The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

The Challenge of Amharic

Author - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan


"I want to learn Amharic", said Anne.

"So do I", I said.

"I thought you'd spent four years at SOAS learning the language", she replied.

"Well, there's learning to speak and there's learning academically. The emphasis was on the latter. But I don't think I was any good at either. I don't seem to know very much. Can hardly understand a word when I hear the spoken language."

Anne was bemused. I don't blame her.

There's only one way to pick up a language. You have to immerse yourself in it. Either you go to where it's spoken or you arrange for where it's spoken somehow or other to come to you. With twenty thousand plus Ethiopians in the UK, this shouldn't be difficult.

Believe it or not, there are very few classes a ferendj (foreigner) can attend. The Ethiopian community (Ethiopian Community in Britain: www.ethiopiancommunity.co.uk and also the Ethiopian Community Centre in the UK: www.eccuk.org) has, at various times, arranged classes. These are for children. Provided you can get over the disparity in age, learning with children is absolutely ideal. Unfortunately, this doesn't apply the other way round. Understandably so. Some children feel inhibited with adults in their midst.

You can learn Amharic at SOAS. But it costs. Last enquiry resulted in £470 for each ten week term (4 hours/week). That's a lot of money. I imagine for that cost the syllabus will have been well researched and very intensive. You would certainly have to have the time to respond; to do the course work; listen to tapes and so on.

Dr David Appleyard, Reader in the Languages of the Horn of Africa, is himself the author of Colloquial Amharic, Routledge 1995. By the time I got my copy in 2003, the book had gone through four reprints. It's obviously very popular; and it's very good.

Learning Amharic the easiest way! - Photo: John Mellors

There's also the Lonely Planet's Ethiopian Amharic Phrasebook. I got my copy in 2002 - for all of £4:50. It's a bargain. Like all phrase books there's a phrase for every occasion: 'Where can I find an English speaking babysitter?' (en-gli-zenya yemit'-tchil ye-lejoch mog-zeet yet a-gen-yallehu?)

When I say a phrase for all occasions, I may have left one or two out. Do you remember a publication a few years ago: How to be Rude in Five Different Languages. This had the memorable phrase, not so far as I can see reproduced in the above-mentioned Lonely Planet edition: "Would you be so kind as to ask your child to stop peeing all over my sandwiches". Well, I agree with you - it's inconceivable that an Ethiopian child, any Ethiopian child, would ever dream of doing such a thing.

Language is communication. I have always found that being able to say "How are you?", "Please", "Thank You", "Hallo" and "Goodbye" makes such a lot of difference. Hearing you say a few words in their own language gives everyone a great deal of pleasure. It really doesn't matter whether you say it well or not. In my case, I reproduce quite a good accent. In fact my problem with all foreign languages is that I'm all accent - and no language!

The idea that everyone can, should, speak English is not as far fetched as you might think. A work colleague told me that on holiday in Portugal his wife asked the taxi driver how far the hotel was from the airport. Getting no answer, she asked a lot louder. Still getting no answer, she complained to her husband: "What's wrong. Is he deaf or something?"

Ethiopians are incredible: they ascribe more importance to reading and writing than they do to speech. They're literally amazed that anyone should have gone to the trouble of learning to read and write fidel, the word for the Ethiopian alphabet. Actually, fidel is not alphabet. Fidel is a syllabary which my Oxford Concise English dictionary describes as: a list of characters representing syllables and (in some languages or stages of writing) serving the purpose of an alphabet. Who could have put it better?

In (I hope) simple terms, it's a question of learning to recognise thirty-three different letter-forms. Many letter-forms duplicate the same sounds. For example, there are three letter-forms which represent the English sound 'h'; two each for 's', 'ts' and 'p'. Most letter-forms change shape in a regular way to convey the sounds 'e', 'u', 'ee', 'a', 'ey', a shape for the essential sound of the letter without a vowel, and finally the seventh order (as they've been called) 'o'. It wouldn't be interesting if there weren't a few letter-forms that change form irregularly. You soon get used to it all.

