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!

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.