Back to school

I set myself a challenge for the three months that I’m in Rwanda to really give it my all with regards to the native language, Kinyarwanda.

Yes, it might be a lowly #84 in global rankings of languages by number of speakers (though 10 million is more than enough to be getting on with, and the minute proportion of those I’ve met have been charming).

Yes, I might only be here three months.

But it’s been such a long time since I really invested time in language learning. Even in the three months I was living in Botswana I never got much further than greetings in Setswana and Sekgalagadi.

The project

So, with all the supposed benefits of language learning, from the social to the neurological, I decided I would try and new approach this time. Plus, it’s fun to have a project.

Earlier this year I did the Learning to Learn MOOC, offered for free online by the University of California, San Diego. This course does a great job giving the layperson a basic and practical understanding of the neuroscience of memory, learning and procrastination (with some endearingly creaky editing, graphics and fashion choices thrown in). It was through the course I first heard of this book:


Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner combines tricks used by opera singers, secrets of language schools and spaced repetition systems (basically clever flash cards) to apparently optimise the way your brain can assimilate -and hang on to- a new language fast.

I only opened it on the plane out here but already I seem to be remembering things with more ease than I usually might on holiday. Since the book urges you to learn pronunciation before vocabulary and grammar, it is still early days (though I can pronounce the hell out of Ubwongereza) so yet to have a final verdict.

Then by coincidence I stumbled upon a taught course run by the Institut Francais here in Kigali that is running for EXACTLY the period I am here. Well that was too spooky not to give it a go, which is what I did tonight.

The teacher is engaging, and with only four people in the class it is pretty incredible value at £2.50 per hour! Though I am again resentful that I didn’t learn grammar at school. I am ashamed to say I’m not entirely sure what exactly conjugating a verb is, although apparently I did it tonight!

Learn a language, learn a culture

Language has been fascinating to me ever since The Tempest blew my mind with the idea that you might not be able to imagine something you don’t have words for.

You can go further: you can only begin to understand a person’s culture when you understand their language. It’s so cool to find linguistic quirks and instances where languages don’t translate exactly.

Kinyarwanda is already bearing fruit in this regard:

  • New teacher explained that “in Kinyarwanda, there are no questions, only wishes”
  • I live ‘on’ Kimironko district as it is named for a hill, my classmate lives ‘inside’ his as it’s within an urban grid plan
  • When you bid your leave to someone in the morning (‘wirirwe’) you seem to essentially wish them that they will survive the rest of the day (“you never know what can happen”)
  • There are at least five words for man (depending on age), four for woman and one for ‘woman who acts like a man’
  • There is no way to wish an atheist sweet dreams. I am told.

Whilst introducing myself and demanding coffee and bananas is useful,  I’m looking forward to learning more and seeing how far I can get with Kinyarwanda by December! And since it’s in the Bantu family of languages I hope it will help with Swahili at some later date – #1 African language by popularity contest*.

*though most of those 120 million speakers have it as a second language. Kinyarwanda has more native speakers! 

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