What Should I Do to Learn Swahili (or Any Language)?

February 26, 2016

I was asked this question the other day.

"I've got an audio course that's pretty good," Ben continued, "but I don't know what I should be studying. I'm going to East Africa in a few months and would like to know some of the language."

Ben has some experience learning foreign languages in school and is concerned he won't have the discipline to study on a daily basis.

My advice was not what Ben had expected to hear. Here's what I told him.
  1. The very first thing to do is to find a native Swahili speaker online or offline and arrange for a conversation within the next couple weeks. (Ben says he knows someone personally.) There are websites now where you can find people to help you with languages on skype or other platforms. Face to face is best, and video chat is a close second.
  2. After you've set that up, spend no more than 20 hours preparing for the first conversation. Using your audio course and/or a Swahili textbook as a guide, make a cheat sheet containing the types of things you would want to say during the first few conversations. 
  3. Have that first conversation. Tell the other person in advance that you want to only speak Swahili. They shouldn't switch to English to explain vocabulary to you. Your job is to see how much you can say using your cheat sheet. Go as long as you can. When your brain is fried or you have nothing more to say, end the conversation for now or have the other person say some simple words and phrases for you to repeat after them.
  4. Schedule regular conversations after this. Keep adding on to your cheat sheet. Make corrections to it. Get a dictionary and start looking up words you hear or need repeatedly. Transition to my seven-step method for picking up vocabulary directly from real-life conversations.
50-100 hours invested this way will get you much further than if you spent the same amount of time working through books or an audio course on your own. 

Ben was excited that he wouldn't have to really on brute discipline alone to get somewhere with Swahili. What I was proposing actually sounded fun.

"Personal relationships are the strongest reliable motivator, and speaking to a real person engages the brain much more than private study," I explained.

Ben agreed heartily that this approach would be less of a drain on his willpower and mental resources than what he had expected to hear from me. His advantage is that he is "not afraid to make a fool of [himself]," so a speaking-based approach like this is right up his alley. 

All stages and methods of frictionless language learning are detailed in my books.

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(c) 2016-2017 Richard DeLong.