A pause for some metacognitive reflection

This week I crossed the halfway mark for my time in Uganda: 3.5 weeks down, 3.5 to go. And so, it seems an appropriate time to stop and reflect a bit more upon my learning so far.

My class days usually go like this: I arrive around 9 AM, and spend several minutes greeting and chatting with Amelia and Simon in the office. Our conversation is informal and full of laughter – and all in Luganda, of course. Simon oftentimes says something very quickly and then stops and looks at me skeptically, as if he’s purposefully quizzing me: “Otegedde?” (Have you understood?) Ever the teacher, he is.

After a couple minutes of that, Amelia and I walk down the hall to our small classroom. I sit in a hard wooden chair and Amelia either sits next to me at the table or she stands at the board. We usually begin by just talking about what’s happened since we last saw each other – what we both have done, what the weather is like, what I saw on my journey to class that morning. These conversations can last a long time and meander, or can be short, depending on what we discuss. Then, Amelia gets down to business and announces a topic that we’ll be working on. She always asks me to share what I know first, and then she introduces new terms. Amelia will then ask questions related to the topic, which will kick off a conversation and allow me to practice using all of the new vocabulary (not to mention just the listening and speaking!). For example, though we might start by talking about what the symptoms of malaria are, inevitably Amelia will ask me to explain about something in the US. For example: Are all children in America immunized? Or, how do people treat people who are blind or deaf?

After an hour or two, we take a tea break. Tea (always with ginger) is set out for us, along with some kind of treat. Usually it’s delicious samosas, but we also get cassava, bananas, banana pancakes, or whatever else the office worker Sophie decides to buy. Taking tea is another opportunity to chat about whatever comes up. Frequently Simon will hang out with us, and other folks from around the office pop in and out as well. Sometimes, the other mzungu studying Luganda makes an appearance; other times, the Sudanese students who are studying English pass through. When they do, I always make a point to greet them so that they know they can chat with a native speaker if they’d like. I can really appreciate how important that kind of practice is now!

When we return to the classroom, we pick things back up. Frequently in the second half of the session, Amelia will introduce a grammatical concept and we will work on that. For example, Amelia taught me the conditional tense yesterday. Finally, we oftentimes spend the last hour or so doing something “fun” to mix things up. Amelia has caught on that I like books (and, I think, that my reading abilities need the most work), so sometimes I’ll read aloud from a children’s book. Yesterday, Amelia brought a language-learning version of Shoots and Ladders. If you landed on certain squares, you had to translate the (complicated) sentence on the square from English into Luganda.

I know our session is ending when Amelia asks me what I’m doing with the rest of my day. :)

I’ve struggled a bit with how exactly to maximize this experience for my language learning. There are two poles: capture every word, every grammatical concept, etc. and attack those with lots of study OR go with the flow, allow the language to seep into my brain, and be very present in the moment. Of course, I’m trying to find balance somewhere in the middle of them. My current plan is this: I take down all of the new vocabulary words that I learn, especially nouns and verbs. Every couple of days, I add these long lists to my Quizlet flashcards. Meanwhile, I am keeping up with Quizlet’s long term learning practice, so these vocabulary words re-appear while I do my daily vocabulary study. However, I am not trying to cram all of the new words into my brain every day – instead, I’m attempting to take a more natural pace, picking up words I use frequently just by having to say them in conversation. As for grammatical terms, I give my notes a glance every couple days, and have been making an effort to use the different forms in conversation with Amelia (who can correct me when I’m wrong!).

I am hoping that this relaxed way of learning will suit me well. While it’s important for me to continue to make strides on the technical parts of the language (grammar, vocabulary), being in Uganda for the summer affords me the opportunity to practice the actual use of the language. I think that this means that I ought to focus most of my energy mostly on gaining listening comprehension skills and fluency in speaking.

Outside of class time with Amelia, of course, I am still learning. In addition to the value of practicing with real people (who don’t know my vocabulary or grammatical limitations, and aren’t used to my accent), engaging with others in Luganda plays into my highly extroverted personality. For this reason, I start in Luganda with nearly everyone I meet. Sometimes they turn to English quickly, either because they presume my Luganda is limited, or because their Luganda is limited (hard to tell!). But sometimes, it’s almost entirely Luganda.

Last night, I took a private taxi home after meeting a friend for dinner, because it was late at night. I bargained with the driver in Luganda, and then we chatted while we drove – the entire time in Luganda. Granted, our conversation wasn’t incredibly deep or complicated, but the fact remains that Luganda was how we communicated everything.

There is a downside to all of this socialization and four hours a day (at a minimum) of practice – excluding Sundays. And that is: it’s exhausting. I realized last weekend while lazing around my guest house after class on Saturday that I felt mentally very tired. Of course, part of that comes from simply navigating around noisy, busy, dirty Kampala. But I’m fairly convinced that a large part of it is just all of the extra mental work my brain is taking on every day, between class and talking with people around town. For an extrovert to get tired out by so much social engagement – it’s a rare thing!! So I’m feeling lots of empathy for my introverted friends these days.

I truly hope that I am making the most out of this experience, and that I’ve been thoughtful enough about how to learn in the context that I’m in. I suppose we’ll see what the results are at the end of the 7 weeks!

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