Day 18 of learning with Glossika

I have now come to day 18 of the Glossika GSR sentences. That means I have now learnt 180 sentences in Samburu!

It’s quite exciting, but things are starting to get tougher. A couple of example from recent sentences:

We’re here on vacation. We’re staying at a hotel on the beach. Ikietuo aeng’eng’a tene nikibikito te oteli nanyikita nkare.

They’re building a new hotel downtown. Kechetita oteli ng’ejuk te nkiji e lkerenket

We’re having dinner now. Can I call you later? Ikinyaita ndaa e teipa. Kaaidim aipoto tankae?

Yes, some things I will never really say in Samburu, although I sure wish I could stay at a hotel on the beach when I visit Log-Logo!

But I start to get a feel for the language now. I don’t really know the grammatical terms for all that I’ve learnt, but pronouns, verb conjugations, and recently continuous tense (I am reading. It’s not raining etc.) and even relative constructions with two verbs such as “is swimming” are some of the stuff I already begin to get a hang of!

Introduction course

The sentences of the Glossika Fluency modules are at the B1 and B2 levels (of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). That means that some basic knowledge of the language is required to follow along more easily.

I do  have Stephen Wagner’s Samburu lessons and grammar as a reference. That helps me understand more of how the sentences are built.

And I do miss some basic concepts, such as greetings and some other basics of the language. Much of it comes embedded in the sentences of the Fluency modules though. But an introduction course would help, not only for me, to get a better base of Samburu to build on.

Daily life

The other thing missing from Glossika, as I’ve mentioned before, are sentences and situations more specific to the Samburu culture. That is quite obvious, since Glossika is using the same sentences for all languages (which for example means that I can use Swedish as the source language when I learn Samburu).

In the Learning Samburu Facebook group we have started to discuss some of these Samburu-specific concepts. But to create something that other learners of Samburu can also benefit from, I think we need a more structured approach with time. Perhaps a Glossika Daily Life module for Samburu? Because I do like learning in chunks with sentences, rather than learning vocabulary that I can’t really use.

Anyway, I still feel very inspired, even with only 30 minutes a day or so of studying. It’s really exciting to know that I actually do have a great opportunity to learn Samburu, a language that I never really thought I would learn. Since I have many personal motives to learn the language, I look forward to when I reach day 100 and beyond!

Finally the tools are in place to start learning Samburu

I’m finally starting to actually learn now! With a language with no off-the-shelf courses to start learning from, resources have to be collected, adapted and created.

The main development has been with the Glossika course (check out their new website!). Although it has its disadvantages when it comes to adaptation to the socio-cultural environment of a language, the method is a great way to learn the syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary in context, as well as learning grammar without having to learn grammar. However, I’m hoping we will be able to adapt some sentences to better fit with what is actually used in a Samburu-speaking environment.

Speeding up sentence translation

With help from people in the Learning Samburu Facebook group, 163 sentences have been translated. But that’s a slow progress when considering that the three levels of fluency that the course consists of, includes 3,000 sentences altogether. I was therefore very happy when one of the guys from the Learning Samburu group, who is also helping out with the Samburu dictionary, now has offered – at a reasonable fee – to translate directly in the spreadsheet.

Access to computer and decent mobile network are otherwise the two main obstacles for being able to contribute more substantially, even for people with both the will and good skills in the Samburu language. Rather than me posting sentences, more or less accurate in a Samburu context, for translation, I’m hoping that the Learning Samburu Facebook group now instead will be a forum for discussing the language and particularly the socio-cultural aspects of it.

Recording audio

The second thing that has held me back from actively studying more seriously, was access to audio recordings of the translated sentences. My wife has now recorded the first 100 sentences, and if I follow the Glossika GSR method that means 10 days worth of studying.

Making scripts to create sound files

Which leads me to the third issue, to create sound files with both the source language (I decided to use Swedish, rather than English) and the target language, to use for comprehensible input (that is, understanding the Samburu words that I hear, so they make sense). Being the geek I am, I have spent some time creating scripts to create Glossika-style GSR files, according to the same repetition pattern they use in their courses.

As I use Windows, I have created a batch script that creates a sound file (using ffmpeg) for each day, with the sentences – in Swedish (as, I have purchased the Swedish Glossika course) and Samburu – with Glossika’s particular repetition pattern. From day 5 and on, that means a sound file of about 15 minutes, repeating each sentence for a total of 18 repetitions of each sentence during five days.

