzi mzuri. I am a good student.
Mimi si mwanafunzi mbaya. I am not a bad student.

There’s a certain peace to be found in starting a Duolingo course from the beginning, especially for a language I already (at one point in my life) knew. It’s a similar feeling to sitting in a classroom full of children, squeezing yourself into a tiny desk, and peering up at the teacher, wide-eyed like you used to do. As children, we were a lot gentler with ourselves. Kindergarteners generally don’t chastise themselves for not being better at math, so I strive to be a kindergartener in my own mind. I experience, I listen, I take satisfaction in the slow and steady progress of moving through this learning, without worrying about how or how fast or why I’m not already better. I allow myself to be excited for small successes — the single vocabulary word I get correct, that difficult sentence that pings green (especially if I thought I got it wrong). The sentences are simple, but they stick.

Patience, kid. You’ve got this. It’s all a process; just keep grinding.

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.