What Michael Crichton Taught Me About Kinyarwanda

Surprising myself, I’ve gotten into the habit of reading cheap thrillers, the kind people buy in airports and then leave behind on the plane when they’ve finished them

One of these cheap thrillers that I read was Prey by Michael Crichton. The plot isn’t relevant but I was intrigued by his explanations of the behavior of large groups of lower-level animals like ants, flocks of birds and termites. Termites, for example, can build mounds of such size and complexity for their communities to live in that humans observing them think they must have a leader termite with a vision for the whole project who is directing the other termites’ activities. In fact, according to Crichton, this isn’t the case. Termites are not communicating in such a complex way. Rather, each termite is a set of rules or guiding policies genetically hardwired into them. These rules say things like, in the case of mound building, “If you sense another termite has been in a spot recently, leave dirt there.” When each individual termite follows and these and other, similar rules the aggregate result is a mound. For we humans — social, communicative, visionary animals — the mound gives the illusion of conscious design and group cooperation but those elements aren’t actually part of how the mounds are built.

Reflecting on my experience of learning Kinyarwanda over the past seven months, I think some analogies can be drawn between the sort of group behavior described above and language learning.

At first, learning a language is bewildering and overwhelming. I remember being faced with a five-line dialogue in language class on our second day in country which seemed impenetrable and unconquerable in its complexity. So, because everything is so new, strange and confusing, we learn and use the new language imitatively only. This means we use language as we have heard it used, without changing or expanding. This is a natural and useful stage of language learning. It allows us to function, albeit in a limited way, and gives us a foundation for the higher-level thought about the language which will come later.

My observation, based on myself and my fellow volunteers, was that before long we began to try to generate original language ourselves, making new combinations of and variations on the forms we already knew how to imitate based on rules and structures applied analogically (consciously or unconsciously) from our native language and other languages we knew.

For example, one fellow volunteer saw the sentence “Umusarane ni hehe?” (“Where is the toilet?”) on our survival Kinyarwanda hand-out. Wanting to ask “Where is (my host-) daddy?” he took the language at his disposal and tried to generate original speech: “Umusarane ni papa?”, “Toilet is daddy?”

The mistake is understandable. In English, question words come at the front of sentences:
Where is Dad?”
But in Kinyarwanda, question words come at the end of sentences:
“Umusarane ni hehe?” (Literally: “Toilet is where?”)

So, in looking at the sentence and it’s correct, idiomatic English translation, this volunteer generalized incorrectly from English onto Kinyarwanda and mis-identified the parts of the sentence leading to the funny and bemusing question, “Toilet is daddy?”

So, still in the early stages of familiarity with a language, we do not know it well enough to apply its rules and paradigms to original language generation. And yet, it is necessary to try to use language creatively in order to progress in a language. But, when we use language creatively rather than imitatively, we need some basis on which to make decisions about which words to use and how. Our brains default to our native languages and we work analogically from one language to the other. Mistakes and miscommunications result, then, from the paradigm clash between the two languages (as well, of course, from the limited vocabulary beginning speakers have to work with.)

Through a slow but steady process of trial and error, a language learner begins to replace elements of their native language paradigm with those from the new language’s paradigm and, so, to speak more idiomatically and correctly. This is my favorite part of learning a language; I especially enjoyed it while learning Kinyarwanda because I was able to consciously observe the language learning process as it happened in a way I hadn’t when learning previous languages. Although it proceeds in stops and starts and sometimes seems to have stalled, this process of “getting inside” a language is necessary in order to eventually, speak fluently and comfortably.

It is in this observation, analysis and synthesis that I see similarities with the behavior of the termites. A single termite can have no conception of an overall plan or design for the termite mound. Similarly, a language learner simply cannot have a global view of the language they are learning. For either one, the complexity and scope of the whole is incomprehensible.

So, the termite and the language learner both work on the basis of a lesser or greater number of discrete rules: “dig tunnels to this depth but no deeper,” or “use ‘n’ or ‘m’ at the beginning of first person singular verbs in the present tense.” The aggregate effect of the application of these rules is, respectively, a termite mound and fluency in a language. In both cases, an extremely complex undertaking is made more simple by being broken into constituent parts. If I know nothing else about Kinyarwanda, I can conjugate verbs correctly in the first person singular in the present tense. This doesn’t allow me to communicate, really, but, as stated above, the result of correctly following many rules at once will be communication.

