12 lessons learnt in 12 months of learning Swahili

1. One hour a day (ideally in the morning) keeps lack of motivation away.

Not that this is totally new information for me. I’ve been practicing this also with Russian and French and found this approach works best for me in every language. One hour is not so much that it keeps me from leading a normal life, but it’s still enough so I can become fluent in the language within 18 months to 2 years. I usually spend two years with a language, but I don’t learn continuously during all that time. I always take several breaks.

2. Endurance in learning: The struggle is real even with your 9th language.

When it comes to polyglots, I often hear people say that, allegedly, “after you’ve mastered 3-4 languages, the next ones are learnt just like that.” Which polyglot ever said that?! I know hundreds of polyglots, but none of them would agree with this statement. Truth is, nothing comes by itself. You need to motivate yourself, create a system, and stick to your plan as much as possible. There is always work at play.

I experienced several motivation drops and almost gave up. Times of maximum motivation alternated with times when I couldn’t care less for my Swahili book. Overall, I spent 7 months learning and 5 months taking shorter or longer breaks in 2018. The factor that saved me from giving up was always having a plan for the next two months and a system that I learned to use with my previous languages.

3. Fluency is only achievable if you have a pretty good reason to learn.

You may wonder why I even started learning such an exotic language as Swahili (it is exotic in Europe where I live). All my other languages are European: English, German, Spanish, Polish, French, Russian, Esperanto, and Slovak Sign Language.

The reason I chose Swahili, a language used in Kenya, Tanzania, and several other African countries, is that it’s not European. I wanted to better understand the process of language acquisition as it works for someone who doesn’t have 8 languages under their belt but is starting from scratch. When I was learning French, I could use my knowledge of Spanish, and being fluent in Polish was a great help when I was learning Russian. Swahili? None of my languages are of great help there. And that’s exactly what I wanted to experience again after a long time: to remind myself of what it takes to learn your first or second foreign language.

This motivation may be based on a good reason, but I could see it simply wasn’t enough in the difficult moments of my learning. I asked myself many times in the first 6 months if speaking Swahili was really worth two years of my life. When I learn a language, I either give it two years (to achieve a fluent level) or nothing at all. The problem with Swahili was that I’d never had any personal relationship to the Swahili language or African nations and I was learning a foreign language just for the sake of it.

Everything took a turn for the better in the second half of 2018. I decided to travel to Africa for two weeks in the summer of 2019 as a volunteer to help people in Kenya or Tanzania. My motivation suddenly soared! I started to look forward to waking up every morning and distilling vocabulary with the Goldlist method. My conversations with a Kenyan teacher were no longer so tiring; it was my preparation for an adventure and for a good cause!

If you learn a foreign language to be able to communicate on your travels, get a better job, or read interesting information on the internet, you can do this without any problem. But if you want to learn a language just because it would be cool to speak it, or your parents/partner want you to do it but you don’t see much sense in it, your efforts will probably fail in a couple of weeks.

4. Beginnings are always hard. And we all want to give up sometimes.

I can recall the precise moment when I found out about some more complicated aspects of the Swahili grammar. I was devastated by the feeling that I’d never be able to learn all that.

To give you an idea, I found out that every noun in Swahili belongs to one of 16 classes (8 in singular and 8 in plural), and according to that, almost all other words in a sentence have to change! That means that the pronoun “this” (only one version in English) can be huyu, hawa, hii, hizi, hiki, hivi, hili, haya, or huu in Swahili depending on the class of the related noun. Also the verb “came” can take the form of ilifika, alifika, zilifika, walifika, ulifika, kilifika, or vilifika. ‘I’m never going to learn this,’ I thought then.

Today, I can’t help but smile when I remember the panic attack I had. I’m doing just fine. I make mistakes in the forms of words sometimes but not as often as at the beginning when I had no idea of what prefixes and suffixes go with which word.

All I had to do was to not give up and to keep going every day step by step, hour after hour. The most frequent words have sunk in, along with the correct suffixes, and they now somehow “fit” in context correctly. By the way, I experienced the same feeling of despair with English phrasal verbs, German word order, Spanish irregular verbs, French irregular pronunciation, Russian declination of nouns, and Slovak Sign Language numerals. However, it can all be learned naturally if you have regular contact with the language. No miracles are necessary.

5. Nothing will move you forward as fast as speaking.

I’m sure the participants of the Autodidacts’ Academy smile now because we keep repeating this in the course all the time. It’s not something new for me, but it has proven itself true even in my 9th language. Only when I started having conversations 3 times a week in October has my Swahili really gone up.

The teacher saw my progress with every session, and I could feel it as well. I had the best results when I took sessions on three consecutive days. On the third day, I could speak easily, almost fluently, and we understood each other perfectly. What a beautiful feeling!

