Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Learning To Learn

For some reason, perhaps because I erroneously heard it was the national language (perhaps because it is the only language spoken at universities), or maybe because I knew the kindergarteners I’d be teaching had English class, I was under the impression that Ethiopian people generally spoke English, many as a first language.


Over eighty languages are spoken in Ethiopia, but the only relevant ones in Addis Ababa are Amharic, English (a distant second), Italian (a distant third), and a rising fourth which I will get into in a later series of blogs. Amharic is the language here. A few Addis Ababans speak English fluently (none without a powerful accent), a sprinkling can slowly but comfortably engage in half-broken conversation kind of like I speak Spanish, many know a few words, and the majority of the population speaks no English.

There are 8-11 adults who work or just hang out at the school I volunteer at. Four speak English well enough to regularly converse with me and the others know little more than good morning, how are you, etc. The 4 to 6 year-old students know the letters of the alphabet, numbers up to 10, some colors, a few words like “cat” and “ice cream”, and not much else. I cannot hold a conversation with any of them and I cannot speak any whole sentences and expect them to comprehend what I’m saying.

Amharic is nothing like English or other Western languages. Amharic has its own alphabet with 217 different characters, or seven versions of 31 different letters. Every syllable has its own letter. “Sa”, “say”, “seh”, “see”, “sih”, “so”, “su”, the syllables you can make starting with the “s” sound, each have their own slightly-different iteration of the root letter. The kicker is that Amharic has several syllables completely alien to English pronunciation. I work at a school in the “Kechene” neighborhood, but “Kechene” is just a made-up word that approximates an Amharic word that is literally impossible for me to write or sound-out without speaking. The first two syllables of the word involve making sounds that English speakers have never made in their lives. Other than briefly trying and failing to roll my “rr”s in Spanish class, I never imagined there might be syllables out there I’d never uttered before.

When I leave the house to go to school, I enter the Amharic world. The immediate goal every morning is to take two minibuses (more on the mesmerizing minibus system in later posts) across Addis Ababa to “Kechene.” Imagine trying to get from, say, San Francisco to Oakland, taking two buses, without knowing English or anyone who did. The first few times I tried were rather grievous affairs dependent on asking randoms one word destination questions, but then one of the housemates realized the Amharic letters scrawled on top of the minibuses might actually be cues to the locations the buses were headed. I found a commonality in one of the Amharic letters for the bus I needed, a “T”ish looking letter that’s like P in English. A few bus rides later I had managed to deduce the three-character word for “Piazza” written on all the minibuses headed there. Though it seems simple, this was a thrilling, confidence-building leap in my Amharic education. Actually boarding a Piazza bus is an entirely different matter, however, whose horrors will be better described in a future post.

School is exhaustively challenging. Teaching English to kids who don’t speak English without being able to speak their own language is an arduous process. I quickly realized drawing pictures was a precious intermediary, then realized I didn’t know how to capably draw many pictures on chalkboards, that I had a hard time differentiating between a rat and a cat, a cow and a dog.

Math was hopeless until I learned 1-30 in Amharic along with +, –, and =. Jumping through that hoop was another thrilling leap though, and now I feel legitimately useful teaching math.

I have to learn to draw, have to learn how to teach, have to learn Amharic, have to learn the kids’ names which is particularly trying because Amharic names don’t correspond to English ones. They’re all just random combinations of syllables to me.

It doesn’t end when school gets out. Navigating Addis Ababa can be rather enjoyable, but doing so proficiently is still a challenge. Just trying to order a juice and coffee together is a chore I’ve already failed to realize on two separate occasions. Ethiopians find it preposterous that someone could want to drink juice and coffee at the same time; I think passing up a delicious $.50 macchiato and $.80 fresh mango/avocado juice is more ludicrous.

If I want to play or watch a sport, it’s going to be soccer, a game I haven’t played since I was nine years old. I suck. I keep playing. I have to learn to play better. At home I have to learn how to live in a house with an array of young people I had never met twenty days ago, have to learn to sleep with earplugs and wake up at 7 (that actually came automatically at first, jetlag I guess, but I seem to be unlearning it).

I have never been forced to learn like this before. I had tremendous zeal for learning and memorizing things in elementary school and feasted upon the competitive aspects of schooling, even though my elementary school didn’t have grades. In middle school I realized I didn’t have to try very hard to get As, and in high school I realized I could get where I wanted to without expending much effort. The game switched from trying to know as many things as possible to trying to subsist on as little study as possible. There have been some intense learning experiences in my life (poker being the most obvious) but they were always born from amusement, never mandated.

Everything about the experience here is forced. I use that word to convey both its meanings: Many things are compulsory and quickly assimilated into my existence, without an alternative; other things are strained, uncomfortable but functional.

The other day, one of my housemates said something I found incredibly interesting: that she and her husband actively put themselves in uncomfortable situations to keep themselves mentally fit, to keep life challenging, to ensure their lives are always dynamic, never satiated. I was stupefied by this comment. For as long as I can remember I have been focused on efficiency, minimalism, making life as smooth and as graceful as possible. Yet somehow I wound up here, where little goes according to schedule and nothing comes without effort. Though there hasn't been any shortage of challenge in my life over the last nine months, I suppose I put myself in this position on purpose. Every day I seem to learn a little more about why I did that, and I hope to fully understand by the end of my stay here.


Anonymous SamENole said...

Hey moon, I rarely comment but I look forward to reading every one of your blogs and even more so since you've been in Ethiopia. Keep them coming, the things you're writing about are fascinating to me. I hope all is well (and it sounds like it is)!


4:39 AM  
Blogger Chris Viox said...


1:15 PM  
Blogger Bag said...

What would SamENole eat in Ethiopia?

7:57 PM  
Anonymous Desirae said...

Exactly what SamENole, Pie and Bag and everyone else is thinking. This is great stuff....

10:46 PM  
Blogger susanica said...

aha. you finally dove into the realm of the out-of-your-comfort-zone. an exercise in patience. this is something only people who have done will understand.
btw...microbuses. awesome. bwahaha.

11:38 PM  
Blogger 81Trucolors said...

Finally Tom! I've been trying to get you to travel forever. It does push you and that's a great thing. Eat everything go everywhere. Explore at night. Walk down random roads. Get lost. You'll learn a little about other people and a lot about yourself.

Enjoy it my friend and keep the updates coming.

11:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go ahead and tell us why you are reallllly there Tom......... which week is the WPT hitting Ethiopa

6:54 PM  
Anonymous Taylor said...

Добро пожаловать в клубе!


6:58 PM  
Blogger TheGraveWolf said...

Bailey twirls himself.

9:42 PM  
Blogger ben said...

In case your time in ethiopia ever feels too comfortable, may i recommend adoption the life orientation of WWRD - What would Reid do? Id like to imagine that doing what you think reid would do even 10% of the time would keep things fresh and exciting if you ever get used to the new, uncomfortable and forced situations you encounter.

Really enjoying your thoughts from abroad - glad its a good experience and keep the posts coming.

4:54 AM  

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