African Languages On My Brain: Day 3

I decided to move from my lovely little cabin today. I realize that I am not learning  quickly enough. I need to learn at least 30 to 50 words a day to meet my target goal of 1000 words per month. I need a 2000 word vocabulary when I arrive in Ethiopia.  So I move to the cabin below that has electricity for me to use my computer to practice language.

I am annoyed that my friend does not practice Amharic with me. It would be easier if we could integrate some words into our conversation. I lose my annoyance as I remember the times when people wanted to practice English with me and I wanted to practice their language . I realize that he has many people to practice his language and very few people to practice English so that makes me his English partner. I find another Amharic partner.

I play the games on the computer naming different foods. I guess correctly and I realize that I have learned more than I thought. My new husband is inside my brain. I don’t know how the grammar is arranged. I know that the structure is different from English and the sentence structure subject verb object depends on prefixes and suffixes and prepositions and pronouns are optional. It is not enough.

I notice that there are sounds in Amharic which do not exist in English and certainly not American English. We don’t make sounds with the back of our throat. The k and the q are at the front of the throat. It feels awkward to make the sounds in Amharic. My new husband is obviously in my brain because I can guess the answers on the game.

I decide to go under the tree and go online and record the Amharic tapes from the website to my phone and then upload back to my computer. My new  husband and I can go to sleep with each other for the first time. I have to be present more with this language. There are not as many tapes as I have used with the former languages. I can’t buy 10 C D sets with Amharic. I have to sit and record from the website to play later and repeat from the computer game. I realize that I can actually spend more time talking to a real person but I don’t like making lots of mistakes.

I listen to the recordings along with the printed word and find it useful. Unfortunately I didn’t record but 45 minutes worth of lessons today and I make a commitment to do more tomorrow. I will read the explanations and then listen to the recordings and repeat.

Amharic words pop into my mind, lemen, man, new… I can’t remember what they mean but I know that they are questions words. So the language has penetrated my brain. This is good. It means that more words will come. I can hear the sounds of Amharic and when I take my time, I can make the sounds fairly well. I look at a three or four syllable word and when I am alone, I can focus on one syllable at a time. When I am talking to a native speaker, I tend to get impatient with myself and I rush. But this is only a temporary problem which can be overcome with practice.

The brain starts to prune sounds at 12 months of age. This process continues as the brain strengthens it’s connections with the mother language. We lose the ability to hear sounds that are not in our language. As we age we lose the ability to hear sounds at higher decibels. I don’t hear my mobile phone sometimes. But my brain attaches itself to the sounds in other languages like they are a long lost lover.

My personality changes when I learn languages. It is good that I am isolated. My hearing becomes more acute and all sounds tend to be louder as I focus on the subtle sounds found in other languages which are not in my own. Spanish helps me with trilling my r’s in Amharic. Arabic helps with the guttural sounds and French to a lesser extent.  I don’t really have a lot of tolerance for nonsense. I don’t like wordiness when I am listening to someone speak. Conciseness is  important to me. I can’t listen to people who rattle on with nothing to say.

I have 6 stages of language development Beginner-beginner is 1000 words or less. 1000-3000 words is  Beginner-Intermediate , 3000-5000 is Intermediate-Beginner 5000-7000 is Intermediate Advanced 7000-9000 is Advanced Intermediate and 9,000-10,000 is advanced. Even when I have a vocabulary which is over 10,000 words which is actually at the 5th or 6th grade level, my language skills are like swiss cheese. I have an extensive professional vocabulary and limited colloquial skills.

I notice that my friend’s language skills in English have reached the Intermediate Advanced stage. I listen fondly to the pattern that I know so well. My mind returns to Spanish, my first relationship with languages. I sat talking to a Cuban on a small wall around a park in Havana. Whenever I answer a question, I speak in complete sentences and use synonyms after the sentence. He looks at me. “I know my language” “You don’t have to keep repeating yourself, I understand you perfectly” I think  for a moment and then  reply” I  hear the difference in my Spanish and I don’t want you to think that I am not intelligent and I need  you to understand me.”  I am self conscious of my speech. “There is no chance of doubting your intelligence. You speak perfectly in Spanish as I am sure that you do in English, enunciating every sound like a school teacher”. I laugh, even the Cubans know that I am an Educator. I long for the day that I will know Amharic well enough to search for the right word. Now I just try and remember any words….


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