I should know more Amharic after 3 weeks in Ethiopia. African languages elude me due to the dynamics of national economic disparities. We play this game competing for my resources. The world sees American as money banks. This attitude prevails in Africa. I need English to negotiate with well meaning and not so well meaning people.
In the Oromo region, Ethiopians use English for writing, Amharic for teaching and Oromo for personal conversations. I find myself sitting with people who shift between the three during our conversation. There are many concepts for the brain to wrestle with three languages during the conversation.
My brain distinguishes Oromo words and Amharic words. Some words are the same or close. Amharic and Oromo remind me of French and Spanish. One a Cushitic language and other Semitic language but they have some sounds in common and some sounds which distinctly identify the language.
I read people like adults read the side of cereal boxes. My background in psychology and a partial life of poverty sensitized me to subtle nuances in body language, facial expressions and voice tone. These characteristics are consistent across cultures. I understand “I don’t know” or “tell her” … whatever story the person feels is convenient. I understand numbers, time concepts, colors and parts of the body.
Africa can be challenging to navigate without native language skills. People can be impatient and resentful with foreigners learning their language. Language gives a group coherence and a sense of inclusiveness as well as pride. When spoken by an outsider, it can be disconcerting because that person does not belong to the group. If you have jealousies or resentment towards that group, it can be even more problematic.
It never ceases to amaze me the things that people say in front of you when they think that you don’t understand . The boldness and rudeness of their comments startle me. My facial expressions and body language betray no sign of my inner discomfort.
I am the great-granddaughter of slave owners, slaves and Native Americans. I know how to put it on with the best of them. I faced some really harsh bigots in my time and didn’t blink an eye or move a muscle. “Putting it on” was a survival mechanism from slavery. Slaves were always perceived as happy because their survival depended on keeping a happy front. So I have mastered the blank stare which suggests that I don’t understand and I need you to translate for me.
Three weeks gives ample time to distinguish between those I can trust and those I can not trust and how much I can trust those who have earned trust. Some people notice that I understand what is being said. I let my guard down and answer the question in English or with a word from their language.
I am ready to study the language in earnest now and see how much I can learn in the month that I have left. I decided that I need to organize the languages in my brain. I created a spreadsheet. I know that I write a book on African languages for those who follow me.
The frontal lobe contains higher level functioning for planning, execution and high level decision making. Normally when I learn a language, I use my frontal lobe for the language for about 4 to 6 weeks without any other demands on my higher level thinking skills. Many Africans whom I face during the day speak and write fluent English even when they have some problems with comprehension. They spend a lot of time informing me of what is best for me to do. I need my negotiation skills in English to proceed past these cultural obstacles.
My receptive language or how much I understand of what I hear has increased markedly. I can distinguish, Amharic, Arabic, Swahili and Oromo, which I feel is a major accomplishment. I use whatever word that I know. I find that I know more Swahili words than I thought since they come up when I am trying to find an Amharic word. I catch words in conversation along with body language so progress has been made.
I am grateful for the sensitization process. I know how to learn while feeling threatened (not for my physical safety). I know how to navigate and learn a culture much different from my own and see the humanity in that culture.
I bought books on the Oromo language so that I can communicate with people in the surrounding area. Later I buy books on the Amharic language in Roman script so that I can navigate the Universities and speak with the decision makers.
My next step in the language learning process involves teaching. I teach English and the other person teaches me Amharic and Oromo. My neighbors have picked up quite a bit of English from our interactions. They notice that I have acquired words In their language and that my comprehension improves daily.
The sounds in Amharic and Oromo can be troublesome if others over focus on sound instead of communication. Most people fail to realize that they speak English with an accent and emphasize words following the grammatical structure of their native language. I must visualize the word to understand what they are communicating. If I understand without clarification, I continue with the conversation. If I need clarification to enhance meaning, I repeat the word so they can clarify. I need the same consideration.
I hear the different sounds in African languages. I make associations with other languages. I must practice the sounds with relaxed physiology in order to approximate a native speaker. I need people with patience, not people who insist on me repeating the same word to their satisfaction. So I need to learn to ignore these people and keep talking while at the same time practicing the sounds so that I can approximate them more closely. I commit to spending more time simply practicing the sounds.