Don't hit the whisky when your language learning turns to comedy. Picture from

Married and Drunk : Comedy Moments in Language Learning

Comedy moments in language learning are pretty much inevitable.

But they make learning fun, too. Unintentional double entrendre, accidential Freudian slips and downright nonsensical gibberish are some of my favourite things about language learning. For one thing, the salience of humour means that you never forget the vocabulary associated with these most unfortunate incidents.

Comedy Cornucopia

Lucky, then, that language provides an endless cornucopia of them. And sometimes it can be the strangest pairs of words that bear an uncanny, confusing resemblance to each other despite being poles apart semantically. A recent favourite duo is ua and -ua in Swahili – flower and kill, oddly enough.

And the language keeps on giving.

Just look at this trio from my recent lessons:

-olewa to marry (a man)
-lewa to be drunk
-elewa to understand

Surely this is a joke Swahili is playing on language learners. Just imagine the comedy misunderstandings! For instance, there is a tiny difference between:

  • ameolewa – s/he is  married
  • amelewa – s/he is  drunk


  • ninaelewa – I understand
  • ninaolewa – I am getting married

That’s just asking for trouble (or laughs).

Keep It Together!

So how can we keep this sparring vocab items separate? As I’ve found with some dangerously close Greek words lately, sometimes it’s better not to. That is, to learn then in close proximity, embedded in a phrase or short story, so that they remain distinct in meaning.

For instance:

Amelewa kwa sababu ameolewa! S/he is drunk because s/he is married!
Nimelewa, lakini ninaelewa! I am drunk, but I understand!
Anaelewa, anaolewa? Does s/he understand s/he’s getting married?

These are pretty fun to learn. They’re less abstract – you can picture a silly story behind them. You can also practise them almost theatrically, reading them out with feeling. And hopefully, by doing so, you’re moving the comedy from your real-life interactions to humorous tableaux in your learning material. Phew.

It’s so much more effective that learning them as single, abstract and separate items on empty-looking vocab cards.

Shrinking violet? You are not alone as a shy linguist! Image of flowers from

He Killed Them with Flowers : Remembering Vocabulary Oddly

If you’ve been following my language learning journey, you’ll know what a keen mnemonic hunter I am. I experiment with all sorts of tricks for making vocab stick, all of it involving spotting patterns and making connections between words. Some of my favourite techniques include linkword, humour and rhyme.  In essence, anything that makes a word or phrase salient – giving it the weight to stand out – is a great memory device.

Death By Flowers

I was lucky this week then, as a pair of Swahili oddities fell into my lap. It’s an unusual correspondence between two quite different words:

  • ua (flower)
  • -ua (to kill)

First of all, it got me wondering whether they were actually from the same root, but through some twisted process of meaning change, they diverged. Maybe the original sense was ‘bloom’ and ‘kill’ was some metaphoric extension meaning “cause blood to ‘bloom’ (burst forth) from the body”.

I know, I know – what a weird imagination I have. That said, the idea can’t be that weird, as the Proto-Germanic for bleed is sometimes conjectured as arising through that very same metaphor.

Digging Up The Roots

But alas, in Swahili it was too fanciful by far. As it turns out, ua and -ua come from quite separate roots in Proto-Bantu:

Clearly a lot has happened to grind those words down to the same form over the centuries. But that leaves us with a correspondence that can help us tie the two together, and ultimately recall them perfectly. For my own mental image, I’ve constructed the phrase ‘aliwaua na maua‘ (he killed them with flowers), which neatly fulfils the bizarreness criteria for salient vocab memories. Oh – and it rhymes, too! I won’t forget either of those words in a hurry now.

The moral of the tale? Look out for oddities and weird coincidences in your target languages. They’re a gift for making lasting vocab memories.

Multiple clocks - and multiple ways of telling the time - require maths. Picture by Odan Jaeger,

Time for Some Maths : When Language Learning Gets Numerical

Swahili has been occupying my mind a lot recently, and for good reason – I’m waist-deep in a postgrad beginners’ module on the language (and thoroughly enjoying it). But just when I thought studying something outside my language comfort zone couldn’t get any more eye-opening, this week through a whole lot of maths into the mix.

This time, well, it is time. Telling the time, to be exact, which – as it turns out – works a bit differently from what we might be used to in European languages. It requires a whole rethink in how we imagine the day.

Something Sunny Going On

Naturally, the sun has always played a huge part in how humans divide up time in thought and language. Europeans organise their time based on the two opposing highs and lows of the celestial body: noon and midnight. Consequently, most European languages count the number of hours from each of these points: one hour after midnight is one o’ clock, and so on.

But how the sun behaves differs from place to place. And being a language of equatorial regions, Swahili time revolves around the regularity of two different solar events: sunrise and sunset. Each of those events triggers a clock reset to the zero hour. So, lined up against the European system, this means that Swahili counts time with six hours difference. Six o’ clock in English is twelve o’ clock (saa kumi na mbili) in Swahili. Seven o’ clock is one o’ clock (saa moja), and so on.

Maths Tricks

Predictably, it did lead to some head-scratching in class. Thankfully, there are tricks, but even these require a bit of initially taxing two-dimensional mental transformation. Namely, to convert the time from English, you have to imagine the hour hand on a round clock, then say the number that is opposite. It works a treat, but it doesn’t come instantly at first!

Somehow, though, it all falls together in the end. It does feel a little counterintuitive to the European brain to talk about getting up at one in the morning, and having breakfast at two. That said, it ended up being a lot of fun performing those mathematic gymnastics in class.

