Language learning can be hard work, especially for us Brits who hardly uttered a single word from any language other than English until age 11, (and even then only for 3 hours a week in the school classroom.) I remember looking forward to beginning to learn German as I started secondary school, and thinking that all I had to do was to memorise the German word for each English word and I’d be fluent – simple, right?! I’m glad to say my understanding of linguistics has progressed a little in the last 20 years…

Now, living in western Tanzania I find myself speaking Swahili for much of the day, alongside English, with a few greetings in some of the local languages around here thrown in. As foreigners living in Tanzania it can be tempting to see language learning as a necessary step before we can get on with our real work, a period of time we need to set aside to get up to speed with the language so we can start what we really came here to do.

But I think language learning is so much more than that. Learning the language (and culture) of another person is essentially learning to understand the world from their point of view, and as such is a never-ending journey.

Building the office fence

For example, in Swahili there are different greetings and ways of interacting based on how old the other person is compared to you. I have to say I still find it slightly stressful walking down the road, or when someone comes in to my office, trying to make a split-second estimate as to how old the person is compared to me (or compared to how old they think I am…) so that I greet them appropriately without offending or causing them to feel awkward. But experiencing this every day has helped me to realise that Swahili speakers are constantly aware of how old everyone around them is, and how this essentially defines where each person fits in to society. It has helped me to see the world differently.

Swahili also has a word, “pole”, that has no straightforward English equivalent. It is an expression of sympathy, of solidarity with someone going through something difficult, of saying “I see that you are experiencing something hard and I’m standing here alongside you”. It can equally be used when someone is working hard in the fields, or trips as they walk along the road, or when their young son has tragically died. Thinking about this word has led me to reflect on how traditional Tanzanian culture is much more cooperative than competitive (for example it is very difficult, and awkward, to try to get market sellers or taxi drivers to compete with each other on prices). Whereas a British child may be (subconsciously) taught “life is full of opportunities – you can do anything, you just need to work hard for yourself”, a Tanzanian may be taught “life is difficult, we are all in this together and we need to help each other along”.

The more I learn of the Swahili language and Tanzanian culture in general, the more I realise that I’m not getting any closer to the end of learning!

Rachel Pieh Jones, living in Djibouti, has some great reflections on language learning, prompted by a question she received – “Are you still studying language? I thought you’d be fluent by now.”

The reality is, you might not ever reach fluency. Or it might take you years longer than you thought. Your spouse or coworker might fly past you, you might fly past them. But this is not about you. It is not about your speed or adeptness.What is wrong with me when language comes slow is the absolute wrong question.

The right questions are: How does God want to change me and use me while I learn this language? How does God want to accomplish his purposes through me while I learn this language? How can I love people while I learn this language?

The point, the aim, is not fluency. The aim is to honor God, to be used by him, to become more like Jesus, to love well. Read more…

I for one am glad that there is still so much more that I have to learn in Swahili, not to mention Sukuma, Fipa, Bende, Pimbwe and various other languages spoken around here! I think it is a blessing from God, reminding us that our work is not primarily about accomplishing tasks as quickly or efficiently as possible, but about humbling ourselves, connecting with people, understanding them, and then eventually starting to experience and learn together with them what it means to follow Jesus.

  1. Angie Washington says:

    Hi Mark and Laura,

    What a wonderful blog you have here! I especially like the thoughts you brought out in this post:

    “Learning the language (and culture) of another person is essentially learning to understand the world from their point of view, and as such is a never-ending journey.”

    So true!

    Thanks for the link up to A Life Overseas. God bless you and your work with the precious people of Tanzania.

    By the way, I saw a RT on your side bar to Scot McKnight. I had the privilege of going to a conference where he spoke in November of last year. Such a great thinker!


    Angie Washington
    Missionary in Bolivia
    co-editor at A Life Overseas

  2. Nancy says:

    To this day I’m left speechless when a friend says they have a headache or bump their toe or something similar.

    My first instinct is to say pole(I’m a Tanzanian living in China)and then I look for an English word for it..nothing. What should I say in such occasions? I have an Australian friend who’s always shocked when I say sorry “Why are you sorry? it wasn’t your fault” she’s day. Oh man, talk about lost in translation.

    Loved your blog post.

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