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Midwestern Mzungu

Posted By IRC, Monday, April 16, 2018
Updated: Friday, April 13, 2018
Many people acknowledge and understand the utility of learning international languages as vehicles for deeper engagement with the world. That is, by speaking another language, you can connect more thoroughly and authentically with your international neighbors, at home and abroad.

Despite this acknowledgment, relatively few have considered how language acquisition can shape one's understanding of the world on a theoretical level. Being able to speak with a wider variety of people certainly has its perks, but there are benefits to learning a new language beyond simply communicating.

As a Hispanic woman living in Kansas City, the instances in which my five years studying Swahili become necessary are few and far between. Sure, I occasionally get the chance to surprise others - whose conversations I have shamelessly eavesdropped on - that a Midwestern "mzungu" (white person) speaks their primary language, but my day-to-day life does not necessitate the use of Swahili for communication.

Yet, despite the significant amount of time and resources that went into learning a new language, I will never regret learning Swahili. Regardless of how often it is used, when one learns a new language, their very understanding of the world and how they process information about it is shaped.

When I first began learning Swahili, I couldn't wrap my head around the lack of distinction between male and female pronouns. Everyone was just "yeye," and generally speaking there was no need to point out one's sex. Every time someone would speak to me in Swahili about the ambiguous "yeye," I felt a palpable anxiety about not knowing if it was a she or a he.

Similarly, I was distressed by the many fewer words that Swahili contained compared to English, and the implications that would have for how one needed to embrace ambiguity on a sometimes sentence-to-sentence basis. How could "kucheza" really mean both "to dance" and "to play"? What if someone was playing but not through dance? And how could "kusoma" mean "to read" and "to study," when not all studying involves reading?

For someone who has a not-quite-healthy obsession with clarity and feeling in control of situations, learning Swahili was downright therapeutic. Over time, I learned to reshape my expectations of the way language "should be" to a more open acceptance of the way things were. Now when I hear Swahili spoken, I rarely stop to wonder which English word relates most directly to the intended meaning of a sentence. I just listen and understand, while maintaining an openness to whatever comes my way.

Anyone who knows me knows that my thirst for precision and my discomfort with ambiguity still exist in my life in general, but I have come a long way in broadening my understanding of the world, and my therapy bills have only decreased over time. Whenever I feel anxiety now, I have to stop and wonder, maybe it's time to learn a new language?

April Diaz is the program coordinator at the International Relations Council.

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