African Languages on My Brain : The Fidel

GE DIGITAL CAMERAThe fidel is the Amharic letters. I have avoided them because they seem very calligraphic and I am not sure how to reproduce them. I realize that knowing the fidel and being able to read in Amharic script and communicate in this alphabet. I found  a workbook which makes this process easier. My goal is to design my own workbook to practice the fidel from the perspective of an American adult trying to learn the language.

Foreign language materials designed for children age 4-7 fail to address the needs of adult learners. Popular languages  English, French, Spanish and Portuguese fill this gap with young entrepreneurs who design full interactive lessons. African language teachers  treat their language with such reverence that it becomes a political vehicle. They put the political and religious agenda before the needs of  Amharic language learners.

The Amharic language learners would be Aid workers, missionaries and foreign corporate workers. Translators and guides earn a living from foreigners who lack Amharic skills. They wield a great deal of power. They control interactions between locals and foreigners. No one relinquishes power easily.  Ethiopia receives 3.5 Billion in aid making it the  fourth largest recipient of official humanitarian aid in 2010. Ethiopia received the equivalent of 11% of its gross national income (GNI) as aid (ODA) in 2010. So keeping foreigners in the dark gives Ethiopians more influence in this interaction.

The best Amharic language programs were published years ago. I find the recent materials to be helpful but they rely heavily on memorization. It occurs to me  that the learning materials will  evolve as the teaching methods in the country evolve. Most Ethiopians seem to believe that most Amharic language learners are the children of ex-pats living abroad with some exposure to the language at  home.

I find that I memorize the sounds better when I write the letters. I know  2 ha’s, ma, sa and la. I am getting sound symbol relationship in Amharic. As a visitor in Ethiopia, this means that I can read signs and menus. I know that reading will come naturally as I learn letters that are necessary for me to navigate my way around Ethiopia even with friends.

I approach Amharic much more relaxed than I did in the country. I felt overwhelmed when people discussed me in front of me with no indication that I understood them. My roof leaked in the house where I stayed and I  awoke in the middle of the night to re-arrange my things so that they wouldn’t get soaked. Late night mopping adversely affected my personality and my concentration during the day for studying language. I also worried and wondered when out during the day, that it might rain and flood while I was gone and my things would be destroyed.

I developed a chest cold in Ethiopia which made making sounds in the back of my throat painful. I chose to nurse my throat and avoid these sounds. It slowed my ability to speak the language correctly but not my ability to understand the language.

Language teachers want language learning to fit this neat orderly process. Teaching a language can’t be neatly compartmentalized. I believe that Ethiopians want to make sure that foreigners value their culture and use language as a vehicle to protect their culture from outsiders. Many people speak English and develop English materials that we can not control it  and what part of our culture is shared. Make no mistake learning English in the U.S. or the U.K is clearly political if you only interact with native speakers. The difference with learning major European languages is that you have so many learning and teaching aids to teach yourself.

Language learning is not an abstraction, it is a means to an end. People have a need to communicate and verbal language allows one to communicate. Language is developmental. The development is not always even and predictable, it is sloppy and disorganized. Correcting someone constantly before they have internalized  concepts is worthless. It is a learner based experience because the learner decides what tools s/he needs to meet their needs.

A study conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human development conducted a study of 20 month old infants from various countries who spoke a variety of languages. Despite the different grammatical structures, babies learn nouns first and then adjectives.  This natural progression allows one to express their  needs and desires.

Somehow we accept this natural progression for infants but tend to be impatient with adults learning a language. We overcorrect and ridicule.  Many Ethiopians are pleased that I have taken the time to learn their language. People trust you more when you can speak their language. They assume that you understand and respect their culture. So I know that it makes sense to be cautious. The best way to decide who to trust and not trust is to keep the lines of communication open.

Americans smash language. We use fewer words with maximum punch. Many cultures find this style to be crude and offensive. Making mistakes and lots of them are all a part of learning a new language. The sooner you make the mistakes, learn to recognize your errors and  correct them the sooner you transfer the language from short term to working memory.

So I began to open my mouth and make mistakes. I talk to myself and use the tools available. I create my own tools to move this process along.



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4 responses to “African Languages on My Brain : The Fidel

  1. Hi,

    do you know the book “Essentials of Amharic” by Grover Hudson and Anbessa Teferra? It is prepared especially for speakers of American English and contains a good overview of the basic grammatical structure:

    There is also the small but nice book “Selam! Learn Amharic” by Dawit Lambebo, but you probably know it already.


    • Yes, I have this book and I love it. I use it as a reference source. I use some other materials that are out of date but they are excellent also. I have ordered Dawit Lambebo’s book but have not received it yet.

  2. Lots to be discussed about languages. There are more than 70 languages spoken in Ethiopia. But lots of us speak maximum of 2 or three out of all these languages. You can find lots of interests at Addis Ababa to study Chinese in Ethiopia than one of the local languages. Yet, many Ethiopians would like to go and work somewhere in Ethiopia where they do not speak the local language. If you ask why there is that high interest to study Chinese in Ethiopia? the answer is because there is a chance to work with them…not because Chinese is an easy language. I am trying hard to learn danish here. I lived at Hawassa for about 7 years, 4 years as student and 3 years working. I did work in the village around Hawassa. We had to use translators to work with farmers. So, it is not only you from abroad that can have difficulty with language. Even we the Ethiopians got the problem. But, we didn’t see it that way. Amharic is not easy also..and the same is true with other languages. We say ‘ wenz yemayashagir kuankua’ when we discuss about our local languages….which means languages which does not help you even to cross a small local river literally, the point is if there is benefit in learning that language. Its all because of our ignorance. In addition, it would help more if knowledge of local language is rewarding. I also share the blame since I had a chance to learn 2 more local languages…we are rushing after what sounds having potential of earning money. You can see how proudly an educated Ethiopian would try to speak French….but not as such glad to try to pronounce one of the local languages. ….

    But, if more user friendly teaching materials should be available compared to French, English or Spanish is a question of what benefit it got for those who could spend their time and energy in developing such tools. Yes, there are future potentials but in the short term investing in fidel or other local languages is not as rewarding as it is doing the same on English for example. In addition, as you know our resources are limited and majorly not wisely invested on what could help the nation in long term.

    I do not share the point you raised that Ethiopians are keeping foreigners away using language as a tool. As far as I know, lots of Ethiopians are wiling to help foreigners try to speak our language. Yes, English is widely spoken all over the world and it helps those from English speaking countries to easily travel around and take the advantage of communicating with their mother tongue. I am not quite sure if the case of Ethiopia is different from other African countries when it comes to diversity and native languages. Yes, we have our own letters for Amharic. But, that has got its own good and bad sides….yet, i do not think it was designed in such away that foreigners can not learn it easily. I can see here in Denmark that Danish is very difficult to learn. It is the way the language is…is it sound to say that the Danes are trying to keep others away using the language? It depends.

    But I do share your point that Language learning is not an abstraction, it is a means to an end…in my opinion Language can be a tool for protection of natives from outsiders in its strict terms.

    I will write more about languages from an Ethiopian perspective. But, best of wishes in your effort in learning Amharic.

    • Thank You for this feedback. It motivates me to design my own materials. I believe that there are less materials to learn Danish do it would impact the number of people acquiring the language. I also know because Danes have attended my workshops that they want refugees and other immigrants to learn the language which means that they need to develop more learning materials.

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