Tanzania, Kenya, United States, Europe — on being quadrilingual — The North Star Reports, sponsored by The Middle Ground Journal. By Eli Megahan
Being quadrilingual means that much of my education in language has come from being self-motivated and self-taught. A common misconception is that I’ve learned to speak English, Kiswahili, Setswana and Kalanga in attempts to appear more worldly or cultured. I don’t speak four languages out of a desire to be worldly, but out of necessity. At one stage in my life I was quite envious of those for whom one language is enough. Now, however, I embrace my need to speak four languages.
To this very day I can vaguely remember the orphanage. At seventeen months and sixteen pounds I did not like the look or feel of the world; I found it too visually unappealing for my liking, too upright, twisted and evil for me to invest any hopes in it. Thus, my initial enthusiasm for literature stemmed from a desire to see the world, not as it was, but rather as I believed it ought to have been.
My first seven years were spent in Mwanza, Tanzania, my motherland. The first language I learned to speak was, naturally, Kiswahili. It was the only language spoken both at home and at school. I found that academia, particularly literature, came naturally to me. My peers wrote words, I wrote sentences. While they read paragraphs, I read books. My teacher was so impressed with my progress that she suggested I be promoted to Standard Three to which my mother agreed. Although I did exceptionally well academically, socially I struggled. Being in a classroom with classmates who were three to five years my senior proved challenging. They interacted in a way I was not accustomed to and used a vernacular completely foreign to me. It was a miserable existence.
At the age of eight, I left Mwanza and relocated to rural Kenya where I remained for several years. It did not take long for me to become proficient in the local language, Samburu. Although unaware of the fact prior to relocating, we found that Samburu was far from an ideal place to spend one’s childhood. The quality of education was poor as a majority of teachers were uneducated themselves. Furthermore, Samburu was in the midst of a violent war against several neighbors. It was not uncommon to dodge bullets and explosives to and from school. Rather than being anxiety-ridden, my friends and I turned it into a game; whoever could run home the fastest and remain unscathed was crowned victor. Whilst living in Samburu, I was presented with the opportunity to study abroad in the United States of America. I entered a government-sponsored program meant to improve fluency in the English language, a language of which I spoke only three words: ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’ Prior to this opportunity I had never had a reason to learn English. Whilst my parents were English-speaking Americans, they spoke both Kiswahili and Samburu fluently; the reasons to learn English had simply never presented themselves. Motivated, however, I continued to attend the local village school during the day and made an effort to study in the evenings. Like running water and motor vehicles, electricity was a nonentity in the community of Ngilai. I spent much of my time by a kerosene lantern reading books and newspaper articles I had purchased on bimonthly excursions to Nairobi. Slowly but surely, I saw my hard work and determination come to fruition.
I found works written in English to be of a more fantastical nature. Unlike the dry textbooks and news articles available to me in Kiswahili and Samburu, English literature transported me to lands of which I knew nothing. Favorites ranged from the Maurice Sendak classic Where the Wild Things Are to Lois Lowry’s The Giver. These works provided a means of envisioning an alternate reality for myself, one in which I did not fear for my life.
Nine years ago, I first set foot in the United States of America. I remember very clearly the day the airplane tickets arrived. My mother and I sat at the foot of my bed staring at the bits of paper in joyous disbelief. That night I slept in an empty bedroom knowing that my next sleep would be in a different country. This feeling is one that remains as clear to me as if it happened last night. Knowing that with my hands, eyes, and heart I possessed the power to not only open a book, but the ability to make sense of the letters on any given page brought me more joy than I had ever imagined. I fancied myself something bulletproof, something that could not and would not be broken.
I found the schooling environment in Duncanville, Texas to be starkly different from what I had grown accustomed to. In both Tanzania and Kenya, pupils did not speak until spoken to, we did not take our seats until invited to do so. This meant that should the stars have not aligned for an instructor on any given day, there was the chance we would remain standing for a two-hour class period. When a member of the staff, prefect body, or janitorial department approached in the corridors, students were expected to stop walking, align themselves with the left side of the wall and wait for the higher-up to pass, only going about their business once the superior was no longer in sight. We were not rewarded for achieving an A grade; it was expected that we did so. Three consecutive B grades in any given subject would result in suspension. It took me all of the two years I spent in Duncanville, Texas to become accustomed to this example of the American educational system. A system in which the pupils seemed to be handed free rein, in which they barked back at teachers, lashed out at fellow classmates, and openly displayed little to no concern or desire for academic excellence.
