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.