A key difference between the language learner and the termite, though, is that the termite will never grow in the complexity of its thoughts but as the language learner’s confidence and skills grow they can approach the language differently, more efficiently.

This means that
(1) learners can apply increasingly complex rules, rules that require understanding of subtleties of language usage or rules that govern large amounts of words or language functions.
(2) learners can begin to learn from native speakers in everyday situations rather than solely in a classroom setting.
I’ve found this ability growing in recent weeks myself. I’ve noticed that when I’m on the bus or in a shop I can hear people talk, notice something about the way they’re using Kinyarwanda and apply that observation to my own speech. Also, I can hear new words someone uses and remember them to look up or ask someone about later. It’s nice when you reach this point in learning a language because it means you can learn from everyday life, not just structured instruction. It’s also a good confidence boost because it means that you’ve advanced beyond survival mode in the language.
(3) learners can “get inside the head” of the language and begin to anticipate how the language will react, so to speak, in different situations.

To point 3: As I said above, part of what makes non-native speakers of a language speak it differently than native speakers is that they’re applying assumptions and rules from their native language and these just don’t fit the new language. The mismatch is what results in errors. However, I’ve found in studying different languages, that after a certain point you become familiar enough with a language to recognize it’s preferred ways of expressing itself, it’s likely patterns. At that point, even if you haven’t been taught something explicitly, you can make an educated guess about how to express a new idea in the language and, often, end up pretty close.

An example: Kinyarwanda very often uses verbs where we use adjectives in English. In English we can attach any number of adjectives onto the verb to be: I am sad, I am bored, I am happy, I am grateful, I am full, I am hungry, I am cold, I am hot, This is different, this is expensive, this is heavy, etc. In Kinyarwanda, each of those ideas is expressed by its own verb. Because of this difference, in the first couple months of study of the language, I would often ask my language teacher for different adjectives: hot, cold, loud, etc. and he would give verbs instead. Still dominated by my English paradigm, I went around Kinyarwanda’s preferred method of expression and still tried to use adjectives. Instead of using the verb which means expensive, I would say something like “This is a lot of money.” Eventually though, I became accustomed to using numerous different verbs to express these ideas rather than the verb + adjective formula I was familiar with from English and other Indo-European languages. This was a result of becoming familiar with and assimilating into my own language production Kinyarwanda’s preference for verbs, over and against English’s penchant for adjectives.

I haven’t heard anyone describe this process the way that I think about it — getting inside, or getting in the head of the language — but I think it’s something all language learners do, more or less consciously, as they progress in a language. It can only be done once you reach an intermediate or higher level in a language, but when you are able to start thinking this way it’s very rewarding because your speech becomes more natural and you make faster progress. The more consciously we can get in the head of a language — the target one and our own native one –, the more aware we are of the paradigms from which we’re working, the more effectively, I think, we can compare and contrast them with the new language’s paradigms and more effectively make the switch into the target language and, thus, speak more fluently.

So, if you’re still reading this I’m surprised because it turned out to be really really long. But, I’d love to hear your thoughts and maybe some reflections from your own language learning experiences!


2 thoughts on “What Michael Crichton Taught Me About Kinyarwanda

  1. It doesn’t really relate, but the main thing I’ve noticed when trying to learn languages is that it is crucial for me to see it written and to visualize the spelling of the language, but I assume lots of non-literate people have success in learning second languages without that. I wonder if it is how our brains are wired or just a crutch that I could do without if I tried.

    Also, I think you should write a book about a PCV who goes to Rwanda and experiences lots of hardship, but meanwhile finds that she can speak to the termites and command them to do her bidding. “The Termite Whisperer.” Then she is forced to decide if she will use her powers for good or evil.

  2. Yes! I think the book should be about how her experience of 3rd world poverty radicalizes her 60s Maoist rebel style and she uses her powers to take the termites to the Western World, destabilizing it by having the termites chew through and destroy all the important political and financial centers of the west.

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