6. The most effective way to practice speaking is with questions and answers.

The conversations with my Kenyan teacher Hamdy taught me about the most effective way to practice speaking: with teacher’s questions and my answers. Not just any questions, but questions on a certain topic that we agree upon beforehand. The teacher speaks only for 10–15% of the class; the rest is for my speaking practice. The teacher corrects and writes down my mistakes, which I then with systematically after the class. That’s how I actually learn the vocabulary instead of just writing it down.

(I’ve perfected this system so much that I decided to create a new conversation course in 2019 where I’m going to lead people through the mysteries of successful conversation classes. If you’re interested in this course, just follow our social media and the newsletter of Language Mentoring; we’ll keep you posted.)

7. Celebrate the progress you’ve already achieved and don’t worry about what you don’t know yet.

This is what I consider the best polyglot trick: Polyglots see the glass half-full, not half-empty. Self-assessment of your progress can be dangerous if you keep comparing yourself to the fluent level of the language that you’re going to achieve in about two years. Learning Swahili taught me to be happy about little victories, such as

  • I understood the teacher’s question the second time he repeated it, not the fourth!
  • Ha! I didn’t know this word last time, and now I used it effortlessly!
  • Look how many words I’ve collected on my flashcards!
  • I’ve managed to learn at least 30 minutes every day for the past three weeks!

I found out that these little achievements always boost my motivation. When I got curious and looked up a Swahili text on the internet, I was disappointed that I couldn’t figure it out. But then I forbid myself from thinking about it, and I took a look at what I had already learned in Swahili. A year ago, all I knew in Swahili was ‘Hakuna matata!’ (which means ‘No problem!’ Now your Swahili skills equal mine from a year ago. 🙂 )

8. Adjust your learning plan to the available materials.

Unfortunately, I can’t use almost any of my favorite resources that I’d normally use for another language. I’d love to watch “Friends” with Swahili voice-over or read a translation of Harry Potter. However, to my great disappointment, nothing like that exists! Harry Potter may have been translated into 80 languages, but Swahili (the second biggest language in Africa) is not one of them. 🙁 I was also looking for translations of other books of world literature and found only one: The Little Prince. Guess what I bought myself for Christmas? 🙂

So I can’t really work with bilingual texts (an English book and a Swahili translation). At this stage, reading is more like deciphering than enjoying the text, but I’ll get there. One to two pages a day and it’s going to be much easier in a couple of weeks.

9. Switch methods to keep your learning fun.

It’s no coincidence that fun is the first pillar of my language-learning philosophy. This is also true for Swahili. And by fun, I don’t mean only choosing methods that you enjoy but also choosing them at the right times.

In 2018 I was learning vocabulary by switching between handmade flashcards in a box, the AnkiDroid app, the back-translation method, and my beloved Goldlist method. I always got fed up with the method in a couple of months and would need a change. So I just jumped to another method. It’s vital that you work with the methods and resources that you currently enjoy. It doesn’t mean you should change several of them within a month, but you can switch every 2–3 months if you want.

10. Significant progress will come only after you’ve had a significant amount of contact with the language.

Only after 15 hours of conversations and getting to the second half of the self-learning book have I started to make visible progress in my Swahili. Up to that point, it had been more of a blind faith that one day the improvement would come. That was the hardest part of my learning, as I also mentioned in point 4.

If you’re currently working on your 2nd, 3rd, or 4th language, it’s much easier because you already know how it works and don’t expect miracles overnight. People who are learning their first foreign language have less-realistic expectations and are more impatient. If you keep on going, you’re certain to harvest the results of your effort. In my case, it started to click after 5 months of learning an hour a day, i.e., after about 150 hours. And the great feeling of progress is definitely worth it!

11. Language learning is easiest with effective methods.

Fortunately, I knew this by intuition when I was learning my very first language, but I found out about really effective methods only after learning 4–5 languages. Since then I’ve known how to work with self-study books, how to learn vocabulary, and how to lead conversations with a teacher to get the most out of them. I could learn using traditional school methods such as simply reading texts in the book and making glossaries of vocabulary that I’d never look at again, but my time is precious to me, and I don’t want to spend more than two years learning Swahili.

Working with the Goldlist method confirmed what I had known from my previous experience with language learning: It’s useless to write down completely unknown words and hope to remember 30% just like that. (If you’re wondering why I should expect that, read my free ebook on the Goldlist method, and you’ll see that it really works if you know how to proceed.)

I tested this on many lists, and none of them worked out. I remembered nothing. Only when I came back to the method six months later using phrases (instead of individual words) from my conversations, did the method work for me as beautifully as I remembered from learning German and French.

