Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Did you know our son speaks Kiswahili? Does he?

Colin and I have long been shamelessly and obnoxiously boasting about our son Caleb's ability to speak Kiswahili.  Really to anyone who would listen.

"Oh, I hear you guys live in Kenya."
"Yes, and Caleb speaks Kiswahili."

"Oh, what's it like in Kenya?"
"We love it.  And Caleb speaks Kiswahili."

"Can I start you folks off with something to drink?"
"Just water, but did you know that our son speaks Kiswahili?"

Partly we're proud because he's learned it so effortlessly even as we struggle to speak it ourselves. He picked it up in a matter of weeks simply playing with his Kenyan playmates in Busia, a small Kenyan border town. His spongy toddler brain simply absorbed the language. He didn't even drill verb tenses or use flashcards, the little scamp.

Partly it's because his fluency made us feel so much more part of the country.  As expats, you are always somewhat on the periphery.  But we came to Kenya to learn about and feel part of another culture.  We're clumsy at it most of the time, but committed to avoiding being trapped in the expat bubble. Caleb's fluency in Kiswahili is a reminder and symbol of that.

Partly, let's be honest, it's because of the "cool factor."  We can all agree that, in certain circles, there's a cache around bilingual children, and especially when it's a lesser known language or one that you are simply not expecting the child to speak - like my friend's little blond children who speak fluent Mandarin. So, it became something of a parlor trick that Caleb spoke Swahili, and it ingratiated us to Kenyans who found it equally unexpected or simply hilarious.

Notice I said "spoke" - as in the past tense.

Well, apparently just as quickly as children pick up languages, they forget them.  And 2 months in the US without being surrounded by Kiswahili has completely wiped his knowledge in as stunning a fashion as he once learned it.

When I try out some phrases I'm met with blank stares.  The other day over dinner, in an effort to refamiliarize him, I said, "Caleb, chakula ni tamu?" (Caleb, is the food sweet? Kenyans say "sweet" the way we say "good" in reference to food.)

He simply stared at me. Blinked his eyes a few times.  Colin and I exchanged glances.  How was this possible!?!?

Then.... glimmer of recognition passed over Caleb's face. He seemed to be getting it. So, he said in response: "Chapula be kaka" and then burst out laughing.  "Chapula be kaka" means.... NOTHING.  It's gibberish.  You see, my Kiswahili was so unrecognizable he thought we were playing a game of "let's speak nonsense and then giggle."

But that was a few days ago.  He's slowly starting to remember as he interacts with more Kenyans.  He still doesn't respond in Swahili and apparently some of it still sounds like gibberish to him, but when I ask him to do something in Swahili, he'll follow the instruction.  Without thinking Caleb will put his shoes in the corner when I ask him to "weka viatu kwa corner."

Still, I fear that the Swahili fluency might be a thing of the past.  Now that we are in a larger city, there are more English speaking playmates (both Kenyan and expats) and even the Kenayan school he attends - he's the only non-Kenyan - have lessons taught in English.  So, his accented and fluent Swahili just might might be history along with our insufferable bragging rights.


  1. The whole beginning of this made me crack up! Because he spoke swahili!

    Wish I could pick up that darn Spanish the way Caleb did swahili! It's so much easier when you're a child. I still give you bragging rights!

    1. Thanks Gina! I wish I could pick up ANY language with the ease of a 3 year old. Though I kind of feel a little superior now since I actually remember it. It's cool though, he still has time to pick up several more languages before his mind slows to my pace. ; )

  2. This is fascinating. My youngest is about to switch from an English-language preschool to a full Chinese one, and I'm excited by how quickly her Cantonese will pick up. But even without that, I too am stunned by how quickly they are integrating Chinese phrases into our English life. Both of them will say "mo ah" instead of "no" in response to questions now, or just chuck in other random words or affectations. I mean just within our own family, not among neighbours or Chinese-speaking friends. I had started to wonder how long this stuff will stick when we eventually leave Asia. Let's make our kids a social experiment ;) I'm sure Caleb picked up Swahili again in about two days, right? Jambu! (About the only thing I remember from my THREE MONTHS in Kenya/Tanzania when I was 19).

  3. Ah, I love your honesty about how it really is "cool" these days to have a bilingual child - esp if that language is a less common one like Kiswahili! You'll have to keep us posted on how his language use continues to develop!

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