Many Ethiopians - fewer now than ever before - cannot read or write. Maybe that's why those who can are held in such awe, particularly if they are ferendj. All I know is that I'm deeply envious of people in the Society like Graham Tayar - he has had no formal Amharic tuition but picked it up from his staff when living and working in Addis. Graham and I go to Ethiopian restaurants and it's he, not me, who's chatting fluently at fourteen to the dozen to the waiters and waitresses.

He may not know - though he probably does - that the everyday greeting 'tenayi-ste-l-ign' literally means 'let (God) give (you) strength for my sake', but he uses the phrase and hears the greeting reciprocated. He may not know that 'yiste-l-ign' is made up of four different particles. But does he really care? Should he? Should you?

In the end, it all depends on the intensity of your engagement with the people of Ethiopia. It also depends on whether you are gifted and whether you have a good ear. It also depends on whether, unlike the Portuguese taxi driver, your respondents speak English. If they do, you're done for. Between speaking and not speaking, not speaking is always the easier and safer option.

Go for the challenge! Repeat any phrase you hear and start speaking.

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Geoffrey's article was prompted by our discussions at a recent Supper Club about how I would like to develop my very limited Amharic further and how difficult it is when not hearing spoken Amharic on a daily basis.

I first visited Ethiopia in 1995 but prior to going studied some very basic Amharic at evening classes at Hackney Community College, north London. The students were a very mixed group including aid workers, independent travellers, tour operators, Rastafarians, and Ethiopians learning their mother language for the first time. Progress was slow but I persevered and learned, more or less, the fidel which has been a great help. I am one of those people who has to read a language in order to learn. Numbers of students dropped slowly over the first year and for the second year Hackney Council provided the course free of charge to try to encourage attendance - it didn't work as the year ended with only two of us turning up on a regular basis. Classes limped along for a little longer but eventually ceased. Sadly, I can't find any London borough currently running adult education classes in Amharic and SOAS appears to be the only institute offering tuition.

The book supplied at evening class was Amharic for Foreigners by Semere Woldegabir, published in Addis, now available in shops such as Foyles or the Africa Book Centre in London. Whilst useful in class I would not have found this easy to use on a 'teach yourself' basis. I do like Lonely Planet's Ethiopian Amharic Phrasebook - it has English, Amharic, and phonetic all simply presented and can be easily dipped into just to learn a new word or phrase.

I have tried various other ways to improve my Amharic over the past decade but without much success. I've found it difficult to learn more in Ethiopia as my conversational standard is low and many Ethiopians are more than happy to try out their English.

Many hours have been spent browsing in the bookshops in Ethiopia and I usually manage to return home with a rucksack half stuffed with children's books - mostly very basic reading primers with lots of pictures and just a few lines of Amharic text. The ones that were printed in the USSR or Eastern Europe in the 1980s are often extremely nice. Unfortunately, with no English text present, it is rather hard to make sense of them.

Interactive CDROMs are useful tools. Learn Amharic produced by EuroTalk (www.eurotalk.com) is pitched at a much lower level than David Appleyard's Colloquial Amharic. It only covers very basic words and phrases but is great fun to explore with games and quizzes. Shining Star Multimedia (www.africanlanguage.com) also produces Amharic CD courses and there are now four available in the series. Again audio and video clips, 3D animation, games, and multilevel quizzes are used.

Another way to listen to spoken Amharic is via programmes broadcast on the radio or over the internet. Spectrum Radio broadcasts the Negat Ethiopia Radio Amharic Service from The Ethiopian Community Centre in the UK every weekend (558AM in the South East, on DAB, on SKY channel 935 or listen online at www.spectrumradio.net). Quite a few other Ethiopian language radio and television programmes can be found online via: www.nazret.com/radio.

In the UK, the publisher HaHu Books (www.hahubooks.co.uk) aims to produce Amharic texts suitable for children of all ages including non-Ethiopians who are keen to develop their knowledge of Amharic. Even these look a little daunting for me to study on my own.

Does anyone know of suitable classes anywhere? Can anyone suggest other ways of improving my Amharic? Would anyone else like to develop their Amharic skills further?

Anne Parsons

First Published in News File Winter 2005

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
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