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Wednesday, Jun 19, 2019

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Pictured (from left) are Peter Mwangi, Brianna Ash, Cassidy Cleland, Manuella Ongoro, Magdalyne Oguti and Sierra Faris.

Pictured (from left) are Peter Mwangi, Brianna Ash, Cassidy Cleland, Manuella Ongoro, Magdalyne Oguti and Sierra Faris.

Brianna Ash feeds a giraffe lettuce at the Columbus Zoo.

Brianna Ash feeds a giraffe lettuce at the Columbus Zoo.

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Swahili program gave students the opportunity to learn language, culture over the summer


An innovative new Ohio University program taught Swahili to high school and college students this summer, and also gave them the opportunity to be immersed in East African culture. 

The program was Ohio University’s first STARTALK funded summer intensive language learning program, which concluded on Aug. 4 with four students receiving their certificates of completion. Brianna Ash, Cassidy Cleland, Sierra Faris and Manuella Ongoro spent five days a week for five weeks studying Swahili and learning about East African cultures through lectures, music, field trips and a wide range of other activities.

Cleland, a junior in the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University, took the program because she loves learning new languages and thought this would be a perfect opportunity to gain experience with a language that she hadn’t considered before.

Ongoro, a rising freshman at Athens High School, was born in Kenya and moved to the United States when she was 3 years old. She had forgotten most of her native language and applied for the Swahili program because she wanted to relearn it.

Ongoro’s mother, Nelly Ongoro, who is also from Kenya and studying biological sciences at OHIO, has definitely noticed a difference in her daughter due to the class.

“Manuella has really shown a very big improvement in Swahili language. She can now sing songs in Swahili, tell time, say animal names and even tell a story in Swahili,” Nelly Ongoro said.

Faris is entering her senior year at Ohio University this fall and took the Swahili summer program because she wants to join the Peace Corps after graduation. Before being placed in the field, Peace Corps volunteers go through intensive language training.

“I joined [the Summer Swahili STARTALK program] for the experience of fast-paced language learning,” Faris said. She went on to say that the experience of taking the Swahili class made her feel more confident about her capabilities, and it also prompted new ideas for her plans after graduation.

“Before the Swahili program, I was really only looking at Peace Corps programs in Mexico, but now I’m considering going to Tanzania as well,” Faris said.

Cleland, Faris and Ongoro agreed that the classroom activity from which they learned the most was Rafiki Yangu, a game where each person takes turns saying something about themselves and then about their classmates.

“It really went over everything that we learned so far, so it made it more repetitive,” Cleland said.

Cleland and Faris also talked about their favorite activities that took place outside of the classroom. Cleland’s favorite activity was cooking at Nelly Ongoro’s house, where she learned more about Kenyan culture and was able to taste unique and interesting food. Faris’ favorite activity was the market simulation.

“It was fun to work out what it would be like if we were actually in a market in Kenya or somewhere in East Africa,” Faris said.

The students and faculty also took a field trip to Columbus, where they visited the Columbus Zoo to learn about wildlife conservation in East and Central Africa. Students learned the Swahili names of animals and discussed various characteristics. They also ate lunch at Wycliff’s Kitchen, a Kenyan restaurant on Cleveland Avenue, where they greeted people and ordered food in Swahili, and tasted East African cuisine. Finally, they visited the Global Mall on Morse Road, a unique shopping mall with a variety of Somali-owned businesses. They explored the various shops and learned about economic development among Columbus’ immigrant communities.

Cleland and Ongoro have definite plans to continue with Swahili in spring semester. All four students will be completing follow-up assignments online with their instructor Peter Mwangi throughout fall semester in order to receive course credit for Swahili 1110, and to keep their Swahili knowledge fresh if they want to take Swahili 1120 in the spring.

“I would definitely recommend [the Summer Swahili STARTALK program] to others,” Cleland said. “I had a lot of friends that were going to apply and had a lot of regret that they didn’t, especially after I talked to them about how great the intensive language setting is and how much we’ve learned in the span of five weeks.”

Mwangi stated that his goal for OHIO’s STARTALK program was to teach in a way that would produce confident speakers of Swahili: students who could introduce themselves and function in Swahili-speaking cultures. He also wanted to broaden students’ horizons in general by introducing them to a culture that they may not have experienced otherwise.

“The program started as a Swahili class but ended as a family and community,” Mwangi said. “The students and their instructors forged a strong friendship through learning and sharing with each other.” 

Mwangi has taught Swahili for STARTALK programs since 2010 at universities in Wisconsin, Indiana, Oregon and now Ohio. He recently completed his doctoral dissertation titled “The impact of the STARTALK language program on the internationalization of higher education in the United States.” 

The program concluded on Aug. 4 with a lunch ceremony at Ongoro’s house. Nelly Ongoro, who also serves as a cultural consultant for Ohio University, was hired to teach the students how to cook traditional Kenyan food.

“My aim was to help other cultures understand our culture in more detail, especially in learning and knowing our cultural food. I had an opportunity to teach and cook with students…this helped students improve their vocabularies and communication skills in Swahili,” Nelly Ongoro said. “Students developed more vocabularies like nyanya (tomatoes, grandmother), kupika (to cook), dania (cilantro) and many more others.”

After lunch, the students confidently introduced themselves to the group in Swahili and then accepted their certificate of completion from Catherine Cutcher, the Swahili STARTALK program director and assistant director for global studies programs.

For more information on the program, please visit the Center for International Studies website at https://www.ohio.edu/global/cis/startalk.cfm.