Banter with Bantu roots

Colloquial Swahili
November 28, 2003

An English speaker who sets out to learn Swahili faces several challenges beyond those for students of most European languages. The grammatical structure of Swahili is quite different from the structures found in Europe. Swahili words are largely derived from Africa's Bantu roots, with many additional words having entered through a long history of Indian Ocean commercial and intellectual trade with Arabic speakers, so students have few familiar cognates to fall back on when learning vocabulary. In addition, although Swahili is taught at more than 100 universities around the world, formal classes are not within easy reach for most people. Finally, few textbooks are readily available to guide the learner towards proficiency.

Donovan McGrath and Lutz Marten have produced Colloquial Swahili , a written and audio course that promises to teach Swahili with a 300-page text and two hours of audio accompaniment. The course belongs to a Routledge Colloquial series for languages from Breton to Mongolian, and benefits from Routledge's clear template approach to organising chapters into dialogues, vocabulary, language points, use, structure, exercises and readings. At the same time, this approach constrains the authors to a scant 230 pages of dense grammar (with the remaining pages given over to an exercise key, thin glossaries and a too-brief index), which results in a race through Swahili instruction at top speed.

A beginner who reads the book once and completes the exercises will have an appreciation of how the language works and some ability to tease apart written and spoken Swahili, but will likely remain largely inarticulate and unable to follow most of the audio material. That a first read of Colloquial Swahili will not satisfy the publisher's marketing claims is only to be expected. More relevant is how well a student is able to speak, read and write Swahili after serious interaction with the course. On that score, McGrath and Marten make a useful, though imperfect, contribution to available learning materials.

The course provides a thorough explication of the most complicated aspects of Swahili grammar. Whereas European languages often slot nouns into two or three categories (male, female and, sometimes, neuter), Swahili nouns each belong to one of up to 16 noun classes. Each noun in a sentence triggers a specific series of concords among its associated verbs and adjectives. For example, mtu mkubwa anaanguka (a big person falls) differs from miti mikubwa inaanguka (big trees fall) because, with mtu (person) and miti (trees) belonging to different noun classes, the concords for kubwa (big) and anguka (fall) must change in tandem. Similarly, verbs undergo a host of systematic changes depending not only on a sentence's subject and objects, but also the tense, degree of likelihood and factors such as whether the action is positive or negative, passive, or caused to happen. Small syllables at the beginning, middle and end of a verb signal important subtleties. For example, atakaposomeshwa (when she will be educated) and hawakisomi (they do not read it), which both derive from the verb soma (read), are the sort of conjugated verbs that one could expect to arise in the course of ordinary Swahili communication.

For a learner to figure out the verb and associated grammatical elements within a sentence requires substantial development of an underlying sense of how Swahili fits together. Colloquial Swahili offers a comprehensive treatment of the major grammatical elements, enabling a diligent reader to gain an impressive intellectual understanding of how the language works.

The course could be strengthened by offering more opportunities to use and think in Swahili. The exercises are generally useful to help understand concepts but inadequate to support mastery. This weakness seems partly related to the authors' efforts to fit within the typical Routledge page limit, with many complicated new forms treated in just a few sample sentences. Some of the exercises are curiously designed, such as one that asks readers to "say which sentence is active, passive, or neutro-passive". Such drills do little to foster Swahili communication skills. The text is heavily rooted in English, calling for one-to-one translations rather than putting Swahili at the forefront.

While Colloquial Swahili has its limitations, the course would be good preparation or accompaniment for formal study, and will offer the beginner a solid conceptual basis for understanding the language.

Martin Benjamin is visiting assistant professor of anthropology and Swahili, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, US.

Colloquial Swahili: The Complete Course for Beginners. First edition

Author - Donovan McGrath and Lutz Marten
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 297
Price - £.99
ISBN - 0 415 22163 3

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