Learning Amharic? You should learn fidel.

You’re about to start a long hike in the desert. It’s going to be hot, and you’re carrying a heavy load of camping gear. Naturally, you’re looking for any way to make your hike less gruelling. You consider your backpack, and think of how to eliminate some weight. For a moment, you consider bringing less water… but then you shake yourself back to reality. Less water? No way, water is essential for this trip. You need water.

Learning a language is a lot like this hike. It’s going to be a long process, and it’s not going to be easy. As a new language-learner, you look for ways to make the pack lighter, to make this process easier. But, just as water can’t be left behind on a hiking trip, writing — even if it means learning a new alphabet — can’t be left behind when learning a language.

Amharic, a language with 200+ fidels (characters), can feel especially daunting. It’s so, so tempting to learn Amharic by writing Amharic words with the Latin alphabet — frankly, though, that’s an awful idea. Whether you’re just prepping for a few weeks in Ethiopia, or whether you’re hoping to read some of Ethiopia’s famous poetry in the original language, learning fidel is an absolutely essential part of learning Amharic.

Knowing fidel is essential to correct pronunciation.

Firstly, learning fidel is key to correctly pronouncing all that Amharic vocabulary you’re learning. Amharic has sounds that don’t exist in English, which means that you’ll likely confuse yourself by trying to approximate their English equivalents. Plus, many English letters (especially vowels) can be  pronounced in multiple ways, making it hard to take accurate notes of Amharic pronunciation without fidels. For example, you might write down a pronunciation as “bi,” thinking it’s perfectly clear. Yet, when you go back to study, you might not remember whether it’s pronounced like “bicycle,” “bistro,” or “big.”

While it’s going to take some extra effort, learning fidel means you’ll consistently be able to write and pronounce words correctly — and that pronunciation matters. Mispronouncing one letter can make a big difference (think of the English words “six” and “sex”). Learning fidel helps familiarize you with the different sounds, in order to avoid such mishaps. In Amharic, for example, the words ቻው and ጨው (meaning “goodbye” and “salt,” respectively), could both be written as “chaw” by a language learner who is unfamiliar with fidel. In order to correctly pronounce the difference, learning fidel is crucial.

Knowing fidel helps you be a safe and savvy traveller.

Next, learning fidel is massively important during travel, even if you’re not fluent in the language. Being able to read basic signs is key to being a savvy traveller and staying safe. Even without knowing very much vocabulary, being able to read the destination city on your bus ticket helps you be sure you’re headed to the right place. Knowing how to recognize cognates on street signs (such as “hotel” and “pension,” which are the same in both Amharic and English) will help you spot local places to sleep. Plus, being able to spot the “ጁስ” (juice) signs is always a bonus. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fast reader, or whether you can pronounce everything perfectly. Knowing fidel just means that you’ll be able to sound out some words, which will make you a more confident and independent traveller.

Knowing fidel is essential to continuing to learn Amharic.

Finally, if you have any desire to continue your language-learning beyond the basics, knowing fidel is essential to using most language-learning resources. Most Amharic-English dictionaries don’t include transliterations, nor do many textbooks. Reading Amharic books (from childrens’ books to epic poetry, depending on your level) is a great way to practice, but it requires literacy. Plus, if you have the chance to study with an Amharic-speaker as a tutor or a language partner, it’ll be very confusing and difficult to work together if you’ve written all your notes and vocabulary lists without fidel — imagine if an Amharic speaker only knew how to write English using Amharic fidels! Learning fidel is a fundamental building block. If you don’t bother, you’re simply impairing your future language-learning progress.


So yes, it’s a lot. Especially for a language like Amharic, where the alphabet includes well over 200 fidel characters, becoming literate can feel like a monumental task. However, it’s important to even the most casual language-learner to start with fidel. Whether it’s learning to pronounce new vocabulary, being an independent traveller, or continuing your language study into the future, literacy is key to learning Amharic. Don’t ignore water on a hike, and don’t ignore fidel when learning Amharic.

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