STARTALK Reflection - Jay Rubin

DSCN6454We are all better language teachers for having participated in Swahili STARTALK. Or to put it more in the language of the program, we are better enablers of language learning. I can honestly say that the way I will conduct my Swahili classes has been forever changed—revolutionized. It won’t be easy to give up sentence diagramming on the blackboard, and speaking incessantly of subject markers, tense markers, object markers and verb roots—after all, that’s what most of us have been doing for years and years! Old habits, such as teaching linguistics instead of communication skills, die hard. But STARTALK is the silver bullet! For those of us, myself included, who did not really believe it was possible to teach Swahili without using English, our time together in Madison marks an important change for the better in our teaching careers. Before the program began, watching the videos of Professors Omar and Schleicher, I did not truly believe that I would be able to teach like that. That is, using the target language 90 - 100%

of the time, teaching grammar implicitly instead of explicitly, and always putting language acquisition in a context similar to the context in which the language will actually be used. But the real beauty of the communicative approach to language teaching is that it’s not complicated—it’s actually quite simple and intuitive: you learn to speak a language by speaking it, not by studying how it is written and spoken.


It is somewhat ironic that I will no longer be teaching grammar, per se, in the Swahili classroom, because grammar is one of the things that pulled me into Swahili. Learning about the noun classes, and how to modify a simple verb to its passive, causative and stative forms was a fascinating experience. It is important to take into account, though, that students have different interests and different ways of learning; the same grammar lessons that I found fascinating may have been boring, or impossible to understand, for other students. One of the great features of the communicative approach is that it takes into consideration the various ways in which students acquire second languages. Grammar is still taught, but always in context, and never beyond the degree that students are able to understand in the target language.


As I begin my new position as an introductory Swahili instructor, I will implement the many things I have learned at Swahili STARTALK. Granted, since I will be using a teaching method that is new to me, I will  be learning along with the students—while they are beginning to learn to communicate in Swahili, I will continue to learn how to best enable their learning. For it is learning, not teaching, that is at the heart of the communicative approach. As Professor Wa’Njogu said, “Mwalimu mzuri ni yule ambaye anaendelea kujifunz.” (A good teacher is one who continues to learn). Asanteni sana (thank you very much) to all people who made Swahili STARTALK possible, including the various organizations, the presenters, staff members, my fellow participants and the undergraduate students. All who were involved helped enable one another to become betters enablers of language learning.