Learning a language that will never be useful again

Before leaving for Rwanda, my coworkers attempted to help me study Kinyarwanda… of course, this was fruitless, but entertaining, being that none of us had any experience with a Bantu language prior.  But I learned about 5 words before leaving the comfy confines of the English language… mostly easy words like yego, oya, malariya, and muraho. [yes, no, malaria, and hello].  We laughed because it sounded just-so -foreign.

One week later…

On our second day in Rwanda, our group of 24 trainees was split into six groups, and I sat beside three other trainees watched our Language and Cultural Facilitators, act out a short dialogue.

They stood a few feet apart, facing away from each other, then turned around and began to walk slowly with their heads down, as if they were walking along a street. Then they make eye contact with each other and one, and upon doing so, one of them breaks into a wide smile and exclaimed “Muraho!” to his freind. On cue, after hearing this, the other also grinned and returned the word. “Muraho!

The dialogue then came to a quick end. Upon ending, each of our language teachers looked at our group inquisitively. “Iki ni iki?”. They continued to stare at us, in silence, waiting for someone to respond.

“Wait. What are they asking?” someone asked. “What is an eechie neechie? Are they asking us what an ichy nichy is? I don’t know what that is.” The group agreed, none of us had any idea what an ichie nichie was. We all nodded together, feeling that we had exculpated ourselves of our task by coming to collective group indecision.

Our teachers, still smiling, said nothing but went back and repeated the little sketch, beat for beat. After saying Muraho! to each other again,  they repeated their question: “Iki ni iki?”. The lightbulb then managed to click in someone’s mind. “Oh! They are just asking us what Muraho means. It means hello!”. We all nodded with recognition as we got our first taste of what language classes in Rwanda were going to be like. “Yego!”, they said laughing.

As they continued, some of the smaller and more basic words were written down, with their english definitions so we could reference them consistently. Yego means yes. Oya means no. Iki means what. Murabyumva means, do you understand? Iki ni iki means, what it it/this?  Our teachers never used English during this first session, instead addressing our translational needs by writing them down and posting them on the several large paper easels that flanked them on either side of their teaching stage.

On this first day, our foursome buzzed with excitement. The teachers, staying true to form, continued to act out small dialogues in lieu of telling us the words by didactic translation. They waved to each other and walked away, saying to each other “Mwirirgwe!”. “That means goodbye!”, someone blurted. They would award our correct guesses with a resounding and enthusiastic “Yego!” and punish a wrong guess with a soft and disappointing “Oya…”. 

    Amakuru?” means, how are you? We figured out slowly. “Ni meza” means, I’m good. “Wowe?” means, and yourself?

Our teachers had successfully hijacked the puzzle solving parts of our brains. The evolutionary mechanism that had once provided a hit of dopamine when our caveman ancestors recognized a lion in the bush hundreds of thousands of years ago, had been co-opted by two strange men teaching us the most basic of Kinyarwandan greetings. We loved it.

One. Month. Later.

I have Double Language today. Double Language. Four straight hours. No snacks. Can’t I just get food poisioning for the day, and skip the Double Potions with Snape….

On a random morning in our fourth week of training, I thought this to myself as I walk to language class. The thought rattles around my mind with every step down the road. DoublePotions. DoubleLanguage. DoublePotions.

The best week…. No language scheduled… but ha, haa….Peace Corps snuck it in during the supervisor workshop.

No matter how many times I’ve mentioned that I’d prefer both fruit AND eggs for breakfast, I rarely get both.  Some days its one or the other, and thankfully not all that often, it’s neither. Today, it just a piece of bread.  Walking to my language teacher’s class, I just kept thinking ‘no snacks today because double language…I need snacks

In the one short month I have been here, I have learn one thing:  I need protein in order to function. And I need lots of protein to function optimally.  And my Rwandan diet, has been devoid of protein most meals… As a result, I feel sluggish most of the time and randomly emotional.  As every American knows, BREAKFAST is the most important meal of the day and why Rwandans think one piece of bread and tea is a proper breakfast is beyond me.  But here I am.  On the day with double language, my breakfast is sweet bread. And water.


But like the conscious and disciplined American I am, I arrive for DoublePotions right at 7:45am. I am here. Just as The Schedule says to be.  However, none of my classmates are here nor is the teacher ready for class to begin. AND so I sit, in a somewhat uncomfortable plastic chair and nibble on my sweet bread, and drink my water…  Best to fuel up, I mumble to no one in particular.

By 8:00, my other classmates have arrived and my teacher begins asking questions. All in Kinyarwanda, of course.

I fumble, my brain searching for the right words.  Oh…past tense… we haven’t learned that yet. Kurya… the verb for to eat… How do you conjugate it again?  

