Helpful Tips for Afrikan Language Learning and for Life
By Ọbádélé Kambon
In circles where I’m known at all, primarily “Afrikan-centered” circles, I’m known as a mythical character: the one who has magical powers to learn an Afrikan language, apparently in a few days and with little to no effort as the story goes. I speak and teach Akan (Twi) and Yorùbá to native speakers and non-native speakers alike. I work professionally for major translation companies and business organizations and I’m currently working on my doctorate in linguistics with a focus on Akan (Twi) and Yorùbá where I give presentations and speak at conferences on nuanced aspects of both languages to native speakers. I also speak and teach Wolof and have worked as an interpreter in Senegal and The Gambia, I’m conversational in Kiswahili and I can speak some Kikongo. Other than that, I can greet in various other Afrikan languages, order food in Amharinya (Amharic) and basically retain things that I learn. Now, I recently had a conversation with a friend on my site AbibitumiKasa.com about learning an Afrikan language who seemed to think that I had a “natural propensity” to learn Afrikan languages. “It comes easy for you” she seemed to think. The conversation basically went like this:
“I've forgotten most of my Twi Kwame.”
“Because I haven't practiced. I got frustrated. I got frustrated because no matter how hard I tried mente Twi (I don’t hear Twi). One or two things would stick but most of it would fly in and fly out with swiftness. Listening to Twi speakers was nice but i couldn't hear the words. It all sounded like one long word. Sweet to the ears but i wasn't picking the language up any better. So I got frustrated.”
“Hyɛ wo sapɔ mu nsuo - fill your sponge with water (try harder)”
She then went on to tell me that was easy for me to say because, and I quote: “You don't have to do much to get a language.” Now, I’ve heard this myth over the years and actually two times in two weeks so I decided to finally debunk this increasingly widespread myth. At first it seemed cute for people to think that I had some sort of supernatural powers or abilities to learn languages. Then, gradually I realized that people like to put someone on a pedestal because they know there’s only room for one up there and once they place you safely on it, it means they don’t have to climb up to reach their own potential.
She then proceeded to tell me: “No excuse Dele. Honestly. Just trying to get u to realize that it does come easier to you than the average person.”
I then told her that “Anything a person knows is important, they'll learn and remember.” I don’t have any special powers or abilities beyond the average person; I just know it's important to learn our languages: Afrikan languages. I told her that I understand she thinks it comes easy for me, but that's a misconception. That she has no idea the effort I put in to learning Twi. That people who train for the Olympics put in less effort than I put in to learning Twi.
She then said: “But your effort yields results.”
Obviously due to some type of special ability right? Wrong. Unless someone has a physiological problem that prevents them from remembering ANYTHING, they have the ability to learn and remember anything they’ve learned in an Afrikan language. I told her “It's cute for people to think that I have supernatural language learning powers but it's not true.”
Just to test I decided to do a quick learning checklist to see if it really “just came easier” for me or if her efforts were similar to my own. I asked her
1. Everytime you go to the bathroom, do you carry your Twi dictionary with you?
Her answer: dabi (no)
2. Every time you start your car, do you have your learning materials with you so that not a minute of the day is wasted?
Her answer: dabi (no)
3. Do you purchase, borrow, find every single text (philosophy, spirituality, culture, history, anthropology, linguistics, legal, proverbs, etc.) that has anything to do with Akan anything and copy every Twi word into a book dedicated for that purpose?
Her answer: dabi (no)
4. Do you read Akan proverb books cover to cover to get new vocabulary?
Her answer: dabi (no)
5. Do you view learning the language/culture/worldview like you have to know it thoroughly enough, not just to teach and anticipate any question that any human being could come up with about the language, but such that if you were stuck on a deserted island you could single-handedly recreate all of Akan culture yourself from the language out?
Her answer: dabi (no)
6. Do you find any and every person who speaks a lick of Twi and ask them the word for each and every thing that you can think of and take note of it.
