Amharic Days

6 May

I’m going to go out on a limb and say Ethiopian Amharic (and Ethiopian Tigrynia) are some of the hardest languages to learn in Peace Corps. What about Russian? What about Chinese? What about Arabic? Ok, those are probably pretty hard too, but at least you’ve heard those languages before- in a movie maybe, or from a neighbor. I’m pretty sure 98% of volunteers came into Ethiopia having no exposure to the language.

What makes Amharic difficult? It is one of the three major Semitic languages in the world (Arabic and Hebrew being the other two). Its grammar structure is the opposite of English, but only sometimes. So you can’t just turn an English sentence backwards. I have to think of the entire statement before I say it, which if you know me and my foot in my mouth ways, it’s probably a skill I should develop.

It’s phonetic, and like most other languages has different conjugations for everyone—male, female, polite, plural etc. (there are 10 in all for each verb), not to mention 10 in each tense. This is also a language of prefixes and suffixes. To address an action to someone, to create an imperative, to say “let me,” to really put any sort of purpose to a verb you have to add in extra syllables at the front, end and even sometimes middle. And I thought German had the longest words…

The result is that many times people speak to me and I catch the fact that they are speaking to me (a female “you”), asking if I will do something in the future (a “ta”) and for them (ñ at the end)… but I miss the actual verb root buried in there. I’m getting really good at the phrase “inenja mikniatum algañim” which is… I don’t know, because I don’t understand. Or a sharp intake of breath… which doesn’t mean yes or no, just I’m listening—the Ethiopian equivalent to the nod and smile. Ishi.. Okay.

But never fear, the lovely lady leading me through the mire is an English professor at the Teacher’s College here in Gondar and the best shuro wot chef west of Woldia:

Aster and I at the Teacher's College

As you can see I am a giant in this country…

Language acquisition is an interesting feat. In a total emersion situation like we are as volunteers, after 10 weeks of training and 6 months at site, I can interact on my survival needs and communicate in basic ways and answer basic questions as long as people speak slowly. But really for about half a year of language, I can get around. On the other end, Ethiopian children learn English from Grade 1 and are taught subjects in English in High School (don’t get me started on that). And unless they are really smart kids and go on to university, I would say my Amharic conversational skills are better than theirs… 10 years in.

But like most hidden powers, sometimes I like to keep my Amharic to myself. I know way more dirty words than I should (thank you harassment), but I can pretend to ignore them (which I tend to find is best practice). But sometimes I’ll start in English and switch to Amharic mid way through to throw people off in the market, hearing bargaining and understanding real prices. Wabam! Didn’t see that one coming, did ya popcorn lady!…

But language is always an ongoing process. I’ve probably hit a plateau at this point – getting faster at phrases I use more often, but losing words I used to know during training (struggled to come up with the word for orange the other day). But you hone what you need and use. I don’t pretend to think I will ever be proficient or even close to fluent, and the ugly truth is that I don’t need to be. But small steps, a few new phrases here and there, can make a big difference in living and working here. So Aster and I hang out, and sometimes I learn something.

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