Tag Archives: language learning

Digesting Amharic


InjeraSwahili, which I tried to learn during my short time in Tanzania, is easy peasy compared to Amharic, the official working language of Ethiopia.

It’s kind of like chicken, rice, beans and spinach…versus multiple stews with complex ingredients that may or may not include meat depending on the fasting schedule, served atop a spongy, sour flatbread called injera that you eat by ripping off pieces, wrapping it around said stew and popping in your mouth in such a manner as to avoid licking your fingers lest you offend others who are sharing the dish. Then there’s the coffee ceremony.

For starters, Amharic has its own writing system called fidel, adapted from Ge’ez. There are 33 consonant symbols with seven variations, according to the vowel that is coupled with them. So already I can’t actually read the words. I have to listen to people and try to replicate what they’re saying, writing it down as it sounds to me because you see, there is no standard translation of Amharic symbols to the Roman characters we use in English.

This, for instance, means Colleen: Colleen-AmharicI’ve tried to memorize some of the symbols, a mass of lines and squiggles and circles that are somewhere between those Olympic sport pictograms and charm bracelets. I’ve tried equating the image – say a person taking a flying leap – to the sound  — ño (read: noooooo!). It is somewhat effective. But tedious. So I stopped.   

There’s also the challenge of making the glottalized or explosive version of some of the consonants. That means they’re pronounced with a sudden release of air. Amharic has explosives for the p, t and k sounds. We have them in English too – for sounds like p and t – made with air produced by the lungs. However, in Amharic, the k sound is made in the back of the throat. You can see your Adam’s apple bobbing when you do it correctly (as displayed by our teacher, Milky, below). Sort of feels like you’re gasping for air. 


One of my favourite explosive sounds is the word for cold: kaz-kaza. It somehow sounds colder than our cold. Another is beka, which means enough! And teff which is said more like t’eff. Damn, it’s satisfying to nail that sound. Disappointing when one does not.

Now when it comes to people’s names, well. They’re almost paralyzingly complicated to remember; I often have to ask 3, 4, 5 times for people to repeat their name. And again the next time I see them. Names I’ve never heard before: Kahssaye, Tesfaye, Firehiwot, Amogne, Zeritu. I only seem to retain the name when I ask what it means: compensation, hope, fruit for life, wise man, seed (also: big expectations set by parents).

The thing to do when you’re learning a language you have no hope of mastering in a short time is to memorize some key words and expressions that make people smile. Words like aHEEya for donkey and WOOsha for dog. Heck they make me smile. And when the coffee is dark brown and tastes good, a zinger like: Ya doro eyne yamasalla bunna – it looks like a chicken’s eye. Because really who doesn’t appreciate the colour of a chicken’s eye?  Coffee

There are also the words I have to say almost every day on my commute across Addis Ababa: waraj alleh – there is a stop! It’s said WUH-raj AHHHL-uh, not simply ALLUH, which is such a foreigner pronunciation. The other day it was deathly quiet on the minibus and I was sitting at the back, and you have to yell this out, otherwise the bus keeps hauling along. So I had to screw up my courage and holler: waraj alleh! And the man next to me smiled and congratulated me on my fine pronunciation. My chest puffed with pride.

It’s like when you finally learn how to rip off just enough injera to wrap the stew without touching your fingers to your mouth, using only your right hand, staying within your section, and dabbling in this stew and that stew so you get the perfect blend of spices.

Ishi. It’s all good.

The Secret to Learning Languages


Jan. 3, 2012

On a trip to Costa Rica, I marvelled at how a fellow traveller could flip so easily between languages. She would go from English to Italian with her friend, to French with someone else.

And then she picked up Spanish. Just picked it up as if it were an empanada at a street stall.

But this woman’s prowess still can’t compare to someone like Alexander Arguelles, an American polyglot who averages about nine hours a day studying dozens of languages.

A typical daily regime: writing and reading in Arabic, then writing at least two pages each of Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Latin, followed by reading Persian and writing two pages of Russian grammar before composing in Latin, doing grammatical exercises in Turkish, trying out a bit of Swahili, and reviewing Irish conversational dialogues.