M-fee-tay  ke-ke na a-ma-zi….I sputter out and produce said cake and water as evidence that I do in fact HAVE cake and water…not that I was avoiding the question

And this is how every language class goes.  We are asked questions.  I translate what I think I hear from Kinyarwanda into English in my mind. Then I think of what vocabulary I actually have in order to answer the question, and do I have the ability to conjugate that verb correctly?  Once I run through this scenario in my mind, I compose the sentence in Kinyarwanda and then sputter out an answer that could come from a 2-year old child.

Gusa?  My teacher asks.  She wants me to expand on that phrase.  Make it a sentence or preferably a paragraph. 

“Donna-ni-way can-di da-shon-jay”, I answer, with a smirk. I am tired and I am hungry. All day every day, I am tired and hungry. One question down, four hours to go. Class has just begun, and it’s another two hours until there’s a break long enough to get snacks.


Not unsurprisingly, learning Kinyarwanda is considerably different from anything I’ve ever tried to learn in my life.  I’ve always considered myself ‘decent’ at learning languages.  I’m semi-fluent in Spanish and have safely navigated around using Portuguese, French, Romanian, German, and Russian in addition to English and Spanish. But Kinyarwanda is different… just listening to it makes my head spin. I’m six weeks in and I am still very much at an elementary level. I don’t need an exam to tell me that.

My host family has had 8 previous volunteers so they are used to speaking slowly and enunciating words properly and switching to French or English when I answer their questions with blank stares.  Learning a language by immersion is exhausting. It takes a significant amount of mental energy, commitment, and time; and these three things are required every single day. After a long language session, in which I did nothing but sit down and occasionally stand for a few minutes to complete a learning activity, I was surprised to find myself more exhausted

When I hear Kinyarwanda, I have a hard time understanding it. My language progress checks with my teachers also reflect this fact. [Mid LPI result on July 7, I scored Novice-Mid.  Final PST LPI on August 7, I’m up to an Intermediate-Low, but don’t worry, we’ll be tested again in three months] Besides the fact that it is largely my fault for perhaps not putting in as much personal study time as I should be, I attribute much of this difficulty to the Kinyarwandan convention of blending words together.

While in American English we may blend two words as a matter of slang, Rwandans do it is a lingual rule. In Kinyarwanda, if you do not blend words together, it is an improper method of speech and people will know (among a million other things) that you are not a native Rwandan. In every instance where a word ends in a vowel, and is followed by a word that starts with a vowel, you drop one of the two letters, along with its entire syllable and blend the two words into one word.

Speaking the language is also difficult, although I would argue it is not quite as difficult as listening. This is in large part because as a native English speaker the sentence structures, particularly of questions, are almost entirely backwards. In Kinyarwanda, question words almost always go at the end of sentences. For instance, going back to the brain racking question my teacher asked me above: Saying to someone “Ukora iki”, means, what do you do?; but literally translates to “You do what?”. It is like that for just about everything. You are here why? This is what? The market is where? In addition to putting question words at the end, adjectives go after nouns; this is similar to Spanish. But when you put these two elements together, it forces your brain into cryptic problem solving mode anytime you have to say a sentence with any more than 5 words. When I think to myself a moderately detailed sentence like, “What do your American friends like to do?”, my head spins. The question word goes to the end, there are plural words, there are possessive words, there is one adjective. It all goes completely out of what we would consider “order”: Inshuti wawe muri Amerika bakunda gukora iki?  That translates literally to: Friends yours in America they like to do what? It’s a difficult puzzle to solve each and every time. Don’t forget to blend Gukora and Iki … or they’ll know you are not native Rwandan.

The words for things, and the lack thereof in certain instances, perfectly captures stark differences between American and Rwandan culture. The most glaring in my mind is the fact that in Rwandan there is no word for “Please”. You can just tell people to do things, in declarative sentences, and it’s not considered rude in any way. The thought of commanding some one to simply “Stop” or “Give me that” or “Come here”, or “I am hungry and I want dinner”, without manners, was impossible to understand.

Of course, these are just a few of the myriad differences in culture and language that I have seen in my first eight weeks in the country. I am constantly baffled, frustrated and amazed at how different the human experience can be. Learning the language is but one of the many ways we are trying with all our might to fit into a country that is wholly different from our own. The experience has been one I won’t forget.

Some of my favorite words to say are “Umudugudu” which means village. Oo-moo-doo-goo-doo.  ‘Abakoreabushake‘ which means volunteers. A-ba-co-re-ra-bu-sha-che.  ‘Ikigonderaubuzima’ which means health center post. Ichie-gon-der-a-u-bu-zima. ‘Nka Kibazo’ which means no problem, don’t worry about it… Naa che-ba-zo.

I’ve got two years, right?

Ipusi wanjye ee-puss-e wan-j… My kitty… I miss her very much


One Comment Showing 50 most recent
  1. Kim

    Wow!! I admire you!

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