Notice the number of ticks at the margins. They represent words or phrases that I remembered after two weeks of writing them down. At the beginning when I wrote down unknown individual words, I could only remember one of them (and even with that one, my English helped me: the word “pancha” means “a puncture”). A couple of months later when I used phrases and short sentences from texts that I’d seen at least twice before, I could remember much more in two weeks. (If nothing in this paragraph makes sense to you, you should really read the ebook. You’ll love the Goldlist method! 🙂 )

12. System is the key to success.

This is the lesson I’m most grateful for because it’s so simple, and yet it can work wonders to your language learning. You need a system in your language learning! If you simply jump into learning with just huge initial motivation but lacking any plan or regular learning program, it’s highly possible that the motivation will wane in a couple of weeks. And what help is such learning if you could stick to it only for 3–4 weeks? It won’t get you anywhere.

Learning Swahili confirmed what I’ve learned with my other languages: You should plan your learning systematically. As Benjamin Franklin put it: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” I decided to learn Swahili for an hour a day over a strictly stated period of time (usually two months). I always decide on the starting and ending dates and what I’m going to do after it ends. I will assess my progress when the given period ends. I usually enjoy a few weeks’ break and plan for a new period. If you repeat this for some time, you’ll be able to speak a foreign language pretty soon.

So these are my biggest lessons about language learning that were confirmed by my learning Swahili.

My learning Swahili in a nutshell:

(To make the list complete, I’ll also include the methods I tried or regularly used in 2018. I always combined them in various ways.)

  • the back-translation method with the books Teach Yourself Swahili and Assimil Le Swahili,
  • the Goldlist method for learning vocabulary into long-term memory,
  • conversations with a native speaker starting with the second month (with the help of English),
  • systematic revision of texts in the Assimil textbook to keep vocabulary in the long-term memory,
  • the AnkiDroid app for learning vocabulary with a spaced-repetition system,
  • learning vocabulary with flashcards using a spaced-repetition system,
  • listening to recordings from the textbook repeatedly,
  • systematic work with new phrases from conversations using the current method for learning vocabulary, and
  • informational (passive) combing through the grammar up to the B2 level using a self-study book.

And what can I look forward to in the year 2019? I’m going to change my learning plan and resources:

  • I’m going to have conversations at least 3 times a week, and I’m going to find other teachers in addition to my main tutor.
  • I’m going to contact native Kenyans and Tanzanians in Slovakia and in Thailand (where I’m based for two months at the beginning of 2019).
  • I’m going to start listening to podcasts in Swahili even though I don’t understand much yet (up to now I’ve just been listening to some songs and always got excited when there was a word I could understand).
  • I’m going to watch short YouTube videos in Swahili.
  • I’m going to keep deciphering books in Swahili, even just 2 pages a day, mostly non-fiction. (I found a great book on public speaking. I love that topic, and it’s much easier than a novel.)
  • I’m going to keep goldlisting (until I get fed up with it again); my vocabulary resources will be mainly conversations and books.
  • I’m going to create my own grammar charts to keep an eye on them during conversations.
  • Before I leave for Africa, I’m going to prepare a set of useful phrases to discuss with my teacher.

I’m not going to do all of this at once. I’m going to distribute the activities over a period of 6 months, and if I get fed up with any of them, I’ll just switch to something else. And maybe I’ll find new useful methods for language learning that I’ll love.

Would you like to see me speaking Swahili?

This is a video of one of my December 2018 sessions with my teacher Hamdy. You can turn on English subtitles to understand us:

I’m quite satisfied with the progress I made in the 7 months (out of 12 months from the beginning up to now), especially when I take into account that Swahili is totally different from all my previous languages. It’s common now that I understand what Hamdy says the first time even though I don’t know what he’s going to say, and I can also explain almost anything to him. I can react to what he says and ask him an additional question, and I use English only for some new words I want to use in the conversation. I’d say I’m between the A2–B1 levels and looking forward to the last 6 months of learning because the improvement is going to be much faster now.

How about you? Would you also like to spend this year systematically learning a language such as English, German, or Spanish? If you’d like my help, step by step, join me in the online program called Autodidacts’ Academy, in which 50 motivated learners learn any language by themselves with the help of a language mentor from my team. I’ll be learning together with you, and we can discuss your experience with learning your language in our live webinars. 🙂 More info here.

Lýdia Machová

Language mentor
I have learned 7 languages by myself, and I usually add a new one every two years. As a language mentor I've helped thousands of people to learn languages by themselves, in ways different from traditional classroom methods, and with much better and faster results. I'm a TED and TEDx speaker and the main organizer of the Polyglot Gathering, one of the biggest world events for polyglots.
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