When he goes running, it’s a different “story.” Literally. He hooks up his headphones and simply listens to an audio book in a foreign language, to exercise his brain as well as his legs.


Arguelles is featured in a new book by writer Michael Erard called Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.

The ability to listen. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at a conference in Berlin.  

The brightest of these super-learners is the 19th century Italian cardinal Joseph Mezzofanti, believed to have spoken 72 languages!

Legend has it that Mezzofanti picked up Ukrainian in two weeks, and that he learned the language of two prisoners overnight so he could hear their confessions and grant them forgiveness before they went to the gallows.

While that’s obviously not normal, Erard says that polyglots and hyperpolyglots (people who speak more than six languages) can teach us something.

“The hyperpolyglots are people who have learned how they learn,” says Erard. “They know their cognitive style, they know the strategies that work better for them, they know their environment, and the resources they have access to.”

The challenge for the rest of us is figuring out how we learn languages best.

You may spend years working on Spanish grammar exercises only to find you can barely stitch together a sentence, and that a conversation is a match of linguistic tennis you’re watching from the sidelines.

The way I learned French in school was completely ineffectual: the same grammar rules year after year, marginal increase in vocabulary and minimal dialogue, and unhelpfully taught in English. By the time I finished high school, all I could really do was ask where the train station is.

It took a year in France (and a lot of train travel) for me to become fluent.

Meanwhile, a few years later, a rigorous diet of German every morning, where I was taught in German and repeated everything I heard, had me speaking the language somewhat fluently within three months.

I thought there must be a way of recreating this rapid language learning back at home.

Turns out there is.


Some polyglots, as well as Erard who is not but writes about language, recommend a method called “shadowing.”

Erard says that when he tried this technique with Hindi one afternoon, “the heavens opened” and that he can still remember the Hindi words he learned that day.

The method is simple: go outside, put on headphones and play a bit of the language you’re trying to learn.

Then walk briskly, staying upright and, in a loud, clear voice, try to repeat what you hear, simultaneously. Hear, repeat, hear, repeat and march around.

Odd, yes, but effective.

Erard says shadowing has a number of things going for it. It gets you used to people looking at you when you’re doing something new, so it reduces the embarrassment factor.

It also hooks up kinetics to the language, so it engages those gross motor skills and makes you less focused on what’s going on with your mouth and tongue. Plus it exercises your working memory, which is key to learning a foreign language.

Another key is making the experience enjoyable.

To acquire any language, you need to repeat words and phrases often, so repeat things you like. When we do something pleasurable, dopamine is released in the brain and that makes us want to do it again.

Et voilà

The underlying element to this, though, is to try to figure out something about your own style of learning. Is it easier for you to remember written material? Or is audio or video more effective?

Figuring out your neurology — how your brain is wired — can also help you learn a foreign tongue.

Erard says tests such as the Modern Language Aptitude Test can help determine your strengths and weaknesses by assessing your memory recall, executive (organizational) functions and ability to discriminate among sounds.

It can also measure the strength of your phonological loop — the ability to keep a string of spoken sounds in your brain while you figure out how to pronounce them.

Of course, these tests don’t measure motivation or commitment or the cultural aspects of language learning, but they can give you valuable knowledge.

For instance, if the test shows your working memory isn’t strong, you could do memory exercises while you learn Spanish grammar and vocabulary. And ya está! Before you know it you will be booking a trip with an off-the-beaten-track tour agency in Guatemala.

A test could also reveal that you are the type that tends to reach an intermediate level in a language, but then plateaus.

If that’s the case, you can reset your goal: you won’t be an ambassador, but you’ll be able to travel with ease, or watch TV and read a magazine in that other language. It’s a good reminder to be patient when people here speak English with a heavy accent or incorrect grammar. They may have been trying to improve for years, and they’ve simply plateaued.

We all have different language learning abilities; we just need to figure out what each of ours is.

When it comes to picking up new languages, we’re not all hot tamales.