A mighty fine language learner

Eric working with clay with Rwandan students. He claimed his bowl was one big mistake. His interactions with the students was anything but.

A year ago I did not know the name of the language in Rwanda, nor in fact whether there were multiple languages spoken there, nor anything about language policy, schools, teacher training, geography. Not much at all.

Then I got a call from Eric Poris. We’ve worked together on a few projects, mostly related to summer camps for language learning. Eric is creative and uplifting and he was excited. “I think we might have a thing to do that you are really going to like.”

And sure enough the emails and what-ifs morphed into airplane tickets to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, where I met Eric, Suzanne, Laura, and Gretchen. We were to spend five days visiting schools and people to get ready for a program we’ll run this coming summer for two weeks, in the city of Nyamata. A language immersion program for primary teachers to build confidence in English, and a curriculum to practice hands-on science instruction led by our colleagues from the California Science Center. 

Rwanda was amazing, a new experience for me. Lush valleys and a thousand hills, as they say. Thousands of motor bike taxis, too, and shop fronts along the streets, beautiful flowers and green grass lining the streets of the capital. New experiences like banana beer, sixty kilometer speed limits almost everywhere, and no public smoking anywhere. And of course the national language, Kinyarwanda. 

I learned a little and I plan to learn more. But as a language aficionado and teacher of language teachers, what blew me away during our time together was Eric’s phenomenal pace of learning. To give you an idea, on the last of our five days in the country we stepped through the final set of office doors for a meeting and, as we had grown accustomed to, Eric greeted and chatted in Kinyarwanda, each day the conversation just a little longer. One of our smiling hosts said, quoting as best I remember: “Oh! How many years have you been in Rwanda?”

What an inspiration. So what does Eric do that is so effective? What can all of us learn from Eric? 

Stop to chat. That might be rule number one. Of course on the first day, chat meant a few stock phrases. Muraho! Easy enough. Invariably you get a Muraho back. I’m pretty sure at this point they think this is the extent of what the foreigner knows. But since Eric had asked our cultural advisor for some beginning phrases on a Zoom call the week before, he added a how are you, Amikuru? and then he’d answer Ni meza when whomever he was talking to answered back. (Because, of course, they had said, even if it wasn’t totally understandable yet, something like “And how are you?”) This is where even some motivated learners might quit, perhaps raising their hands and saying “that’s all I know,” or “I’m just a beginner” – something which signals it is time for English now. 

Not Eric. He wades right into new territory, repeats whatever is new, asks what things mean, checks his pronunciation, smiles and shakes hands the whole while. When we did walk away from these encounters, under the semi-surprised gaze of our newly acquired native speaking friends, Eric jotted down the words he could remember.

“I like to write things down,” he confided. Maybe that’s rule number two – rehearse what you have learned, do whatever it takes to help your memory. Eric had a little orange notebook with him all the time. Either he wrote or he asked someone he was talking with to write for him. “Can you write that down for me?” I heard him say, often, during many of his short, friendly conversations.

And these short friendly conversations were frequent. Spaced repetition, language teachers might call it. Eric made these opportunities for himself by talking to anyone in the hotel we passed by – housekeepers, guards, drivers. There are plenty of folks around a hotel and they are ready to talk with guests. Especially guests who are ready to talk with them. 

But not just in the hotel. In fact, Eric talked with so many of the people he met – in the market, in restaurants, during school visits – that we as a group often had to stop walking because Eric was so far behind us, chatting. “Where’s Eric?” we’d say as we all turned around. There he was, shaking hands and repeating hellos, how are yous, thank yous, new vocabulary… all the while asking what this or that word meant, how do you pronounce this, would you mind writing that down for me?

One morning, I stepped out of the hotel with Eric to head to an appointment. As we walked along the street we heard a shout: “Eric!” A couple of joggers came over, smiling, talking, shaking hands. Yep, Eric had gone for a jog that morning and ran into – and with – these two guys. “Oh, and a whole lot more,” Eric told me, after they finished chatting. “There were probably a dozen of us running together by the time I looped back to the hotel.” 

His friendliness and commitment influenced the rest of us, me in particular as his sidekick, the other European staying in the same hotel, the other guy working on the language program. Eric spoke with everyone so much that everyone assumed I knew as much, too. When my shy self would have rather just stuck with Muraho, or ducked the language exchange altogether, I found I couldn’t. Amakuru ki? the concierge would say. Mwirime, said the guard at the end of the driveway. He always added a phrase and waited expectantly. Eric had turned everyone into our teachers. 

We went out to eat the first night we were there. Eric immediately engaged in a conversation with our waiter, Brian, now a WhatsApp friend on Eric’s long list of Rwandan friends and acquaintances. Brian came to our table often. Eric learned a little more each time. We took pictures with Brian and the two of them exchanged contact information after the photo, promising to stay in touch. “Nishimiye kubamenya, murabeho, inshuti.”

And in fact, Eric has stayed in touch. When he needed the music and lyrics to a Rwandan song for our summer program, it was Brian who sent some links. Urakoze cyane, Justin. 

On Saturday morning we had some free time. Without planning it, Eric and I both walked to the market, separately, and we both bought a country map and some materials about Kinyarwanda. Kindred spirits, perhaps. Nice serendipity. I practiced thank you, murakoze, over and over as I walked along and used it as often as I could. Felt pretty good about it. Threw in hellos and how are yous as well, everything I could remember. Later, when we found out we both had been at the market, we had a good laugh, and Eric said he had studied some numbers in the room beforehand, so he bargained in Kinyarwanda. He probably had looked up a phrase or two in addition, like “how much does that cost? Ankahe?” Things anyone could do … and things that expanded how long Eric could keep the conversation going in this new language, which increased his likelihood of hearing new words, so he could ask for new pronunciations and put his pen into someone else’s hand to write down something new. That’s another rule, whatever number we are on by now. Add a phrase or two to your vocabulary that you can immediately use, and then use it. 

Eric is adamant that language learning should be fun, and there is no doubt that he finds it so. He smiles from ear to ear while leaning in to hear a new word, he laughs big when he is trying to pronounce something, he claps new friends on the back, makes connections. 

The motto of his company, @Easyworld is “We love mistakes.” On the third or fourth day he greeted me in the hotel lobby with that infectious earnestness of his. Dukunda amakosa! We tried it out at the front desk and with the folks arranging taxis. What does this mean? Would you say this? A few people were unsure why we would love mistakes. 

Eric is unwaveringly apologetic about that. This is another key rule. Our last day we met with officials from the Rwanda Education Board. The stodgy part of me decided to wear a coat, to dress up. Eric dressed up, too, in a white t-shirt from his company, with the slogan in black font: We love mistakes. It was the perfect thing to wear, especially when he greeted everyone in Kinyarwanda, with a big smile, and the joy of learning twinkling in his eyes.

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