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).

Do They Not See The Birds? (Thoughts from Arabic Class, P.1)

I’ve started attending Arabic classes twice a week — one class for standard Arabic, and one class for Qur’an.

In Qur’an class, the student beside me reads the verses out loud with a fluency I have yet to achieve, repeating longer and longer sections of the verse until she can recite the verse in its entirety. Like much in life, there is a method to the learning, and she is an expert in the process. It comes out in breaths, not sentences. Exhale, and there is a verse. Quick inhale, and the recitation resumes.

Standard Arabic class, on the other hand, is stilted for all of us. It’s strange, somehow, like learning a language we already know — me, having already studied it, and the others, having recited in it for their entire lives. We read quickly, beyond thinking about the pronunciation of individual letters. Yet, we still stumble on basic grammar, asking the teacher what the difference between “he” and “she” is.

Yes, of course, we nod vigorously as she re-explains what we knew all along, somewhere inside. This learning is like digging up treasures we buried ourselves and then forgot the locations of.

Pieces of both classes echo in my mind at the end of the week, an alternating chorus.

What is your name? Where are you from?
The knowledge is only with Allah.

What is your nationality?
Do they not see the birds above them with wings spread and folded in?
Her brother is an engineer.
Return your vision to the sky. Do you see any breaks?

Fluency still feels like a distant horizon, but there is some poetry in not fully understanding.