I have every reason in the world to learn Swahili. It’s one of the mother tongues of my husband’s (though Kikuyu is his real mother tongue, as he will tell you). It’s one of the official languages of the country, I call home. And a few years ago, a new compelling reason came along: our first-born child. We’re raising both of our kids to be bilingual, following the OPOL (One Parent One Language) approach.
I speak to the kids in English, while my husband speaks to them in Swahili. Our youngest daughter is just starting to use her first words – a smattering from both languages. Our eldest daughter is now 4 years old, and while she favors English when speaking, she understands nearly everything that she hears in Swahili.
It was difficult at first for my husband to speak Swahili with our newborn daughter. It didn’t feel natural to him, since our shared language has always been English. He had to constantly remind himself, and would often stop mid-sentence to repeat what he had said in Swahili. He told me that he didn’t want to say things to the kids that I couldn’t understand. But having my husband speak to our children in Swahili was probably the best thing for my own budding ability.
I have found that by listening to my husband speak simple Swahili to the children, I have begun to learn the language the way native-speaking children learn it: starting with the basics, slowly building with grammar and vocabulary. I may not be able to contribute to a political discussion around the dinner table with the extended family, but learning the language with my children has certainly increased my understanding of what’s being said around me, on the whole.
Listening to my husband read Swahili bedtime stories aloud to the kids has also helped my own language skills.
I find that random lines from the stories will start to swirl around in my head, subconsciously. There is something useful in listening to the same strings of words over and over, committing them to memory, even if by accident.
While nearly everyone we meet in Nairobi speaks English, learning Swahili with my kids has definitely helped me to communicate better with the people in our community that we see every day. Simple words like where (wapi), how many (ngapi), up (juu), and down (chini) actually come in quite handy when speaking to the staff at the greengrocer or to the attendant in a crowded parking lot. Furthermore, people are delighted when they see that I’m making an effort, and even more delighted when they see the children speaking in the local language.
It is so important to us that our children grow up speaking and understanding both of our mother tongues. And if I’m able to improve my rusty Swahili skills along the way, all the better!
Are your kids growing up in a multilingual household? Have you ever learned a new language with your children?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Tara Wambugu, our new contributor from Kenya.