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.
So why am I doing this? I have three main motives to learn Samburu:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)!