Swahili is Hard: From Vowels to Vocabulary

It’s funny the difference between philosophy and practice. I’m one, who has said in the past, that there’s no reason to learn other languages. An app that can translate as you speak will soon become the practical answer to this problem. But after only a couple days in Tanzania, I was pledging to learn as much Swahili as I could while I’m here.

I came to Tanzania literally knowing no Swahili, except the little I gleamed from Disney: “Asantai Sana” (“Thank you very much”) and “Simba” (“Lion”) were a phrase and a word that came easily since they were familiar. But I didn’t even know how to say “Yes,” “No,” or “Hello” so unless I just wanted to thank the lions, I had work to do. It continues to be a work in progress, but a vital part of living in a country if for no other reason than to show people that you’re trying as they go above and beyond every day to treat you with the utmost respect.

We learned “Hello” quickly, though were curious to find some people saying, “Jumbo,” and others saying, “Mumbo.” We began to use them interchangeably, until I read in my basic Swahili phrasebook that, while “Mumbo” just means “News?” (as in “what’s the news” or “hey”), “Jumbo” is a tourist phrase that conveys, “Hey! I’m not a local and do not speak Swahili.” When learning a language, trial and error only gets you so far!

Vowels were easy enough to remember: A is ah, E is eh, I is ee, O is oh, and U is oo. From there reading words becomes a lot easier with most consonants being pronounced the same in English. Despite this, plenty (and I mean more often than not) of words are mispronounced. I try reassuring myself that my interpretation is close enough to get my message across, until I remember that “moan” and “moon” is a subtle difference in pronunciation, while meaning significantly different things!

It’s been fun to slowly piece together phrases. One song that the girls regularly sing at prayer goes “Mumbo Sawa Sawa.” Mumbo, as we knew, means “News”, while “Sawa” is slang for “sure” or figuratively “in the positive.” Thus Mumbo Sawa, very roughly translated, we deduced means “Good news.”

In addition to our phrasebook and flash cards, we’ve been generously offered Swahili lessons by one of the staff here. We’ve been taking advantage of it every chance we get!

If only more Disney movies had taught us Swahili!

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