A Tale of Three Tongues by Christa Niyeze ’24
“Carrot.” While shinning boldly on the board in my kindergarten class, these six letters caught my attention. With little knowledge of what language owns those letters in that syntax, I stared at the word as though it might reveal some hidden secrets. At first, my mind translated the word to “karoti,” which is how I would say it in Kinyarwanda, the native language spoken in Rwanda. I remembered that my mother usually cut carrots on Sundays to put in the meat soup that we only ate once a week. Back then, I was not aware that I could understand three languages, Kinyarwanda, French, and a little bit of English, at the same time. I spoke three languages simultaneously within a conversation as if there were one single language. Due to that simultaneity, the line between my language development in my three languages is blurry.
However, my literacy narrative incorporates my journey of becoming more fluent in Kinyarwanda, French, and especially English after learning how to appreciate individual words and also my exploration on whether the number of languages I speak correlates with my global citizenship identity.
Four years ago, I was not fluent in English although I would have said that I fluently speak three languages. Although I was taking English classes in every grade, I did not practice it outside of school. We only speak Kinyarwanda at home, and my older brother bought us Television channels that were only in French, which helped me practice my French both at school and at home. I had spent quality time learning grammar in Kinyarwanda, French, and English, but only when I came to study in the United States, in August of 2017, did I deeply immerse myself in the English language, which now is officially my second language. By taking
English as a Second Language (ESL) class, I learned the English language in a course designed for international students whose native language is not English. For the first two years, I had to take ESL, where I received constructive feedback on how to write concisely and cohesively, similarly to how Americans should write. Thorough English lessons prompted me to be more aware of how I speak and how I choose to articulate my thoughts. I also utilized some skills that I learned in my ESL class while using French and Kinyarwanda, although grammar mechanics are different in those languages.
After making sense of the whole sentence, that is when words start jumping off the page. Every word on a page has the dignity to state its case by its definition and how it fits into a whole sentence. My ESL teacher encouraged me to read an entire sentence and focus on specific words that would help elucidate the meaning of the sentence. I got accustomed to this practice that every time I am reading in French and Kinyarwanda, I focus on individual words that will help me comprehend the whole sentence’s meaning. Words mean a lot because they give life to a sentence. Although I have imprecise memories of when I learned how to speak in my languages, I found myself enjoying spending time appreciating words and sentences.
Speaking three languages has its advantages. However, writing never gets easier. When an idea surfaces into my head, it automatically gets translated into the other two languages. However, putting words on paper is more than just having thoughts. It is also about knowing how to articulate those ideas and captivate your readers’ attention. Years ago, I was not fond of writing because I was neither exposed to consistent writing nor the pleasure of writing. While reading the word “carrot,” I comprehended its meaning, but sitting in my little chair and my arms on my tiny table in kindergarten, I could not get myself to write those letters down. For many years, I had allowed myself to believe that writing was not “my thing.” My writing improved when I reminded myself that knowing a few languages does not make it easier to write. The struggle to write is what makes me a writer. After learning the power of words, I appreciated my languages even more, which allowed me to cultivate passion to write so that I can share written thoughts with my family and comrades.
Studying abroad required me to thoroughly learn English. My English classes taught me the “White English,” as Asao Inoue would probably say. In my senior year of high school, I had outgrown my ESL classes. Although my English was not perfect, one of my English teachers once suggested that it would be best to go back to ESL classes for more tutoring because I did not meet the requirements. However, I did not get engrossed in the disregard of my effort and progress. When leaving home, my parents reminded me that I am not an American, but I have to learn from them and retain what is essential to me. When I read the introductory chapter of the book, Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom, written by Asao Inoue, I was reminded of how much the expectations and grading system in high school did not respect my literacy experience, but I made the most of it. I knew that when I am grown, I will create my expectations that respect my experiences.
Even though I had utilized three languages, I never thought that it was exceptional to speak three languages. I took for granted that I was born speaking three languages, as though it was one language. I did not acknowledge my talent until I realized that, in a few seconds, I could understand an idea in three languages. Fluency is not only about the ability to speak, read, and write a language but also to comprehend and feel the language to its fullest. In my ESL class, I started admiring the English language’s complexity, which paved a path to which I wanted to appreciate Kinyarwanda and French, as they are all my favorite languages. Then, I realized how much I did not know within each language. Earlier, I thought that my grammar was impeccable and that I could translate anything. I did not understand that some words can only be defined in their native language; I learned each language’s power. After this realization, my literacy path became complex yet straightforward.
Fortunately and unfortunately, speaking different languages does not make a person a global citizen. For instance, in Nigeria, there have more than four hundred spoken languages, but a Nigerian who knows five languages is not necessarily a global citizen because of their tongues. On the other hand, someone may be a global citizen without speaking as many languages. Let me use my breaking-down-the-sentence system from ESL to explain what I mean. Global means “relating to the whole world,” as stated in the Cambridge Dictionary website (“Global…”). From this basic definition, a global citizen is a person who is connected to the whole world. “Connected” means that one has a unique link with one another in this definition. Speaking Kinyarwanda, French, and English allows me to communicate with Rwandans and other people who speak French and English.
However, as Daisaku Ikeda states in the “Education for Global Citizenship” lecture in 1996, “wisdom, courage, and compassion” are “[one of the] essential elements of global citizenship” (Ikeda). Speaking three languages has brought wisdom and abilities to express myself in three languages. However, I need more than my languages to be considered a global citizen. Even though one may travel to many different countries on all continents, it does not make them global citizens. Moreover, learning and respecting another person’s culture and identity does not make a person a global citizen; decent human beings should take these particular actions to respect their fellow human beings not to feel like “saviors” and “global citizens.” To relate to the whole world is not an easy task. There are billions of people on this planet, so the idea of global citizenship is complex.
Consequently, our languages allow us to have thoughts woven with cultures passed on from generation to generation. Knowing only one language is like reading a single story because what you end up with is one set of beliefs and thoughts. However, learning another language, one is equipped with other stories and various kinds of ideas. As one learns many languages used globally, they taste different beliefs and stories that connect them to the world more than a person who only knows one language.
Through my languages, I attained diverse beliefs and thoughts that will assist me in my journey and adventures that I will undertake to become an authentic global citizen with wisdom, courage, compassion, and many experiences to share. From reading the word “carrot” in kindergarten to using three languages simultaneously, my literacy experiences have been so far part of my identity and my life in general. Knowing more about my languages gives me hope that I can know myself as well. In the reading “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Gloria Anzaldúa confidently states that she is her language, which wholeheartedly resonated with me (Anzaldúa 39). Superficially, I knew my languages. However, through my ESL classes and reading more stories on diverse literacy narratives, I have come to be fond of my languages, which has significantly improved my language development.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Aunt Lute Books, 1987, pg. 33-45.
“GLOBAL: Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” GLOBAL | Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary, dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/global.
Ikeda, Daisaku. “Education for Global Citizenship.” Daisaku Ikeda Website, lecture 1996, www.daisakuikeda.org/sub/resources/works/lect/lect-08.html.
Inoue, Asao B. “Introduction: Laboring Toward Grading Contracts and the Inner Dikes.” Labor- Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom, edited by University Press of Colorado, 2019, pp. 3–19.