Finding a Swahili Language Mentor

Original Post by Sam Allen updated by Irène Tombo, updated by Meredith Whye

What is the mentor concept?

According to Marshall (1989) “a mentorship is a relationship in which a language learner (you) plans and directs learning experiences which are guided by a native speaker.”[1]  As the learner, it is your responsibility to set up long term and process goals, determine what content you need to focus on, how you would like to study the content and informing the mentor how you learn best in order to be able to incorporate that into your learning. The mentor mainly acts as a role model for you. While a mentoring relationship might sound and shares some attributes of a teacher/student relationship, it is very different. In this case, the learner is the one providing the fundamental direction of the learning and not the mentor. He or she is simply there to guide you through this process of developing a study guide that enables you to meet your goals.

What role does the mentor play?

Depending on your proficiency level and what you need to focus on, the mentor guides you through this process of learning by being the voice you will be learning to mimic when it comes to pronunciations and such or helping you develop dialogues that aim at targeting the content you would like to focus on as a learner or act as an evaluator by correcting you, doing drills and exercises with you as well as evaluating you performance in relation to the goals you have.[2] To say the least, what a mentor ends up doing for you really depends on the goals and objectives you are able to communicate to him or her. Prior to starting a mentorship, it is very important to identify what you need from a mentor. Do you need to work on your speaking, writing, listening, complex text comprehension, picking up on cultural cues, etc…? This is where you Individualized Study Plan (ISP) would come in handy. Of course, this is something that you keep working on and updating throughout the semester however, the clearer and more specific this is at the beginning of your mentorship, the easier it is for you mentor to gauge what you need to get out of your learning process. He or she may also help you come up with a plan that will enable you to meet your stated goals by giving you suggestions on how you could improve your process goals in order to meet your end goals.

How does one select a mentor?

As previously stated, what role you need your mentor to play depends on your need however it is work taking into consideration a few things when selecting a mentor. Who becomes your mentor varies from a total stranger to a friend that you might have known for ages. Either way, there are a few things you would need to take into consideration as you go through the process of selecting who your mentor will be. These include but are not limited to: whether your personalities are compatible for a mentor-mentee relationship, whether his or her teaching ability is something that would be crucial to your learning and his or availability as learning is time consuming.

Cultural context is also important. Consider where your mentor is from regionally and nationally. A mentor from a large metropolitan area may have different cultural and language contexts than a mentor from a more rural or pastoral area. Furthermore, a mentor growing up speaking Swahili in Tanzania will have different language contexts than a mentor from Uganda. Consider where you met your mentor and if you want to continue study in that region.

On the latter point, compensating you mentor is something that you have to also take into consideration. Don’t hesitate to ask others going through the same learning process as you how they have dealt with that and to have an idea of what to expect. Usually, there is monetary compensation however it depends on what you and your mentor decide on.

Where does one find a mentor?

As a Student…

  • Contact Swahili teachers in your school. As much as their office hours are underutilized by traditional language students, Swahili teachers will most likely be more than happy to help you with Swahili during those times, even if you’re not in their class. Depending on your study plan, you may wish to prepare material ahead of time to go over in office hours.
  • Study abroad. The Swahili speakers you will meet, both in academic and social contexts, are potential pen-pals, friends and other contacts who may very well be open to working with you as a mentor. And if not, they can most likely refer you to someone who is.
    • If available, visit libraries, universities, or research institutions. They often have postings or faculty who can direct you to a mentor. Sometimes there are fliers in expat-heavy areas as well.
  • Ask previous students who have studied Swahili on how they found their mentors.

For Anybody…

  • Find local language tables. Whether coordinated online or with your local university, finding the right language table for you can be just an e-mail away. Many colleges have their language table calendars publicly available, and community members are welcome. Again, even if none are able to serve as mentors, they could put you in touch with others who are.
  • Message the African Studies or equivalent department at your local college, and ask them for leads.
  • Google online Swahili pen-pal communities. They are too numerous to list, and some are tailored to specific interests. Note that many do not wish for monetary compensation, but rather practice in English or another language in return. Keep in mind how this may affect your mentor-mentee relationship.
  • Utilize social media and technology. Many apps exist to find real life Swahili speakers wanting to work with you. THese apps can include HelloTalk, MyLanguageExchange, or HiNative. Some of these apps offer free conversation while some are based around a payment of the mentor for language practices. Some also offer video calls or just written conversation.

How to Establish a Study Plan with a Mentor?

Whether the mentor is a friend or a stranger, it is always good to lay down clear expectations about your role as a student and his or hers as a mentor. As well as having clear expectations for each time you meet.

The most daunting aspect of independent language study is sticking to your own routine. Your mentor will assist you in both creating and adhering to a study plan that fits your level of proficiency and both of your schedules. One helpful way to begin is to estimate where you lie on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Oral Proficiency Interview rankings. These rankings fall between Novice, Intermediate, Advanced and Superior. If you want, you can take the Oral Proficiency Interview itself, a 20-30 minute interview with a certified examiner that will give you a definitive score useful for yourself and placement on your résumé.

Once you’ve established your current level of proficiency, create a realistic goal on the ACTFL ranking based on your current proficiency and schedule. From here, it’s only a matter of backward-planning to determine what you must accomplish each day and week to fulfill this goal. While your plan can take many forms, it’s best to stick with a routine that works and modify it only as necessary throughout your period of study. This will help yourself stay on track, and aid your mentor in evaluating and assisting you.

Finally, keep it interesting. Feel free to ask your mentor to help think of conversation topics, role-plays or any other activities that can keep your back-and-forth lively. Make sure the mentor understands your learning interests and possible research endeavors. These can help tailor your learning to keep you interested, invested, and motivated. For example, if you are a medical student, you could work on conversations that would take place in the doctor’s office or clinic. Language learning should not feel like a chore, but an opportunity to learn more about the people, places, and facets of everyday life that make this language unique.

[1] Marshall, 55.

[2] Marshall, 55-56.


Marshall, T. (1989). The Whole World Guide to Language Learning. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.


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