What’s the easiest way to learn an African language?

The honest answer is: Practice. Practice. Practice.

South Africans are surrounded by people who speak indigenous languages. We know the sound of it, but many of us wandering about this country do not actually understand any of the indigenous African languages. You would think that we would have absorbed the languages by having been exposed to them, but alas! It does require time and effort.

On a positive note, you already have some language skills by virtue of the fact that you already speak one or more languages. You understand basic concepts like what a sentence is, and that languages have rules. Now all you need to do is learn the vocabulary and rules of your new language.

Chances are that you probably already know a few words by virtue of having heard the words spoken in conversation. In addition, due to the fact that missionaries were involved in documenting some of the African languages, a few English and Afrikaans derivatives have crept into the various lexicons, so you’ll be able to spot and remember these quite easily. Here are a few Sotho and Zulu words you may already know:

Ke nako!’ – it’s time!  (from the 2010 World Cup)

Dumela’ – Hello  (Sesotho, Sepedi, Setswana)

Sawubona’ – Hello (isiZulu, Siswati)

‘Stimela’– train (isiZulu)

‘Gijima’– run (isiZulu)

‘Amandla’– power/ force (isiZulu, isiXhosa)

‘Ditaba’– news (Sepedi, Sesotho)

Ke nako

Our national anthem contains three African languages beside Afrikaans, so if you know your anthem, you’re already doing quite well. You can use it as a Rosetta Stone for basic learning.

Some of us can pick up a few words here and there, and if some English and Afrikaans words are thrown into the conversation, we think we can make out the gist of what is being said. English and Afrikaans have dominated the economic landscape in South Africa to such an extent, that it has not been necessary to learn any of the African languages.

So, how does one go about learning an African language?

Tip 1: Get comfortable with making mistakes

The only way you’re going to learn is by practicing, and the best way to learn is by making mistakes. So relax, learn to laugh at yourself and have some fun with it. It’s perfectly normal that you may not get it right all the time. You’ll be confusing words, tenses and sentence structure, but the more you practice, the better you will get.

Stay positive. Follow us on Facebookand Instagrampages for inspiration.

Tip 2: Make sure you have the right tools

The Language Collective app is great way to learn a few words every day (it’s almost ready for release!). It’s the only app that can help you learn the basic vocabulary of any of the nine local African languages.

We have enlisted the help of linguists, to ensure that the translations are correct. Native speakers provide the correct pronunciation of each word and phrase. This will also help with getting your ear tuned to listening to the language. Each lesson is designed to be short, so that you can fit it into your schedule, and if you have to end a lesson for any reason, you can always start where you ended off. All the lessons contain a few words and phrases that you can read, and listen to. You can repeat the lessons as many times as you like.

Test your vocabulary at the end of each lesson, to give you a good idea of how much you know.

We have built the app with busy people in mind, so you can access lessons on your phone, whenever and wherever you have access to a data signal.

By spending just a few minutes every day practicing, you will build up a basic vocabulary to have within 6 or 7 months.

A good dictionary will go a long way to support your language-learning journey. There are some awesome African language dictionaries on the market. You can check out a few of the dictionaries The Language Collective uses here.

Tip 3: Set some goals

Set achievable goals for yourself, and hold yourself accountable. Setting some big, hairy, audacious goals are great to get you going; just make sure that they are practical. Think about setting daily and weekly goals, and giving yourself rewards for meeting those goals. If you want to learn 5 words a day, treat yourself to something you enjoy for completing 5 days in a row.

Tip 4: Make a regular date with yourself

You don’t have to dedicate hours on end to learning every day. In fact, spending as little as 5 to 10 minutes every day for learning and revision will keep the words fresh in your mind. It is better to be consistent; spending a few minutes on learning each day, than a huge block of time in one go, only once a week. Space your learning time to allow you to revise all the words you learn every day.

Find a time that works for you, be it during your lunch hour, or before you go to sleep each night. Just setting aside ten minutes each day can help you build up a sizeable vocabulary. I prefer to get my learning done in the morning, so that I can remind myself about the words I have learnt through the day.

Schedule it and make it part of your routine. You can set daily reminders for a time that suits you to keep up your new habit.

Tip 5: Revise and practice

Learning a new language takes time. Repetition is key as you will be making new word associations, and it takes time to set new neural pathways, so that thinking and speaking in your new language will become second nature.

Putting signs up around your home and workspace to remind you what different objects are, can be helpful.

The best way to practice is by engaging with people in their home language. Make an effort to engage someone in your new language every day, and work up to having a conversation. Ask someone you enjoy talking to if they would mind helping you out with making small talk while taking a coffee break. Ask them a new question every few days, as your vocabulary expands.

Another good way to practice is to talk to yourself, to reinforce what you have learnt. Have conversations with yourself when you’re doing something e.g. when you’re tidying up, tell yourself what you’re doing. Another good way to practice is to write a journal entry in your new language everyday.

It helps to start with basic sentences such “I am eating; I am washing the dishes”, and build up from there. You may feel silly or awkward, but as your vocabulary grows, it will get easier.

Tip 6: Listen to the radio

This is a great way to get attuned to the rhythm of your chosen language, and to hear different voices. We have many African language radio stations in South Africa that you can tune into. You can also catch the news in different languages on the SABC TV channels. Spend a few minutes listening to your target language radio station each day to help improve your listening skills. Just 10 minutes a day can make a big difference over time.

Start by just listening and try to pick up words you may know. You may also want to record a short segment, and use your dictionary to try to translate it for yourself. Listen to the segment repeatedly to remind yourself of what was being said. As your vocabulary grows, so will your understanding.

It’s quite satisfying when you start recognising words, and then sentences, and it’s a good confidence boost. Click here for a list of radio stations.

Tip 7: Try a class

Taking a class can be incredibly valuable; especially to learn the rules of the language. It can also make you feel less alone on your language-learning journey. It’s also a great way to meet new people that you can practice with.

If you’re interested in trying a language class in Johannesburg, let us know and we can let you know when the next language session starts. We can also put you in touch with tutors, who are first language speakers, to help you practice.

Remember to be patient with yourself

Become comfortable with making mistakes; people will correct you; it’s the best way to learn. You will improve with practice and as your ear gets more attuned.

The bottom line is that you have to figure out what works best for you. It will require commitment, and try different methods to understand what you enjoy and what works best for your learning style and schedule. Start by dedicating a few minutes each day to learning and practicing your new language. It takes time to wrap you brain and tongue around the new sounds, but if you stay positive and keep learning, you will be rewarded with a basic understanding within a few weeks.


Language learning tips


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