Her answer: dabi (no)
I then told her to learn it like her life depended on it. Like if you forget this word, she’d be beheaded. Learn it like she’s learning to be able to teach native speakers. This is a whole different level of seriousness to bring to language learning which will yield entirely different results.
I asked her these questions based on just a few of the things that I did in my learning process and to illustrate the massive aspirations and effort I brought to learning.
I’m reminded of a lecture by Dr. Amos Wilson, an expert on the psychological development of the Afrikan child where he said a white child and an Afrikan child sitting in the same classroom, getting the same information can get entirely different results based solely on their learning goals and aspirations. The white child will be learning for the purpose of running the company, state, nation and/or world, while the Black child may be learning to get a job working for the white one’s company. Thus, even if they both get “A”s, they’ve gone in with different perspectives and will come out with vastly different results even when the information input is the same.
One’s aspirations and one’s above-and-beyond-efforts. These are the keys, not only to language learning, but to being successful at anything.
I’ve found that a large majority of the hundreds of students I’ve taught over the years from the university level down have issues coming into class that hinder them before the first class has even started. One significant issue is having low learning goals. These students do not come in with the idea that they have to learn the language to the point of teaching native speakers or to recreate the entire culture from scratch on a desert island. Now not everyone has to have such things as their goal, but imagine if that is your goal and you get to, say 80%, of your goal, that’s pretty significant. On the other hand, if your goal is to get a few greetings and a few sentences and you get to 80% of that, well, from the outset, your goals have determined what you’ll be satisfied with and what you’ll be willing to do to make it happen.
Another major issue is that of the “osmosis” student. A large number of these are the same who hold the misconception that I didn’t have to do much to get the language. Such students seem to have the idea that if they pay for the class, despite not attending classes or doing the homework, much less doing these things that I mentioned above outside of class, that they’ll somehow magically pick up the language. Like their Ancestors will somehow wave the good fairy’s magic wand and at the end of the class, they’ll be fluent. I’m reminded of the Yorùbá proverb: “O l’ọ́gbọ́n, o ò jìyà; ta ní olùkọ́ rẹ?” – I’ll provide a figurative translation: You have wisdom but you haven’t suffered to get it; who the heck is your teacher then? It would be bordering on unjust if things really worked like that.
When I teach, the first thing I tell people is to do their homework because what they do outside of class is just as, if not more important than what they do in class.
The sister I was speaking with then opened up about what intimidates her about learning the language on her own.
She said: “Sometimes I'm using words from them dictionaries to speak to you and you're like ‘huh?’ and I’m thinking OK if I can't even find a simple word in a dictionary to say what I want to say there's no way I can learn this language without someone teaching everything I learn.”
This brings up two issues. One of fear of correction the other of memory.
I then told her “then you have to get corrected and remember that lesson ‘til your dying day.”
I’m reminded of what my Kikongo teacher told me on the subject saying that you have to be willing to “butcher the language.” That’s for the fear part and it can only be addressed by making a choice: that of functional humility. Even if it’s a child a quarter of your age, you take the correction and add it to your store of things you won’t forget.
For the memory part, let’s look at what people do remember. Where they live currently? Usually they’ll remember that. To look both ways when crossing the street? Typically. What do people not remember? The name of the kid who sat in the second to last row in your 3rd grade and the color book bag he/she had? I wouldn’t think so. Where you bought your fifth red toothbrush and the price? I wouldn’t think so.
What am I getting at? As information comes in, a person consciously and subconsciously will label that information on a continuum of importance as something to keep for a lifetime, for a little while or not at all. Now back to language learning: how can someone mark something as important? Well, I bet if you told yourself “If I don’t remember this word/phrase/sentence, I won’t eat for three days” and stuck to it, that would put it higher on the scale of importance consciously and subconsciously. The example may seem a bit extreme, but you get my point.
