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Review: Swahili for Beginners
English speakers encountering Swahili for the first time come in many guises – as tourists and hoteliers, NGO workers, business people, gap year travellers, health and education professionals, academics and politicians. Some will feel they want to read and write the language, and many learn most easily that way. Others are looking for conversation and will happily pick up language by ear.
A beginners’ course can have value for all these groups – but not every course will cover the bases in a systematic and appealing way.
The updated KIU’s Swahili for Beginners is the work of experienced Swahili teachers who know at first hand what their students find most useful – and most challenging. Swahili – now spoken by many millions of people in East Africa – is a blend of an African Bantu language with Arabic, with some Indian and even Portuguese influences, plus some modern English additions. It is beautiful to listen to and a vital part of Swahili culture, regular in its grammar and pronunciation. Though Swahili is generally very accessible to beginners, several aspects of its structure can be challenging. It relies on composite words (with added prefixes, infixes and suffixes) to convey important information about tense, person and place. On top of that, each of its nine noun classes may require many other key words in a sentence to be modified to fit. All this can lead to long pauses as the student struggles to assemble all the parts in the right order and the right form.
Swahili for Beginners provides a course book and four compact discs. A first plus is that these work well together, reinforcing written and oral work while instilling good pronunciation through native speakers (some other courses fail this test). The Swahili taught is good modern current usage, spanning formal and informal settings - from getting money from the bank to visiting Tanzanian people at home.
The book offers 77 brief chapters, helpful to busy people learning Swahili and allowing small additions in grammar and vocabulary to be mastered and memorised in short bites. Each chapter provides exercises, to test understanding and reinforce memory. The chapters are progressive and build well on earlier learning. Later chapters encourage two-way translation. The expanding vocabulary takes us into practical settings – social encounters and family life, shopping, travelling, being sick in hospital. We are introduced to numbers and dates and time, and all the grammatical essentials of word and sentence structure. Those finishing the course will be well able to understand and communicate good simple Swahili, and so get a great deal out of their stay in East Africa.
A big strength of the book is its avoidance of complex written descriptions. Instead, it uses small, often humorous pictures, diagrams and charts. It is easier to memorise nouns like food items, professions, sports, fruits and animals because we are seeing the picture beside the Swahili word. Potentially confusing concepts – like the fact that the Swahili clock runs from sunrise not midnight, and that uncles and aunts have several distinctive names – are more readily explained through diagrams. The layout is kept simple and is easy to absorb. That is extra helpful in maintaining motivation once very easy progress on greetings and simple vocabulary runs up against the cliff of noun classes and agreements.
The CDs start slowly, allowing learners to develop an ear for the language before the conversations speed up to a more typical level. The 30 short lessons combine new material with repetition and revision, helping listeners build up confidence, express themselves clearly and take the initiative in talking to Swahili speakers.
A welcome feature of both book and CDs is called ‘cultural notes’, covering ways in which visitors can better understand and respond to traditional ways in which Swahili speaker express themselves and experience life. These are often missed in guidebooks. The notes could usefully be expanded in a future edition, for example to cover aspects of Muslim living, such as life during Ramadan and the danger of causing offence by offering the left hand. Another could be the need for clarity about meeting times, in case a local contact is operating to Swahili time and the visitor to GMT.
Other thoughts for future editions would be better reflection of the rise and rise in East Africa of mobiles, smartphones, M-Pesa, and the social media. And, while the Swahili text is immaculately presented, the English language content could be rechecked to take out some minor errors.
All in all, this course is an excellent and accessible way to start finding your way round a beautiful language in a beautiful part of Africa.
Swahili for Beginners, 5th edition 2011, published by Kiswahili na Utamaduni (KIU) Ltd, Swahili and Culture Ltd. ISBN 9987-9113-1-5