Although I had perfected the American accent, I had not learned conversational sentence structure or colloquial vocabulary. Much of my speech sounded derived from a textbook. At the time this frustrated me to no end, but in hindsight, this was quite humorous. While peers were perplexed, teachers and other figures of authority were impressed more often than not.
Following a year in Duncanville, now thirteen years old, I found myself in Francistown, Botswana. As with Kiswahili, I became fluent in both Setswana and Kalanga in little time. I attended a school which was one of two high schools and the only private institution in the country. At John Mackenzie Secondary School I specialized in Accounting, Art, Business Studies, English Literature, English Language and History. Although these courses developed my analytical and theoretical skills while simultaneously challenging my more creative side, I struggled to think of an occupation that would marry all these loves.
Although I finished high school in two years, at fifteen years I was deemed too young to attend university. Uncertain as to what it was I wanted to study, I traveled for three years with Botswana as a base. I studied in France, Italy, Australia, and Hawaii. Through these travels I discovered that media communications was my calling. The very prospect of exploring the field in-depth excited me. Ultimately, I reasoned that pursuing higher education would provide me with the experience and knowledge I needed to become employed in the Advertising and Marketing industry, which remains my goal. I applied to Webster University, a university well known for its Advertising program, and am currently enrolled in the School of Communications as an Advertising and Marketing Communications major.
To this day I am not completely confident in my ability to articulate thoughts and emotions in the English language. I choose words wisely, all the while in silent prayer, terrified my words will be misunderstood or misconstrued. It is a feeling likely to stay with me for the remainder of my existence. I remind myself I am far better off than I was and that somehow my dreams have already broken the boundaries of my fears.
Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to contribute to The North Star Reports — HLIANG@CSS.EDU
For all of the North Star Reports, see http://NorthStarReports.org
The North Star Reports: The Middle Ground Journal’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our K-12 outreach program. We also welcome Duluth East High School and other schools around the world. The North Star Reports has flourished since 2012. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:
The North Star Reports will share brief dispatches from our student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. Student interns have reported from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches, and report on their interactions with the North Star Reports students and teachers.
Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA
(c) 2012-present The Middle Ground Journal. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.
36 responses to “Tanzania, Kenya, United States, Europe — on being quadrilingual — The North Star Reports, sponsored by The Middle Ground Journal. By Eli Megahan”
Reblogged this on Professor Liang 梁弘明教授.
Wow speaking four languages fluently is amazing! You are so driven and its outstanding even with no electricity you were still going to keep up with learning more. Your experiences around the world sound awesome and keep living out your dreams!
I really enjoyed reading this article! I think it takes a lot to learn a new language nonetheless four. I found it really interesting to read about your schooling in different countries as well. I have always found it intriguing how school systems can differ so much around the world.
A wonderful read; with many things to take in and mull over. I cannot imagine my brain being able to comprehend and communicate in 2 languages (let alone 4). Your emphasis as to why you needed to be able to is something I have never dealt with; your writing made me think about the effects on a personal (individual human) level. Thank you for sharing.
Reading this left me in awe– I commend you for achieving so much in such a small amount of time. It takes someone with a special passion to accomplish all that you have done; while reading this, it is easy to tell you are passionate about learning and are extremely appreciative of all you have. You have a wonderful gift at mastering these languages and being motivated to learn more, and that is a lesson I will take with me in my life. At the end of your journal, you stated how you worried that your message would not get across clearly because of your lack of confidence in English, however I feel as though you expressed yourself superbly. The journal was beautifully written and inspired me to try harder in my own life in hope that one day I will be as intelligent and motivated as you. Congratulations on everything!
A truly good read! Your drive amazes me, you have worked so hard and you continue to do so. It was interesting to have a little perspective of how schooling is different in America than Kenya and Tanzania. You have the world at your fingertips, I wish you the best of luck!
Your story and experiences are very moving and inspirational. The fact that you are able to communicate in so many different languages with many different types of people is a gift that not many people are given. Take full advantage of this and continue to use your knowledge to grow and expand your views, and you will go far!