I’ve found that when a person stops giving themselves excuses for failure, that’s when they start to succeed.
I then told her a secret: “Language isn't only talking to other people. When I started, speaking to others was my lowest priority. My top priority was thinking in the language. Like deciding I'd never ever press the buttons on a telephone without thinking the numbers in Twi. Or I'd never count money without counting the numbers in Twi. Or if i was thinking in Twi and I hit a dead end, I'd stop thinking until i got out my dictionaries or found someone to ask and got the word.”
Now, this may seem extreme to some too, but sometimes if you want to see what you’ve never seen before (results), you must do what you’ve never done before.
Now for things like thinking in the language, no one will pat you on the back for that type of thing. No one may ever even know. But when you're serious, you don't need that...you take decisive action to go above and beyond what anyone would even dream of doing to learn the language
I then told her it's not just language books; you make any book that has any Twi word in it period a language book. Books like Akan philosophy, Akan perpetual calendar, Akan history, and Akan spirituality. Every book about Twi anything is your language book, you extract out the Twi.
When you're serious, you'll find a way to get it done, even if it's transcribing the entire dictionary word for word. Personally, I used to and still do read my dictionaries for fun. I heard Marcus Garvey used to do the same thing for english.
Personally, I took an even stronger position once I started learning Yorùbá: that I would refuse to learn anything about topics I was interested in such as Yorùbá spirituality, culture, history, etc. unless I learned it IN YORÙBÁ. These are things in the way of motivation and aspirational goals that put learning, consciously and subconsciously, higher up on the scale of what to remember for life. There are all kinds of things that you can tell yourself to keep your brain from subconsciously miscategorizing what you learn as short-term info to be discarded. A lot of that has to do with what you do and are willing to tell yourself and hold yourself to consciously.
I told her that for me, it was scouring every single resource and spending every second, making sure that I wasn't being idle when I could be learning some Twi. That others think that i have some magical ability, but that's crap...if you knew what I put into learning Twi, you'll go dig some gold to smelt me a gold medal.
Now you may not know whether you’re serious or not about learning a language. I’ll be sure to tell you. As a matter of fact, if you’re reading this article and you want to know if your efforts are serious or not, you can email me at email@example.com and I’ll let you know. To self-evaluate, I’ll just say this, if you can remember ANYTHING (like you don’t have brain damage) and you can’t remember what you’re learning in the language, trust me, you’re not nearly serious enough, either consciously or subconsciously.
I told her that some folks think that if they pay for the class they'll magically get it by osmosis but it doesn't work like that...I've even advised students to start study groups with their fellow students...I rarely to never get taken up on that suggestion. Now, with the advent of the internet there are vastly more resources to learn than when I first started in 1998. On AbibitumiKasa.com alone, there are hundreds of free resources for various Afrikan languages. If i had a resource like this back at that time, with my level of motivation, I'd be fluent in 4 weeks...forget conversational. Then on top of that, other people from around the world who were interested...when i was doing it, it was just me in the entire world that I knew about who was serious about learning Twi to the level that I was trying to take it. These are goals that many who have the language as their mother tongue don’t aspire to; and oftentimes it shows.
So what do I want my current, former and future students to get out of this article? Well, first, I want them to stop thinking that I’m magic or have special abilities that they don’t have. However cute it is to get props, I know that this type of thinking will just lead to frustration when the student’s “magic language-learning button” doesn’t light up and it just becomes easy for them like it supposedly was for me. The mythical version of me with the super language learning abilities has never learned a language and I doubt he ever will. For the regular hard working version of me that has learned several languages to a high level, well, all I have are extra-special aspirations and extra-special efforts.
So remember these two points: one’s above-and-beyond aspirations and one’s above-and-beyond efforts: These are the keys not only to language learning but to being successful at anything. Just try it. You’ll like it!
Abibitumi Kasa Afrikan Language Institute Founder and Lead Administrator
Saturday, September 24, 2011