Kinya Believe It: Rwanda’s National Language

Technically, there are three national languages in Rwanda: French, a legacy of the Belgian colonization of the area, Kinyarwanda, an African language related to Swahili, and English, made a national language recently by the Rwanda government as part of a push towards modernization and greater international competitiveness.

Because all Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda (while only some are conversant in English and/or French), Peace Corps volunteers are trained in Kinyarwanda. In fact, according to my welcome material, PCVs will spend the first 12 weeks in-country engaged in immersive and intensive language training.

All I have to say is: Bring. it. on.

If you know me you know that I love language. I love learning languages and I love learning about language. When I was in Spain this summer I re-discovered just how much I love hearing and speaking a foreign language. I cannot get enough of speaking Spanish. I like the constant challenge of trying to express myself both grammatically and articulately (and, ideally, elegantly) in a foreign language. I like having to juggle tenses and genders and moods and voices in my head, while also searching for vocabulary and trying to work a little slang in every now and then. I like thinking about how different languages express the same idea differently, and why. I like listening to non-native English speakers speak English and trying to figure out why they choose the words they do, what grammatical structure in their brain is influencing their “non-traditional” English usage. It’s fascinating.

I’m hoping that this passion for language carries over into my study of Kinyarwanda. It’s a feeling similar to what I’ve heard some mothers describe when pregnant with their second child: “Can I love it as much as my first?” Will I enjoy Kinya as much as I do Spanish? Will it have the same charm and pleasantly persisting challenges? Time will tell.

Here’s some information about Kinyarwanda:

  • it’s a member of the Bantu language family. This family includes the lingua franca of East Africa, Swahili, as well as a number of other East African languages of varying degrees of extension.
  • like Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese (among other languages), Kinyarwanda is a tonal language. This means that the rising or falling inflection used when pronouncing words affects their meaning, in addition to the spelling and grammatical form of the word.
  • it has 16 different noun classes. Grouped by semantic category (the meaning of the noun), each noun class contains a different prefix for both singular and plural versions of that noun. For example, for a noun class pertaining to humans, “umu” is a prefix for a singular noun, and “aba” is the prefix for a plural noun. Thus, umuntu, person, and abantu, people.
  • in addition, each noun may be further modified by infixes, (like a prefix or a suffix but inside the word.) These infixes change the meaning or function of the noun.
  • verbs in Kinyarwanda function similarly, with prefixes denoting person and number and infixes denoting tense.
  • it is spoken by about 8 million people in Rwanda

As you can see, Kinya is more complicated than the Romance languages which most Americans study in school (Yo hablo, tu hablas, etc.). Additionally, because they come from different language families there are very few cognates between English and Kinyarwanda.The good news, though, is that the Peace Corps will be providing volunteers with local language tutors who will spend several hours each day helping us learn the language. In a way, it’s a real luxury to be able to spend 12 weeks focused on languaged learning.

So, without a doubt, learning Kinya wil be a challenge, but, I feel excited and ready. Immersion, here I come!



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