Playing With Numbers

Of course, Swahili isn’t the only language to inflict mathematical problems on its learners. English learners of German, for instance, must quickly get to grips with saying half to the next hour rather than half past the current one. And there is more characteristically European mathematical trickery lying in wait for learners of several languages. It all has to do with the number twenty…

Vigesimal counting systems, using twenty as a base, have left a lasting mark on Indo-European counting. It’s one that insists on hanging around, too. For instance, despite the introduction of a decimal system in Scottish Gaelic, counting in twenties is still common amongst older speakers. Anyone who has tackled French May shudder at the slightly boggling number system from 70 upwards (that is, if you aren’t lucky enough to be learning Belgian or Swiss French!). And Danish numbers fossilise a notoriously quirky counting system including, amongst other things, multiple of 2½.

Swahili time suddenly feels comfortingly straightforward.

But who is really complaining, anyway? Half of the fun of language learning is the mental challenge. And whether letters or numbers, it’s all great brain gym!

Northern Rift Valley, Tanzania. Swahili is one of Tanzania's national languages. Picture by Barbara Schneider of

Swahili Safari: First Steps on a Brand New Language Journey

I’ve been saying for a while that it’s high time I diversified my language outlook. And as of on cue, the chance fell into my lap this month. My MSc Linguistics programme includes a 20-credit introductory Swahili module. Asante!

Swahili makes a lot of sense to me as a credit option. For a start, Bantu languages seem to pop up with regular frequency as examples in the phonology literature. They seem interesting to linguists because they are different, and relatively less well-covered than the ‘mainstream’ bunch of tongues studied in schools, colleges and universities. They offer a chance to observe phonological processes at work in a fresh (to us) environment, without the bias of the all-too familiar.

But there’s also the reason why those language are unfamiliar in the first place: the relative invisibility of African languages in Western educational settings. My instincts draw me to Indo-European studies because they are familiar, comfortable, safe. The reason? The choice to study an African language was never part of the traditional offering. At secondary school, it was either French or German; even Spanish was a stretch. And just try finding resources on Swahili, Yoruba or Xhosa at a bookshop in 1993! As a result, I spent my formative language learning years blind to a huge swathe of the world’s languages.

Here was an opportunity to do something about that.

Defamiliarising the Familiar

Admittedly, the cultural barrier has never been entirely watertight. Western bias aside, some elements of Swahili have managed to slip into the international repertoire. In fact, many English speakers will have come across a little of the language already without realising it.

The word safari, for example, found its way into English via Swahili (although there, its meaning is journey, and it was an Arabic loan before that). What’s more, Disney’s The Lion King popularised phrases like hakuna matata (no worries) and even words like simba (lion) through character names. Through popular culture, you may have come across the greeting jambo, too.

But jambo nicely illustrates how imperfect that cultural cross-pollination can be. It turns out that jambo is not found on its own colloquially. Instead, it is just a simplification to teach the tourists. Meaning literally matter or affair, it is usually incorporated into phrases like hujambo (roughly ‘don’t you have anything?‘) and the reply sijambo (‘I don’t have anything‘) in everyday use.

But to my ear, that simplification says a lot; it says that even native speakers assume that visitors won’t want to spend time and effort on the language. It’s an assumption of disinterest, one backed up by reality. This tourist is that half-interested outsider, rooted in the comfortable elsewhere, here for the show but unwilling to engage too closely.

Lesson one: try not to sound like a tourist.

Thinking Differently

Meeting the intricacy of the language head-on is an excellent way to do that. And as you delve deeper, one of the most rewarding aspects of stepping away from the familiar is the discovery of other ways that human beings do language.

In many Indo-European languages, for example, we are used to noun classification by gender: masculine, feminine and (sometimes) neuter. Swahili has classes and corresponding agreement too – just not along gender lines. Instead, there are nine noun groups (eighteen if you count singular-plural separately) that are roughly organised by meaning, and have characteristic prefixes. They come in singular-plural pairs, such as the first one, m-/wa-, which tends to group together ‘people’ nouns. For instance, we have:

mtu person watu people
mtoto child watoto children
mkenya Kenyan person wakenya Kenyan people

Then there is the m-/mi- class, which groups inanimate objects (but also plants, groups of people and animals, as well as body parts):

mti tree miti trees
mguu leg/foot miguu legs/feet

With their rough division based on objective traits, they remind me a little of Chinese quantifying words, which sort objects along similar lines (long things, things that come in pairs, collectible things and so on).

But more than anything, the prefix system turns what we might think from a purely Indo-European bubble on its head: nouns being marked for meaning by changing at the beginning, rather than the end.

Learn Your Verb… Beginnings?

It turns out that Swahili likes this front-loading pattern. We see it in verbs, too, which speakers conjugate through tightly ordered prefixes on word-final stems. Take the verb ‘see‘ in English, for example, which has the stem -ona in Swahili. Here are a few finite forms from that stem:

niliona ni li ona
I saw I past tense marker verb stem
ninaona ni na ona
I see I present tense marker verb stem
nitaona ni ta ona
I will see I future tense marker verb stem

There is even a further slot (just after the tense marker) that can agree with the verb’s object. Being so used to endings, learning to think the other way round is quite refreshing.

And geekily, linguistically thrilling!

Swahili Safari

So there it is: the beginning of my Swahili safari. Just a week of the language has begun to fill in the gaps in a knowledge I only now realise was so incomplete, so localised. Already, it is lending a bit of colour to my first steps in formal phonology and morphology. And maybe, these first observations of an excited (and easily excitable) budding linguist are enough to tempt you to step into the unfamiliar, too.

Or even tempt others – in these days of flipped classrooms and independent learning, perhaps we can focus on teaching kids generalised language learning skills, then give them that truly open choice we missed out on ourselves.

It doesn’t have to be Swahili, of course. It is enough to have the choice of all available paths on our journey.

Just enjoy the safari!