But I think it’s good to introduce each new batch of sentences in a way where the Samburu version is repeated more often. Inspired by a project by Alexander Giddings, which he has posted in the Glossika discussion group on Facebook (in inspired by Olle Kjellin’s chorus pronunciation method), I have decided to make a script that creates a sound file with the 10 new sentences for each day, first in Swedish and then six times in Samburu. When playing that, I can also slow down the speed (I’m using the app Audipo:Audio Speed Changer for Android), in order for me to fully comprehend what is being said to be able to repeat.

I also use the DropSync app to sync the Dropbox folder where I put the GSR and Intro sound files for each day, with my Android phone.

How will I use this? I will first listen to the 10 new sentences for the day with the “Giddings pattern”. Then I will listen to the day’s SRS sentences. If I get more time, I will do the same for another 10 sentences, for a total of 20 new sentences that day.

Anki flashcards – and what about the Fluent Forever 625 basic words list?

I have previously mentioned that I created picture flashcards for the Anki SRS (Spaced Repetition System). I have created a couple of hundred cards with pictures from Google Images, and begun learning them. But I have realized that vocabulary is very tough to learn without a context, particularly for a language like Samburu, where the words in context might not necessarily be the base words I’m learning.

Therefore I have decided to put that on hold for the time being. However, as I have gone through a 5-day circle of a set of 10 sentences, I am intending to add those sentences to Anki, with Swedish audio on one side and Samburu audio on the other (plus the written Samburu on the back of any card). That way, I can continue to review those sentences, using SRS to help me review only the ones I have difficulties with more often.

I may also add vocabulary as I learn it through the sentences, as I then have a context and can also put the example sentences on the back side of the card.

Additional learning resources

Apart from the self-created Glossika course, I also have the dictionaries, lessons and grammar that Anna Dahlbacka has sent me. I find it quite useful to check particulary the lessons that Stephen Wagner has put together, to get a better grasp of the language and the way it is structured, and thus better understand the sentences. So when I get time, I spend some time looking at those, particularly to help me understand the Glossika sentences  better.

Without such material, simply the Glossika sentences by themselves would certainly need further explanation to make sense.

But now, I am finally ready to really take off!

Glossika, pronunciation practise and vocabulary flashcards

It’s really exciting to learn Samburu! Things are starting to take off, as I’m little by little combining different methods to learn. Here’s a summary of what I’m doing now.

Facebook group and Glossika course

More and more users join the Facebook group “Learning Samburu” as well as joining the conversation. Particularly Frank Lekatap Mpeyok and Stephen Lepeenoi have helped translate about 80 sentences so far for the Glossika course.

I’ve also had some conversation in the Glossika discussion Facebook group with Mike Campbell, the founder of Glossika, about the socio-cultural aspects of learning a language. It’s pretty clear that the Glossika sentences are developed for an urban environment, as terms like tennis, taxi driver and swimmers are quite foreign to the socio-cultural context of the Samburu language.

Possibly some of these sentences can be adapted, while still exemplifying the same sentence patterns. Still, I like the Glossika learning method and there’s been some very interesting discussions in the Facebook group about how to express things like age and interests.

Anna Dahlbacka is also of tremendous help and she has offered to correct spelling according to the ortography standard for writing Samburu that she’s working with, as well as back translating the translated sentences to give a better idea of how sentences are constructed in Samburu.

Pronunciation practice á la Olle Kjellin

Inspired by another thread in the Glossika discussion group, I have decided to run a 3-week project (possibly more) to really learn Samburu pronunciation. Lacking other audio recordings, I have cut out some 20 short sentences, 1.7 to 3.2 seconds each, from Bible story recordings that I received from Anna Dahlbacka. I will use Olle Kjellin’s suggestions about accent addition to repeat a new sentence 100 times every day and gradually speak along to learn the correct proncunciation and prosody. And then repeat each sentence another four times, for a total of 500 repetitions of each sentence.

After the first four days it will take about 25-30 minutes per day, which I can spread out over the course of the day when some time slots appear.

Although these recordings are good, it would probably have been even better with recordings of more “everyday” talk. But for learning pronunciation I’m sure these recordings will be just fine.

Learning vocabulary with picture flashcards

Apart from getting Glossika sentences translated and practising pronunciation with Olle Kjellin’s method, I’m also creating vocabulary flashcards according to the method that Gabriel Wyner explains in his book and website Fluent Forever.