I really liked this article and the fact you can speak four languages is amazing. I can speak barely 2 given my experience in high school with spanish class. Good luck to you
I really enjoyed reading about your experiences. I personally can’t imagine speaking so many languages and find the fact you speak four to be so amazing! I also enjoyed hearing about your diverse educational background and how different the American schooling system is than other countries. This definitely gives me a lot to consider and think about when you take into account differences around the world. I wish you all the best of luck!
You have had in incredible journey so far and I’m sure life will hold much more. Your drive and passion is something truly inspiring. And being able to speak four languages is amazing. Best of luck on your journeys!
Very inspirational blog. I thought it was great that you left behind your mother and your homeland to achieve your goals. You seem like a hardworking person and many successes will be awarded to you in the future. I wish you nothing but the best!
I really enjoyed reading this article! It was interesting to hear about your journeys and life experiences. The comparison of different school systems around the world was something I found particularly fascinating.
I really loved reading about your adventure. It’s amazing that you are able to speak four different languages. I can barely speak 2 languages. Best of luck to you in your future!
This was a wonderful article to read! I especially enjoyed reading about how different other school systems are from American school systems. Also, I can’t imagine being put in to extreme danger coming home from school. I commend you for your courage, passion, and dedication! Good luck in your future endeavors!
I’m going to echo the above comments and say this was a great read!
This quote stuck out most to me: “At one stage in my life I was quite envious of those for whom one language is enough. Now, however, I embrace my need to speak four languages.” For you, learning more languages was a need. Without it, you’d have been without communication each time you moved. For many of us living in the U.S., however, learning another language is not born out of need, but out of want–typically in a relatively relaxed school setting.
This article is truly inspiring! I can not even imagine the shock moving to a different country, being surrounded by students multiple years older than you, and also the necessity to speak multiple languages. It’s too often that people in the United States take what we have for granted especially when it comes to knowing English and only having to to know English.
I think it’s really cool that you mention “The Giver,” as an influential book in your childhood. The same book means a lot to me, and it is awesome to know that I have that in common with students round the world. Also, I think your English is great, be confident in your education, you have worked so hard to achieve if!
You sure seem to have a gift for languages! Your confidence and motivation to get continue to improve and find out more about yourself is inspiring. I particularly liked that you included details about your different experiences in different schools.
This is an incredible story. I can only imagine how amazing this life experience could have been to experience all the lifestyles, cultures, and languages from traveling all over the world. I would love to visit other countries and have the opportunity you have had. I do have one question though. From many people and sources, they have said that English is the hardest language to learn in the world. In your experience, is that rumor true?
This story is very admirable: speaking four languages, getting to study in different countries.I really admire his ability to adjust to different environments and cultures. There is some part I heard him mention that he is still not yet confident with his English, after reading this article I think his English is superb!
Wonderful article, even for some speaking one language is hard now speaking for is truly amazing. As other people say I admire your ability and ambition to travel and how you got used to different places and cultures, it was nice reading and learning all about those places.
Your drive to learn and do well is admirable. I can’t imagine being fluent (or even semi-fluent) in a second (or third or fourth) language. I love reading other’s stories, and this has been one of my favorites from the ones that have been published on this cite. It seems like it would be difficult to adapt to new education environments – did it take a long time to adjust to the school in Texas’ way of doing things?
Thank you for sharing! Not everyone gets the chance to explore several different cultures throughout the world! You have a lot of courage for experiencing the things that you have. I hope your next step in life leads you even farther and gives you the best!
This is an incredible story! Thank you for sharing your experiences and how you succeeded in each different new exploration of the different places you attended. It’s incredible that you traveled to so many different but the experiences you have will be unforgettable.
I love reading your article. I’m jealous at how much you have traveled and all the amazing things you must have learned. In the future, I wish to travel as much as you have! I want to experience and explore all the cultures and languages throughout the world. I hope you keep traveling and exploring the world. It would also be great to hear more of your stories!
What an incredible journey! I very much admire your perspective and intellectual capabilities. Being quadrilingual is quite an achievement. I myself came to the United Sates from Ethiopia to study. I find the stark differences in our schooling systems astonishing; I had a hard time adjusting to the discussion based classes that are held so liberally here. I was never really encouraged to speak as much in class before. I can also relate to your fear of being misunderstood in your English because of choice of words. I do know that all of these things get better with time and practice so keep at it! I wish you luck in all your pursuits.
