By Sara Brouwer |


By the time I sat down to write the proposal for my PhD research, I knew that I wanted to learn the local language of my research setting. The empirical part of my research takes place in Harare, Zimbabwe, and investigates the relationship between people’s physical, organisational and socio-cultural food environment and wellbeing. It will involve many conversations, hopefully in Shona, one of the two main local vernaculars in Zimbabwe. Due to the country’s colonial past, English is an official language and most people speak it fluently.


Yet, for many the local language speaks to the heart. Just as in any other country, the local language is engrained in the local culture, identity and customs. With this in mind, eight months ago I started a weekly hour-long Shona language lessons over Skype. In this blog post I share my experiences with, and recommendations about, learning Shona for my PhD research and beyond.




When you want to learn a language before, during or after your PhD, these are my recommendations:


  • Language lessons over Skype work really well. I’m honestly struggling to think of a disadvantage. In most classes, my teacher and I try to have a conversation in Shona, go over the grammar emailed beforehand, translate a particular fictitious conversation, or we write sentences or exercises in the chat function on Skype. So far, neither the distance nor technology has been a problem.


  • Try all possible avenues to find a suitable teacher. If you are learning a language that is not commonly taught in your country and you can’t immediately find a class, teacher or an instruction book, don’t give up! I am sure that after some extensive Google searching, asking around or posting in Facebook groups, you will be able to find a teacher who will have Skype lessons with you. I found my teacher after encountering a small company called: via Google.


  • Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and don’t take yourself too seriously. I had to come to terms with the pronunciation of the intricate Shona verbatim. Very few of those born outside Zimbabwe will find comfort in pronouncing ‘zva, zve, zvi, zvo, zvu’, which has a sort of a whistle sound in the ‘zv’. It sounds beautiful when a native speaker eloquently weaves those sounds into his or her words. Yet, even after trying time and time again, I have to conclude that it’s not my strongest point. In the end I’ve learned not to be shy about it and just pronounce the words that are challenging for me with full confidence. At least my pronunciation comes with a funny accent that gives other people and myself something to laugh about.


  • Make sure to master polite forms of speech. From what I understand (please correct me if I’m wrong in the comments), in Shona you have to address elderly people, strangers who are older than you or other people that deserve respect in general, with a polite verb conjugation. I suspect this is not too difficult for anyone that speaks or has ever learned Dutch, German, Spanish, French, Portuguese and probably other languages. The rules regarding polite verb conjugation in Shona are actually similar to such rules in Roman languages.


  • Be purposeful and adopt a strategy in your learning. Shona is a complicated language, at least to me it is. For example, it has 19 different noun classes. For each noun class different rules for possessives and plural forms apply. Because I hate to make grammatical mistakes, I wanted to master these different rules as best as I could. However, after I kept making mistakes with these changing possessives, plural forms and other exceptions, I realised it proved more fruitful to first master a lot of verbs and their conjugation as well as general vocabulary. After all, the most important thing for now is that people will at least understand me when I speak, and vice versa.


  • Don’t get discouraged! Sometimes learning a new language can be tiring. When I try to make a sentence in Shona, at times my brain is processing like an old computer that sounds like it’s any minute going to explode. I just get confused. Also, sometimes Spanish words pop up in my mind when I try to do my Shona homework. Perhaps a reminiscent of learning Spanish after high school? Then, while I am trying to tell my teacher how my day was, I all of the sudden mumble in Dutch, my native language. At such moments I have often thought: ‘Come on Sara, you should have known this word in Shona by now!’. Yet, as frustrating as this can be, I would say: be persistent and don’t be too hard on yourself. The solution was actually quite simple for me. The more often I looked up that particular word that I always got confused about, the better I started remembering it.


  • Be confident. Miraculously you know more than you think. You just have to take a guess if you are not hundred per cent sure about the translation of a word. Nine out of ten times I got it right!


  • Consistency is key. I guess this speaks for itself, but I noticed more progress when I consistently had my class each week. It is tempting to cancel your class when you have deadlines and teaching commitments, but I think one hour per week should be manageable. Even if I didn’t have that much time to prepare my class, I noticed it was still beneficial for my progress to have the lesson every week.


  • Listen to the language as much as possible, in various ways. I noticed that I picked up quite a lot of words and conjugations while listening to music, radio shows, tv shows or YouTube movies in Shona.


That’s it! All that is left is to say: ENJOY your new language journey!



Sara Brouwer is a first year PhD student in Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh. She is part of the first cohort of Leverhulme funded ‘Perfect Storm’ scholars. Her PhD examines the relationship between the physical, organisational and socio-cultural food environments or residents in Harare, Zimbabwe and their wellbeing. She has an MSc in Environment, Culture and Society and did her undergraduate in Human Geography at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. She tweets at @Filippa_Sara


(Image by Adela Kremplova)