A New Year’s Resolution for 2021: Learn to speak another language

Around this time each year, we all begin to make plans to change our routines, throw out old habits, improve our lifestyle, try new things— the so-called ‘New Year’s Resolutions’. This year, our suggestion to everyone is to learn to speak in another language.

Throughout the twists and turns of 2020 —lockdowns, isolation, cancelled plans and postponed events— we found ourselves with more time on our hands than ever before, and at least for the short term in 2021, this looks set to continue. Whilst it is tempting to spend a large portion of this free time binge-watching on Netflix, Prime Video, etc. (because there are undoubtedly some excellent TV shows on offer), a little time spent each day learning a language can be a very rewarding endeavour that will provide satisfaction long after the thrill of watching that final chess game at the end of The Queen’s Gambit.

TEDTalks: English is fast becoming the world's universal language, and instant translation technology is improving every year. So why bother learning a foreign language? Linguist and Columbia professor John McWhorter shares four alluring benefits of learning an unfamiliar tongue.

Whilst being able to speak in a number of languages has many practical benefits — from making things easier on a foreign holiday to opening up employment opportunities — there are so many other reasons to learn. Nelson Mandela perhaps explained things best when he said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

Learning a new language allows us to reach a level of understanding of other cultures and societies that perhaps cannot be achieved through any other means. A famous Arabic proverb even goes as far as to say “Learn a language, and you’ll avoid a war” (من تعلم لغة قوم أمن مكرهم).

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney said of his own native language: “Not to learn Irish is to miss the opportunity of understanding what life in this country has meant and could mean in a better future… If we regard self-understanding, mutual understanding, imaginative enhancement, cultural diversity and a tolerant political atmosphere as desirable attainments, we should remember that a knowledge of the Irish language is an essential element in their realisation.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela

Amazones Power: Track by Track

Arwa Haider looks at the lyrics and meaning of the songs on Les Amazones d'Afrique's second album.


Living in the age of smartphones and social media, it has never been easier to learn a language. There are so many great resources available to beginners, such as apps like Duolingo, Babbel and Mango, SubReddit language learning communities, and one-on-one Zoom lessons. There really is no reason for you not to have a go.

The first languages that may spring to mind for native English speakers to learn are other European languages like French or Spanish, but why not look beyond this and consider learning to speak a non-Western language? We thought we’d suggest some languages to learn which feature in the music of some of the artists on our label.

Rokia Koné performing with Les Amazones d'Afrique at Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2018. Photo credit: JMA Photography.


Bambara (also known as Bamanankan) is a variety of a group of closely related languages called Manding. It is estimated to be spoken by as many as 15 million people, mostly in Mali, and understood by millions more in neighbouring countries who speak other varieties of Manding such as Jula and Malinké. It can be heard on some of our West African recordings by artists such Les Amazones d’Afrique, Farafina and Tama, as well as in the music of other well-known singers from the region including Oumou Sangaré, Salif Keïta, Ali Farka Touré and Fatoumata Diawara.

A selection of songs in the Bambara language

A great online resource for learning to speak Bambara is a website called An Ka Taa. It provides a number of materials to aid learners such as video lessons, a podcast series, a week-by-week structured course for beginners, as well as private online lessons. It even offers an introduction to writing in the Manding N’ko script, as well as a YouTube series of street interviews with native speakers — Na Baro Kè — that also provides snapshots of everyday life in the cities of Bamako and Bobo-Dioulasso.

Track of the Day: ‘Mustt Mustt’ by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Taking an in-depth look at the Qawwali singer's most loved song.

Na baro kè (‘Come chat’) is a free online video series—for Manding speakers and learners—of transcribed and translated street-side “chats” with everyday people in West Africa. In this video, the locals talk about the pros and cons of the new bus system in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso.

An Ka Taa is a free learning resource, but if you find it useful, consider joining their Patreon scheme for a modest monthly subscription fee, and in doing so you will be supporting the ongoing development of the project, as well as getting access to exlusive features. An Ka Taa will give you a firm understanding of the basics of the language — enough to allow you to have a basic conversation with a native speaker.

Visit ‘An Ka Taa’ to begin learning Bambara

Geoffrey Oryema - Exile. Photo Credit: Frank Drake


The Swahili language, which features in the music of Real World artists Geoffrey Oryema, Remmy Ongala and Hukwe Zawose, is spoken by over 100 million people worldwide, primarily in East and Central Africa. It is the national language of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is used in many neighbouring countries. Swahili, with its Bantu-language origins, has evolved to incorporate words from English, Arabic, Hindi, Portuguese, and German.

The late Remmy Ongala from Tanzania sang primarily in the Swahili language. He is synonymous with the musical subculture known as 'Ubongo', the Swahili word for brain. Ubongo is usually perceived by artists and listeners alike as "conscious" music, a style that actively contributes socio-political commentary to the Tanzanian soundscape.

A great starting point for learning the Swahili language is to complete the Duolingo course, which covers all of the basics. Duolingo is available online and as a smartphone app. With its bold, colourful interface and game-like features, it’s a fun way to learn a language — especially if you’re into dopamine rushes and ‘social rewards’. The app’s encouraging mascot Duo (a cartoon green owl) and its ‘World of Characters’ are great learning companions, and users are rewarded with XP points, ‘crowns’, ‘achievements’ and are placed on a leader board. It’s an ideal way to learn for those with addictive and competitive personalities!

Learn Swahili on Duolingo

Duolingo's World of Characters will help you along on the journey towards speaking conversational Swahili. Image courtesy of Duolingo.


Fans of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali will be familiar with the sound of Urdu through the many qawwals these artists have sung in the language. Urdu is a member of the Indo-European family of languages, the official state language and lingua franca of Pakistan and one of the 22 scheduled languages of India. According to Ethnologue, Urdu is the 11th most widely spoken language in the world with 170 million total speakers.

Also known as one of the premier languages of poetry in South Asia for two centuries, Urdu is written right-to-left using the Urdu alphabet, an extension of the Persian alphabet, which is itself an extension of the Arabic alphabet. It is very similar to the Hindi language on a conversational level, but has a very different writing system.

Some of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s most popular qawwals are sung in Urdu, including the title track of his seminal 1990 album Mustt Mustt. It is considered a moderately difficult language to learn, but there are many online resources available for beginners, such as a recently launched course by language learning platform Mondly.

Learn Urdu on ‘Mondly’

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party perform 'Mustt Mustt' live at WOMAD Yokohama 1992. Lyrically, the song draws upon the spiritual Sufi text ‘Dama Dam Mast Qalandar’ (دما دم مست قلند), in honour of revered Sufi saint Lal Shahbaaz Qalandar. It was written in the 13th century by the poet Amir Khusrow. The word ‘mast’ refers to a state of intoxication and love of the saint.

So, whatever you’ve got on your list of resolutions for 2021 — whether it involves joining a gym, starting a new diet plan, or daily yoga and meditation — we are highly recommending that you put learning a new language on the agenda. Good luck, and Happy New Year!

By Oran Mullan

Main image: Malian artist Kandia Kouyaté, who sings in the Bambara language, pictured on stage at WOMAD Charlton Park 2016 with Les Amazones d'Afrique. Photo courtesy of WOMAD.

Published on Thu, 31 December 20

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