Swahili course teaches language, culture

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    By Summer McCann

    BYU offers many interesting classes, including everything from Campfire Leadership to Pre-legal Latin.

    Introduction to Swahili, however, proves to be one of the most unusual.

    “When I tell people I”m taking Swahili, they always think it”s some weird tongue-clicking language,” said Janet Perkins, 20, from Kennewick, Wash., majoring in anthropology.

    But Swahili is not the tongue-clicking language. It is a dialect spoken by an estimated 50 million people. After Arabic, it is the most widely understood language in Africa.

    “Learning Swahili sounds intimidating, but it”s really not as difficult as people think,” said Stephen Backman, who has taught the course for four semesters.

    “It”s just a matter of acquiring an ear and tongue for the sound,” he said.

    Backman, a graduate student in anthropology, began learning Swahili himself in an introduction course at BYU. Since then he has lived in Africa four different times.

    “When you live in a village where only two other people speak English, you have no choice but to learn the language the native people are speaking,” Backman said.

    Backman describes his Swahili classes as evolving, with every semester becoming a little more rigorous.

    Because of the unusual nature of the subject, Swahili is only taught at a small number of universities across the United States.

    When the Swahili course first began at BYU, the class didn”t have a textbook to work from.

    After working with other colleges, Backman found a textbook for his class, and now uses a more structured curriculum in the three levels of Swahili he teaches.

    “The most difficult thing about learning Swahili is that none of the words resemble English words at all,” said Sarah Hall, 18, a freshman from Iowa City, Iowa.

    Swahili does not resemble other commonly learned Indo-European languages, in that it is a mixture of Bantu African languages and Arabic/Indian words.

    Most of the students taking the Swahili course are African studies majors or minors, or students who are planning on completing an East African field study or internship.

    “I was interested in learning Swahili because I eventually want to do a field study in Africa,” Perkins said.

    Backman said the most difficult aspect of teaching the course is that there are so few other people who actually speak Swahili.

    “It”s not like French, Italian or other common languages,” he said. “It”s hard to find other people to practice with.”

    Backman has one more year of teaching Swahili before he graduates. His biggest concern has been making sure that the program continues even after he is gone.

    Backman said he feels the course now has an established enough curriculum and that the Swahili courses will stay at BYU and continue to grow.

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