The language of humility (16/11/11)

There’s something about learning a new language that I just do not enjoy.

It’s more than the hard work, spread amongst an already busy schedule.  It’s more than the unfortunate graduate-school-timing coincidence that I’m learning koine Greek (the Greek that much of the Bible was first written in) at the same time.  It’s deeper…I have noticed that something about learning a new language cuts across the grain of a part of my character.

We’ve been taking Kiswahili (literally, “the Swahili language” in Swahili) lessons four times per week for six months now.  Mardi practices it at work nearly every day, watching patients’ and nurses’ eyes light up when she responds to them in one of their native languages.  She’s becoming fluent very quickly, and is already talking about starting lessons in another language from a troubled country to our north.

My practice is largely limited to my lessons, as I teach at Moffat in English, and the Engineering team at the hospital communicates mostly in English and Kikuyu (the language of the Kikuyu tribe, to which most of them belong).   My lack of opportunity for vocational practice = slow progress.

So my Kiswahili is limited to what a small child might know…basic grammar and a few nouns and verbs.  I’m getting pretty good at saying “Yesterday, I went for a run slowly.  It was difficult, but I returned.  I was chased by a lion and I stopped to eat some roasted giraffe meat on the way.”  To which Edward, our language teacher, unfailingly replies with mock surprise, “Kwelli!?”  [really!?]  He’s a hoot, and our lessons together are usually 1/3 laughter, 2/3 learning.

I realised yesterday that perhaps part of the reason I am finding language learning difficult is because I’m not used to being in the position of an elementary learner.  I’m not used to feeling like a child when I speak to someone in their own language and have to constantly repeat, “tena, tafadhali?”  [again, please?]

Edward encourages us to practice Kiswahili with everyone we meet, so that “everyone may become your teacher.”  Of course, he’s right…but I realised yesterday that I have found this challenging to do, because I simply don’t like being in the position of feeling like a child.

Mardi and I had a day off yesterday, and drove to Nairobi to have a date.  Driving up the mountain to the highway, we stopped to give a lift to an elderly woman; it’s courtesy (and culturally expected) if you have room in your car to offer a lift to someone in need.  During the 10 minutes or so she was in our car, we exchanged pleasantries in Kiswahili, and discussed the weather…or at least, Mardi and she did.  I noticed that I didn’t want to say much; I knew I would have to ask her to repeat herself, and I didn’t want to feel like a child on my day off.

Speaking to someone in their own language, with grammar skills approximating that of a 3 year old, is an extraordinarily humbling experience.    It is a great leveller.  The person I am speaking with doesn’t know or care anything about my qualifications, education, or past achievements.  I sound like a child, and I feel like a child.

And this is a shock to the way I view myself, to my self-image:  I’m used to being the expert, the person someone seeks when they want an opinion from an SME, or they want a bit of coaching.  If I’m truly honest with myself, it goes deeper than what I’m used to; something in me wants to be that person, to have it all together, to be answering questions and not having to ask them.

Like so many things in life that are painful on the surface, but are deep down really, really good for our character growth and spiritual formation, it’s very humbling.

One of the very bright spots in our time here has been the friendship we are developing with Leland and Susan Albright.  Leland is famous paediatric neurosurgeon known around the world, and Susan is an excellent nurse practitioner.  They retired last year, and moved to Kijabe in their sunset years to work 12 hour days, 5-6 days per week operating on disabled and injured children.

It is an inspiration just to be around them.  They would be very embarrassed to know I wrote this, but if you want to know what seven million hits on Google looks like, enter his name.

Leland and I were talking last week about what we have learned about God and life since we moved here, and in our conversation, the Lord opened my eyes to something, which we will no doubt learn again and again in our time here:  God is every bit as interested in the people we are becoming as he is in what we are doing with Him to further His Kingdom.

I am learning that there is a deeper value to learning Kiswahili than the quantitative value of becoming more effective in my work, or being able to communicate with people on a deeper level.  There is something qualitative, a byproduct of the process which deeply affects the person I am inside:  my character.

It is humbling, and requires ongoing, daily humility and the attitude of a learner to approach people on their own terms so that you might learn from them.

As I yield to the character-shaping process of allowing everyone to be my teacher, Paul’s words to a troubled church in Greece which have provided me so much comfort in past years come to mind again:  “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Cor 4:16)

And I will continue to be chased by fictitious lions wakati ninakimbia pole pole (while I am running slowly).

– A.


Author: steeres

Share This Post On


  1. I’m not a fan of that learner feeling, either! I want to know without needing to be a beginner. It does, though, give me a deeper sensitivity to the power dynamics of (adult) education and makes me thoughtful about the ways I teach so that others are not demeaned by the experience of being a novice. There’s something intimate and productive about being in a learning environment in which teacher and pupil are engaged in a dance of understanding rather than the more familiar tug-of-war of knowledge.

  2. Elegantly described, Catherine…love that description…’dance of understanding’ vs. ‘tug-of-war of knowledge’.

Leave a Reply

Read previous post:
Caleb (11/11/11)

Caleb is nearly 4 years old. The Ear Nose and Throat Clinic has sent him to see me because, in...