My isiZulu teachers demonstrating their "Itsy Bitsy Spider" skills.

My isiZulu teachers demonstrating their “Itsy Bitsy Spider” skills.

We teach in English, so our isiZulu training consisted of only one session learning greetings.  While the teachers speak very good English and the students hypothetically should be able to communicate in English, many of their parents are illiterate.  Moving around the community, it’s fun to be able to speak with old ladies and small children, so I’m trying to carve out some time to learn more isiZulu.

I have found that the best teachers of foreign languages are four-year-olds.  Their vocabulary is simple, they won’t hesitate to correct you, and they don’t judge you when you make a mistake.  About once a week, I go into the pre-school classroom, teach them a song in English, and ask them to teach me some isiZulu.  They’re pretty proficient in “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Six Little Ducklings.”  I’m less proficient in numbers, groceries, and animal names.

When first applying to the Peace Corps in 1998, my heart wanted to go to the region near the Kalahari Desert, mostly because I loved the clicks.  Lucky for me, isiZulu is a Bantu language peppered with clicks.  There are three types; “q” is a hard click like a cork coming out of a bottle, “x” is on the side of your mouth as if you were urging your horse along, and “c” is like a “tsk.”  My clicks are improving, but they don’t quite have the purcussive pop that locals have.  There’s other fun consonants, too.  Notably “hl” is supposed to be like the Welsh “ll.”  I have no idea what that means.  To me, it kind of feels like the receiving end of a zrbrt.

As a volunter in Kenya, I spoke Kiswahili, another Bantu language.  Because Kiswahili developed as a trading language between the Bantu tribes in the interior and the Arabs on the coast, both its pronunciation and structure seem simpler than that of isiZulu.  For fun, let’s look at numbers (I claim no expertise in spelling–my dictionary and the pre-schoolers are sometimes at odds; also, forgive my formatting).

Kiswahili     isiZulu
1    mmoja     unye
2    mbili        ubili
3    tatu        uthathu
4    nne        une
5    tano        uhlanu
6    sita        isithupa
7    saba        isikhombisa
8    nane        isishiyagalombili
9    tisa        isihiyagalolunye
10    kumi        ishumi

So, for 1 – 5 and 10, they pretty much follow the same root.  Then things get interesting in isiZulu from 6 – 9.  Eight and nine are literally “ten minus 2” and “ten minus one.”  I wonder if in East Africa the Arab traders were perfectly happy with 1 – 5, but then decided “Heck, no!” for 6 – 9 and used the more elegant Arabic words instead.

A side note on my isiZulu teachers; they are adorable.  Sometimes I hang out with them during their lunch time just to enjoy their company.  I’m constantly tying shoes, tucking shirts, and fixing ties.  One little girl I refer to as “the Dove” likes to sit quietly next to me.  When a bully comes to steal her lunch, she wordlessly hands her sandwich over to me.  “The Squirrel” is a little boy with high highs and low lows.  He thinks we’re in a perpetual game of tag, so he likes running away for me to chase him.  Lots of fun, but difficult to start a conversation.

The Squirrel and his BFF.

The Squirrel and his BFF.

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