To avoid having to translate when communicating the flashcards are created with pictures instead of the English term. The flashcards will then be learnt and reviewed with spaced repetition, using Anki. That is, words appear again just when I’m about to forget them, and those that are easier to remember are not reviewed unnecessarily.

So far I have created flashcards, with images from Google Images, for about 100 words from Gabriel Wyner’s list of 625 basic words. And I have started learning quite a few of them already. The next step is to record audio of these words, as I’d rather learn them with the correct pronunciation than what pops up in my head when I read a word.

As I go through the 625 basic words list, there are quite a few words that are not in Stephen Wagner’s Samburu-English dictionary, that Anna Dahlbacka is basing her dictionary work on. Several of these words can then possibly be added to that dictionary, even if most of them probably are loan words from Swahili or English, as they depict terms foreign to the traditional Samburu society.


Anyway, I’m excited and I’m happy that things are starting to take off, even though the mission seemed doomed by lack of access to learning resources. But starting from what IS available, little by little I can build my own way of learning, and in the process create something that can also be of use for others.

Coming up with a method to learn Samburu

The greatest challenge with learning a minority language with almost no resources is to simply find a way to study. As Donovan Nagel puts it:

Every language requires plenty of motivation to ensure success but uncommon languages require a significantly higher level of dedication.

I hope my personal motivations give me enough dedication to pursue this challenge.

How did this endeavour begin?

Although I’ve been thinking of learning Samburu for some time, it all really started when I met Olle Kjellin, the Speech Doctor, quite by coincidence, three weeks ago. He inspired me by talking about how languages are learnt and how we can learn a second language just like we learnt the first language as children. With the addition of the advantages we have as competent, experienced adults, to learn faster.

Olle Kjellin mentions five cornerstones for learning a second language, five factors that are also essential when learning the first language: hearing, prosody, statistics, categorical perception and compensatory articulation. The way to approach all these cornerstones as an adult learner of a second language:

Use the ears, practice alternatingly in chorus and individually, practice full phrases, give priority to prosody, repeat sufficiently many times for a statistical mass effect and concentrate not on canonical pronunciation but just on the heeding of the limits of permissible variation.

It’s the same kind of ideas that are proposed by most language blogs. Learn pronunciation first, practice with a Spaced Repetition System (SRS), and forget about grammar until later. And to learn to think like a native, rather than translating via another language or another perception of the world.

Browsing for resources online

After I met Olle Kjellin I went online to read whatever I could about language learning. I ordered the book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner, a great book. I contacted Glossika, on recommendation from Olle Kjellin, to create a course with their method based on sentences. And I started a Facebook group: Learning Samburu.

I also tried to find whatever I could about the Samburu language. Almost nothing is available online (and not much even offline). I knew about the Maa-English dictionary since before, and I had found some audio recordings of Bible stories. There’s more on the related Maasai language, but terribly little about Samburu…

Swedish-speaking missionaries working with the Samburu language!

Then another interesting “coincidence” happened. Two Finnish sisters e-mailed me about an article they had read in a Swedish magazine about our family. Through them I got in contact with a Swedish-speaking Finnish missionary couple in Maralal (the capital of Samburu County, Kenya), Magnus and Anna Dahlbacka.

Magnus and Anna are working with translating the Bible to Samburu, and they are developing an ortography, a writing language, for Samburu and compiling a Samburu-English dictionary. Wow!

In the last week we’ve had several great conversations on Facebook, and they have sent me some great resources about the Samburu language, such as a dictionary that Stephen Wagner put together around 1997 (which is the basis for the Samburu-English dictionary that Anna Dahlbacka is working with), a simple grammar, some lessons in Samburu, writings about the phonology and the ortography, as well as sound files, with transcripts, of Bible stories.

Magnus and Anna have been in Samburu land for 10 years. They also shared with me methods about how they learnt the language (of course by living in a context where it’s spoken). Basically, it correlates with a method developed by Greg Thomson called Growing Participator Approach (GPA).

GPA emphasizes the socio-cultural aspect of a language. A language can not be learnt in isolation from the social realities where it is used and the language is mediating that world. As we start learning, we construct stories from what’s familiar to us, our home world. As we grow as participators in the new culture we become more and more familiar with the host world as mediated by that language.

As I’m not living in a context where Samburu is spoken, using the methods suggested by the GPA approach might not be easy to translate to something I can easily use. But I will certainly look more into the ideas and methods of GPA.

