Tuesday, February 28, 2017

only rumbling over potholes



I sit in the taxi with Peter. I sit in the passenger's seat on the left side of the car, which still mixes me up. Peter has driven me before, and he has a kind smile, and a lazy eye, which makes him seem more friendly somehow. I try to carry on a conversation, but I run out of things to ask, and I know that in this culture, taxi drivers are not accustomed to being friendly with their customers (even if we are regulars). In the silence, I think about how I wish I had more words -- more things to say to people, more Swahili words to say it in a way that expresses a deeper commitment to their culture. I also think about how I want to write more, but the words are just not there yet. All I hear is rumbling like this van over the potholes in the road we are driving. And then I remember a writer's advice, how the lack (of details or information or whatever) is sometimes what you build the story around.  

***

We had an hour training on language acquisition. It's about culture learning and relationship building, too, not just memorizing a list of words and stringing them together to make sentences. You start by listening and pointing, not even saying a word. The idea is that listening in context, paying attention, finding language in its home and making that home more and more yours will be what shifts your thinking and fire new neurons until you produce new words. This means you will be quiet at first, and maybe for a long while. But when the words come, they may flow.

***

I am making lists of words I learn in their context, which stick more easily that the ones on my flashcards. Mtoto, child, who were invited up for prayer during church. Bwana asifiwe, praise the Lord, a refrain in worship songs. Hatari, danger, the name of the security company whose name is posted on all of the surrounding compounds. Lipa, pay, on my M Pesa account. I brainstorm ways to be around Swahili more just to hear it and put life to words and words to life. I am not ready to speak yet. When the staff speak to me to help me learn, I look back at them blankly, and then we laugh.

I'm hoping the language acquisition training was right, that the words will soon flow.

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