You have definitely lived a very full life already. I found your commentary on not picking up on certain vernacular to be very close with me. I have a disability that effects my social skills and causes cognitive distortions. I often find myself thinking, “was that the right wording? Did I use the correct inflection? Was my volume and pace appropriate?” I have had the experience of being bilingual explained to me as ‘having two dialogues going at once’ and I find this to be true with my disability. I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to have four languages going at once. Do you find yourself code-switching or is it more fluid? Thanks for sharing!
Your journey sounds amazing. The idea of learning languages out of necessity has never occurred to me before, but when you describe how you moved around it makes perfect sense. Learning foreign languages has never come easy to me, so I am in awe of how you were able to learn them in a relatively short amount of time. Your description of the way school differed in America also caught me off guard, I had never thought of schooling in different countries to be so different, guess I had a pretty narrow view on that. Thank you so much for sharing and good luck with studies.
This article serves as an inspiration to everyone. You are a role model whether you know it or not. Coming into a new environment, with new people, and so many unknown things had to be intimidating. Not only did you just travel to America though, you stretched yourself out of your box to travel to even more countries. All your travels and experience take courage and I can’t even imagine how much you mentally and emotionally matured from all of your experiences. It amazes me how wise someone can be at such a young age.
Wow this is truly an inspirational article, i feel like everyone should read this at one point in their life. I found it fascinating that you took the time to learn four languages and that you have stuck with each language, most people learn a couple words and than forget them in a year. All of you travels and experience have made you into a wonderful role model to everyone who ends up reading this article. I know this was some time ago but it would be wonderful to get an update article. Again this was a great article!
I really enjoyed reading this article! I am honestly quite envious that you can speak four different languages. I also am jealous of all of your schooling in different places. It seems like you have had some amazing experiences. You have achieved so much in such a short time, and you should be proud of that.
I am so honored to have read such a small portion of your life events! I am left in amazement and relief. You have gone through many incidents that most of us here at CSS cannot even imagine. Your description of running to home from school, attempting to not get hit by bombs seemed to be a relaxing and easy activity for you. Yet, in the midst of reading that, my eyes opened and pictured myself in your position, not alive… On another note, you are an extremely intelligent and humble person. I am glad to know that you have taken the opportunity to come to the United States and follow your passion. I am sure you miss your family and friends back in your motherland dearly. I hope that one day you get to go back and share your stories to the children there. Thank you for sharing!
What an inspiration to live a better life and to become the person you are today. Having parents from Tanzania and Kenya brings back a lot of memories of how they grew up. You are extremely brave and intelligent. Learning four languages with continuous migration is so difficult. You should be proud of what you have achieved. The places you have been and studied are incredible. You should definitely write more about your experiences. I bet you have many more stories to tell. You live by the saying what does not kill you makes you stronger!
Eli, wonderful post! That amazing and awesome that you are quadrilingual! I could imagine that a lot of time and dedication has gone into the learning of these four languages. Knowing four languages must be very helpful. It is interesting the different mannerisms that go along with each language/culture.
What an incredibly inspiring story! I find amazing that you envied those who only had the need to speak one language, because I find myself in the opposite of those shoes. I am envious of those who are polyglots and wish that I was put in more situations where speaking a second or third language was necessary. Hopefully one day that will be so. It sounds like your life was full of opportunities and adventure, too, which is yet another quality that I am jealous.
The schooling is definitely different within different countries. Although I’ve yet to visit Kenya, I have visited and worked in schools in Tanzania, both public and private. Even within these two types of schools in Tanzania there was a drastic difference in etiquette and teaching style. I can see where coming to the states presented quite a shock, but I am very happy and impressed that you pulled through and graduated at 15! I hope that everything afterwards has gone perfectly for you!
Wow, this an amazing story. When reading, I find myself thinking about the idea of one’s life purpose; what his or her soul is supposed to do. This is because, yours seems so clear in ways. You have done so much already in your life, more grate things are meant to be in your future. I envy the bravery you portray within your words. Also, I am interesting in your experiences being within different education systems as I am pursuing a teaching degree. I would love to hear you perspective on the what you think a successful education system consist of.