What I’m doing now

Currently I’m trying to listen regularly to the sound recordings, to get a feeling for the language. Even though I’ve heard a lot of Samburu during my visits to Kenya and when my wife is speaking, but now I’m listening more focused.

Also, several people are helping out with translating Glossika’s sentences to Samburu, through the Facebook group. And I’m hoping to get my wife record the sentences, so I can actually listen to them repeatedly. That’s when I can really start pick some vocabulary.

However, if these sentences were created with a Samburu context in mind, they’d probably be quite different. There are no tennis players or taxi drivers in a semi-pastoralist culture like Samburu or Rendille. Even terms for monetary values are new and thus borrowed from Swahili. And nobody asks you how old you are or what the weather is like in Samburu…

I will soon also look into using Anki, a spaced repetition system to memorize vocabulary and sentences. But I’d then rather have sound recordings than written text in Samburu.

It is indeed not easy to learn a minority language like Samburu remotely. But I believe it is possible, at least to some extent. And of course I will be travelling to Kenya to practice and learn more several times in the future.


Introduction to why I’m learning Samburu and why I started this blog

Ok, I’m taking on quite a challenge here. I’m Swedish and I live in Sweden with my wife and our 19-month old son. And I’m trying to learn Samburu, a minority language only spoken by the semi-pastoralist communities Samburu and Rendille living in the marginalized areas of northern Kenya. It’s a largely unwritten language and almost no sources to learn from are available online.

My motivation

So why am I doing this? I have three main motives to learn Samburu:

  1. It’s the mother tongue of my wife and the language she is using with her family and friends. I’d like to, at least to a small extent, be part of those discussions and learn more about what they are talking about.
  2. I’d like to be able to speak with my wife’s family. Several of her family members don’t speak any other language than Samburu, not even Swahili, which I speak a little of. By being able to communicate directly, bonds can be tightened and new worlds open.
  3. My son will learn to speak Samburu. Actually, he will be tri-lingual, as we speak English, Swedish and Samburu at home. As he grows and learns Samburu, I’d like to be part of that part of his world too.

And while I’m at it, I’d like to share my experience with others. Hopefully it can help someone who is on the same path as me. Maybe you are learning another minority language, or maybe you are even interested in Samburu or the more widely spoken, related Maa language of Maasai. By sharing my journey, I’m hoping to inspire others as well as gather available resources for learning Samburu.

Challenges of learning Samburu from an environment where nobody speaks the language

Naturally, the best way to learn a language is by living in an environment where it is spoken. Not only to be exposed to the language, or immerse in it. But also because a language is more than just the words and how they go together. A language is a way of life and a word in one language may contain very different annotations in another language. To really understand the culture of the language, I believe an understanding of the culture is just as importand as the language itself.

But now the reality is that our family lives in Sweden and that’s the reality I have to adapt my learning to. I have, however, regularly visited the area in the last 15 years.

What then are the challenges of learning a language like Samburu under these conditions?

  1. It’s largely unwritten, and very few written resources exist. In fact, there’s not even an official standard of how to write Samburu yet, although work with this is underway (which I will write about in a later post).
  2. There’s virtually no learning material available. There’s a Maa-English dictionary (and a Samburu-English dictionary being worked on), some grammar notes from other foreigners who have tried to learn the language. And there’s translation of the Bible going on, with several books of the New Testament already translated. And some Bible stories + the Jesus film in terms of audio. But that’s about it.
  3. There are few Samburu speakers out there. It’s spoken by about 240 000 people, but I can only communicate with very few of these from Sweden. And only one IN Sweden (that  I’m aware of).
  4. Living in Sweden is a challenge in many ways, such as meeting people to speak with and growing into the culture of the language, as well as the technological divide.
  5. My wife is also learning Swedish, so time to speak Samburu is limited, as we also need to talk as much Swedish as we can.
  6. Working and having a small child makes time limited for studying a language.

With all this in mind, I’m still here and ready to share my journey with you. I’m also hoping that along the way I will meet others who will inspire me to keep up this challenge. Some I have met already, which is why I’m really excited.

This journey started about two weeks ago, with a random (?) meeting with a speech doctor. Let me share with you in upcoming posts on what I have learnt already, who has inspired me, what methods I am planning to use and how I’m hoping to get material that will aid me in studying.

For now, lesere (good bye in Samburu)!