LEARNING TO SAY JAMBO
by Fr Chris O'Doherty
has just finished a four month's language course at Kiswahili . . .
(taken from the WF / WS magazine no. 180, Oct-Nov
different my second tour in Africa is to the first, I have just finished
a four months language course in Kiswahili. This is a language which is
spoken in Tanzania, Kenya and parts of the Congo, When I was in Africa
from 1958 to 1961, I spoke Kisukuma, which is one of the 140 languages
of Tanzania, Now since independence, Kiswahili is the official language
of the whole country, So when I came back last November, I had to set
about learning a new language. Not an easy task at the age of 47 when
the grey matter and especially the memory is not as alert as it used to
be. And so I began to learn to say "JAMBO" which means Hello,
Naturally that is the first word one learns.
(left) : Fr Chris O'Doherty WF)
In the old pioneering days in Africa, learning the local language was
a major undertaking. People at home have no idea of the number of different
languages there are in Africa, They think of different dialects or accents,
like say, between a Corkman and a Belfast man. In fact they are real languages
and as different as French and German. In Tanzania alone there are 140
different languages, The first missionaries were faced with an enormous
task. There were no writings, no dictionaries and no grammars. Thus, literally,
they had to start from scratch.
A favourite method was to draw an object in the sand and ask, "What
is that?" A pencil and a notebook was a very essential part of a
missionary's equipment, He noted everything and painstakingly sorted and
sifted what he learned. You can imagine his surprise when he found out
that there was an amazing consistency and logic in these so-called primitive
languages. He found out that there were certain "root" words
that could be used in many different meanings by the addition of a certain
set of syllables. Thus PAT A means to get ; patia to give, pasha to make
somebody receive, patika to be got, patikana to be obtainable, patana
to agree, mapatana treaty, mapato receipts. It was through the untiring
efforts of missionaries and some others that the thousands of tribes of
Africa got written languages. Thus the way was open for schools and education
of all sorts. Naturally the first books to be written were the Bible and
books of religious instruction. The religious lesson was often as much
a literacy class as a formal teaching of religion itself. Thus converts
came to be known as "readers" as well as "people who pray".
However as often as not the linguistic efforts of the missionaries was
never printed. Grammars and dictionaries as well as treatises on local
customs were laboriously transcribed by hand. They were passed on from
person to person; the newcomers naturally profited from the labours of
their predecessors. Thus when I arrived in Africa in 1958 my first task
was to learn the "language". In my case it was KISUKUMA, a language
spoken by about one million people on the southern shore of Lake Victoria.
When I asked how I should go about the job, I was told to use my brains
and "get on with it". The priests on the spot were far too busy
to give me much help, However I was handed a much fingered typewritten
grammar and a laboriously handwritten dictionary. I considered myself
lucky compared with the pioneers, and so "I got on with it".
I would learn a few words and try them out on the cook and on any other
willing listenerand truth to tell there were many, The schoolchildren
in particular willingly suffered my first stammerings. After six weeks
I tried out a little bit in church. In those days the Mass itself was
in Latin, so there was no difficulty. I read the gospel and asked the
people to sit down but they promptly stood upI had used the wrong
word! Naturally I was a little disappointed but really this was a harmless
mistake compared with the many "gaffs" I committed later on.
However gradually the mistakes became fewer and within about a year I
could give a passable sermon.
. . . AND NOW
In those days tape recorders were large cumbersome affairs and their use
was restricted to places which had electricity. Battery operated recorders
were in their infancy.
Later on, with the popularisation of transistor radios and the advent
of the cassette tape recorders, things changed enormously. Now a man could
have his own private language laboratory. He could record correct speech
and repeat it as often as he needed.
(left) : Language without tears? The barriers
are being broken down more effectively than in the past. Practice with
skilled speakers (below) is an essential part of the language course.
This was a great step forward, The next logical move came in the early
sixties. Group learning of African languages began to be organised. Sometimes
the process of grouping was hampered by the fact that the number of learners
at anyone time was very small. Many languages are spoken only by very
small tribes, But where the language was spoken by a considerable number
of people, and the number of newly arrived missionaries was sufficient,
it became possible to organise proper language schools using the most
modern techniques of language study. Thus schools were set up in almost
every country in Africa.
Perhaps the most famous and efficient of these is the Kiswahili language
course at the Pastoral Centre in Kipalapala, Tanzania. There was the advantage
of a national language with a considerable amount of literature. A great
deal of work has been done in adapting Kiswahili to modern needs; and
the process is still going on.
Lessons with a fluent speaker
(Can you name any of the particpants, please ?)
|This is where I have spent the last four and a half
months. The method used follows a natural rhythm. From the very beginning
words and phases are "presented" by African speakersusing
only Kiswahili. By the use of pictures, gestures and signs they match
objects and actions with words and idioms.
It is a process of discovery which is carefully planned to give thirty
or forty words and phrases each day. It is a never failing source
of wonder that the student can divine their meaning with almost no
resort to his own language. The key to the whole system is the instant
use of the new matter. Students are divided into groups of three or
four with an African teacher. Progress is very rapid and within a
week students are actually holding a "conversation" in a
new language. Another feature of the system is the use of a "language
laboratory". Here whole series of phrases concerned with the
matters that have been presented in the morning are repeated many
times by the student.
The phrases are pre-recorded by fluent native speakers, the student
listens and repeats it to himself twice. Then he listens again and
records his own version twice. He then plays back both his own and
the official version twice.
Thus in each daily session he repeats each of the 45 phrases at least
I don't think anybody has counted the number of times a student repeats
the new words and phrases each daymost people are too busy learning
Within a week learners begin to speak a new language (below). The
author, fifth from the right, obviously enjoying it all. Difficulties,
too, are sorted out in common.
As a concession to the adult student there is also a daily grammar
lesson. But here again the grammar is integrated into the system,
The nouns, tenses and constructions used in the lessons of the day
are explained. As the course progresses there is room for more ambitious
projects. The teachers and students dress up and present short sketches
and plays or tell stories. Afterwards, the students meet in groups
to discuss the performance. In the final stages the students try out
their newly acquired knowledge by writing stories or sermons which
are corrected by the teachers. This is a unique opportunity to iron
After six months let nobody imagine that the student is fluent. However
he has a basic working knowledge on which to build, From then on much
will depend on his own natural talents and his eagerness to learn. But
certainly he will know more than just how to say Jambo.