Learning to Love Languages (more)

I came into Swarthmore with a decent background in Spanish. That, in truth, was nothing remarkable.  Excluding the many students at Swarthmore that speak Spanish at home, many other students come from high schools that offered Spanish programs. I began in a level three grammar class and have now moved up into a literature class. That, also, is not remarkable. The grammar classes at Swarthmore are taught intensively, five days a week, which provide a strong foundation and prepare all students for higher level classes. Again, this is not remarkable. What is worth reading and writing about, is not taking a Spanish class at Swarthmore, but that I take it concurrently with Swahili.  Taking two languages at once has given me a unique and exciting experience and motivated me to continue progressing in those languages.

This passion was reignited this fall. I had been taken grammar classes in Spanish and although I was noticing improvement I was highly underestimating my ability. It wasn’t until this fall, in my Spanish literature class that I first realized how much I have learned. I could understand and express complex literary topics. I walked out of class energetic and eager for the next lesson. Swarthmore also offered Swahili for the first time this fall semester. As I have been interested in conducting research in Africa, I decided to take the opportunity. I went into the class with no understanding of the language. Two professors entered and had a dialogue, completely in Swahili. They talked, pantomimed, and wrote on the board. That was the day I learned introductions, directions, and that I was going to love Swahili. Despite the two dissimilar classes, I was getting the same excitement from them. The variation between the two classes only made them better.

A similarity with both Spanish and Swahili at Swarthmore is that both classes are taught in the target language. This is expected in my higher level Spanish class, but in an introductory Swahili class? Like all introductory languages at Swat, Swahili is used for the majority of the class unless it is necessary to use English. This was a completely new way of learning a language for me. Most of my secondary education focused on translation, so when I was spoken at in only Swahili, with mostly words I did not know, I was quite nervous.  Many weeks into my classes I now wait for my professor to go into long monologues. Each word I understand reminds me I really am learning this new language. In Spanish, the context of the class is much different. Instead of learning noun classes or verb structure we discuss Romantic poems or Medieval plays. Yet, I still cherish every monologue about historical context or literary interpretation, because each word I understand reminds me I am really understanding this language I spent so long learning. I get most excited to learn what I can’t understand, and in my language classes that is the primary focus.

Both classes also require us to develop our writing. In Swahili, this is done through blog posts completed twice a week. We talk about what we did and are encouraged to constantly look up new words and apply them.  Along with our growing knowledge of the structure and grammar of the language, these independent excursions for new vocabulary to fill our blogs give us the opportunity to learn the words that personally apply to us.  These blogs may be short and basic, but the noticeable improvement in them is constantly motivating me to learn more. In Spanish, our writing takes a more formal form: analytical essays about literature. Having the ability to write a thoughtful, critical essay in a second language continues to astonish me. At my level, I am now pushing myself to write a strong piece rather than pushing myself to be able to write the piece at all.

I had to greet a room full of professors and students in Swahili before we started to eat.  The speech turned out pretty good.  It helped that half the people in the room couldn’t understand what I was saying.

Despite learning two starkly different languages at two starkly different levels, these courses have taught me the same overall lesson: that the best part of learning any language is getting better at it. The ability to do this twice a day has made my semester incredibly rewarding. I have become excited again about understanding new things and taking the extra time to learn more outside of my classes, and even in the kitchen (see pictures of Cooking Class for Swahili). I have rekindled my passion for language and found new motivation to experience the world and its many cultures.  Many years after I graduate I may forget the chemistry formulas or psychology terms, but I will continue to develop my language ability. And maybe I will also find that Swarthmore taught me how to learn a language just as well as it taught me how to speak them.

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