Kyle in Lake Assal, Djbouti

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Learning Some New Languages

If there’s one thing Peace Corps has shown me, it’s that knowing a little bit of local language can simplify things. Amharic has, and continues to kick my ass. For me, it’s been a ridiculously hard challenge to learn this language, and the lazy part of me has become dependent on the fact that most of my friends and coworkers speak English quite well.

Even though my Amharic may be sub-par by Peace Corps standards, I still know enough to get by, which seems to always impress Ethiopians. I find that showing a little language skill gives me immediate street cred. It makes Ethiopians take notice, and bonds are formed more quickly. People trust me sooner. It also helps when negotiating prices, since I can hear the side conversations people may be having about money. Even if I don’t understand, I can pretend I do, and people seem to give me more fair prices as a result.

Amharic is the national language of Ethiopia, but not everyone speaks it. There are 80 million people here, speaking 88 different languages and dialects that have evolved from centuries of isolation. So, Amharic will get me through most, but not all of Ethiopia. What other languages can I expect to encounter on Low2High: Africa? To name a few – Arabic, Afari, Somali, Oromifa, Sidaminya, Swahili, and French. There’s no way I can master any of these languages in the short time I have, but that doesn’t mean I’m just winging it.

The first country I am going to is Djibouti, so I’ve been learning a little French from podcasts I was able to download when I visited the States in June. I've had no prior experience with French, despite growing up on the Canadian border. Remember that scene in 'Canadian Bacon' where the Anti-Canadian American rebels were pulled over because the graffiti on their truck was only in English, and not duplicated in French? Classic. Didn't Michael Moore direct that movie?

I’ve also been learning a bit of Arabic over time from a woman in Bahir Dar that used to live in Harar. She is a seamstress and works next to my lovely bread lady. She started teaching me Arabic words after I taught her the lyrics to some Michael Jackson songs. No joke. Arabic will be useful in Djibouti and eastern Ethiopia. From there, I can rely on Amharic and English again until Kenya. While traveling through Ethiopia I will cram some Swahili, which will be useful in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania.

Podcasts and prasebooks until my brain turns to liquid shit. It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s a plan nonetheless.


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