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Signal Towers and Children's Songs

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Jaylah’s page, marked urgent, woke Nyota at six in the morning, the day after the captain’s party.

‘What’s the matter?’ she asked, peering through bleary eyes at her viewer.

‘Lieutenant Uhura, I need your help.’

‘What’s wrong? Has something happened?’

‘You must teach me how to speak your language better.’

Nyota stared. ‘Jaylah, it’s six in the morning.’

‘Yes,’ Jaylah nodded, as if this was reasonable. ‘This station’s... not-real sun has risen.’

Nyota decided to let it go. ‘Why do you want me to teach you? You already speak so well, and there are plenty of language tutors here on Yorktown...’

‘I trust you. You were the only one who explained to me, about Mister Scott’s name.’

‘They didn’t mean anything by it, not telling you,’ Nyota said. ‘They just thought it was...’

Cute? Funny? Somehow Nyota didn’t think Jaylah would appreciate that.

‘It doesn’t matter what they thought,’ said Jaylah. ‘They should have told me. Not having a knowledge, it makes you... open for attacks.’

‘Vulnerable,’ Nyota supplied.

Jaylah nodded. ‘Yes. That. If I will go to Starfleet Academy, I need to know that I can keep pace with the others. I need to understand the things I will have to learn.’

Nyota nodded. ‘You’re right, it’s competitive – it’s smart to give yourself every edge you can.’

‘Then you’ll help me?’

‘Yes. But not now. Meet me on the plaza at nine.’

* * *

‘Prepositions are… angry-making,’ Jaylah said, throwing stones into the water and watching them skip, ignoring the PADD in front of her.

‘Angry-making is OK, but try “annoying” or “infuriating”,’ said Nyota.

‘They are infuriating. In my language we do not have them. It’s much better.’

‘What do you have instead?’ Nyota asked. ‘How do you express the information?’

‘We put different endings on the other words. It makes sense that way. This way doesn’t make sense.’

Nyota thumbed the PADD, sending it to sleep. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘your grasp of Federation Standard is so good already, one of the best ways for you to improve is just to encounter more of it. Instead of going through all these example sentences, let’s look at song lyrics, or poems, or movies, and I’ll explain anything you don’t understand. That’ll help your sense of which prepositions suit which situations.’

‘Song lyrics?’ Jaylah said. ‘We can listen to the song at the same time as we read the words?’

Nyota smiled. ‘Sure.’

* * *

While Jaylah was waiting for the new year to begin at Starfleet Academy, and Nyota was waiting for the new Enterprise to be built so that she could ship out on it, they met most mornings to work together. Jaylah came every day with a long list of words and phrases she’d encountered, wanting Nyota to explain them all to her.

‘It doesn’t make sense!’ Jaylah said, for the fifth time that morning. ‘How could you steal thunder?’

‘It’s just a metaphor, Jaylah,’ Nyota said.

‘In my language, metaphors make sense,’ Jaylah said with a frown.

‘All right,’ said Nyota. ‘How would you express this in your language? How would you explain that someone was taking attention away from something important another person had done?’

Jaylah thought about it for a moment. ‘You’d say anasa whyra tolhi.’

‘And what does that mean?’

‘It means… they are climbing the other person’s signal tower.’

‘Anasa wyra toli?’

‘No, whyra tolhi.’

‘Anasa whyra tolhi?’

‘That’s it!’

Nyota smiled, satisfied. ‘I like the way it sounds. Will you teach me?’

‘You want to learn? When will it be useful? Who would you talk to?’

‘I’ll talk to you,’ said Nyota. ‘Don’t you miss it?’

Jaylah looked down at the list of phrases they were looking through. ‘Of course,’ she said.

‘We don’t have to,’ said Nyota. ‘if it makes you sad.’

Jaylah sighed. ‘Let’s try. I think it will be… a good sad. A remembering sad.’

* * *

It was a fascinating language, and Nyota picked it up quickly, but Jaylah still laughed at her mistakes, encouraged by Nyota’s own reactions. Nyota thought it was good for her to see that it was safe to get it wrong while they practised together.

‘You just told me you like eating shoes, not cake!’ Jaylah said, during one of their sessions. ‘You need to make the noise in your throat, not up near your nose. It is a normal mistake though. We have a children’s song about it. I will sing it to you.’

She cleared her throat and sang. It was a lilting melody with a strong, rhythm – Jaylah beat it against her knees with her hands as she sang. Nyota listened hard, trying to work out where the words began and ended.

‘I will write it down phonetically for you,’ said Jaylah. ‘Then we can try again. Then perhaps you can sing me a children’s song from your language?’

‘You know,’ said Nyota, ‘Federation Standard isn’t really my language, even if I do speak it fluently. The language I was raised with is Swahili.’

‘Swahili,’ said Jaylah, trying out the sounds. ‘What is it like?’

‘It’s beautiful,’ said Nyota. ‘Listen to this: Maua mazuri yapendeza, ukiyatazama yanameremeta, hakuna limoja lisilo pendeza.’

‘What is that?’ Jaylah asked.

‘It’s a children’s rhyme. It’s about beautiful flowers. Here, I’ll sing it.’

Nyota sang it through once, and the second time Jaylah tried to join in, catching the melody and humming the parts where she didn’t remember the words.

‘Does anyone else on the Enterprise speak Swahili?’ she asked, when they stopped.

Nyota shook her head. ‘Just me. I only speak it in my messages home.’

‘And now you speak it to me.’

They smiled at each other.

* * *

Jaylah went to the Academy. Nyota shipped out on the new Enterprise. Messages flew back and forth between them, in Federation Standard, Swahili and Medaht.

‘I had an engineering lecture today,’ Jaylah said in her most recent message, ‘and I recorded it, like I always do, but I didn’t need to listen to the recording afterwards – I understood everything first time. That’s a… what do you call it? A milestone. I looked that up. One of your funny human things. I like it. Don’t forget – you were going to send me another song in Swahili, after the one I sent you last time. I’m looking forward to hearing it!’

The message ended. Nyota smiled, and touched the button that would begin her recording.