On being the one to stumble.

We have language exchange for an hour, twice a week. We sit at a picnic table, speaking English for the first half hour and Somali for the second half hour. In English, I wear my “encouraging” face, nodding with eyebrows raised, while she sputters and stumbles around absentee vocabulary. In Somali, I sputter and she encourages, repeating sentences so slowly they cease to connect — just a list of words I struggle to grasp.

I appreciate her, though. We have a sort of mutual understanding, which is surprisingly hard to come by. We both recognise that the other has thoughts and ideas far beyond what is expressible in a foreign tongue. I can see it in her eyes, the way they search and consider and crinkle around the edges when the right word doesn’t come. She can see it in my hands, in how they tense and flatten with frustration when I can’t transform my thought into Somali. We just sit there, looking at each other, trying to guess what the other wants to say. 

It must be something incredible, I think. She is already an incredible speaker in English, even though she’s missing basic words like “stone” and “roof.” To understand her in Somali would be beyond striking, and that has become my motivation. I don’t care about buying things in the market, or answering the phone — no, no. I just want to learn Somali to understand her ideas, the ones that just won’t cooperate in English.

I listen — ii gu celi? — and then listen again. I can tell she’s continuing our conversation about justice, but I lose her in translation. My response is feeble, but I’m glad for the chance to try. Otherwise, our interactions would be defined by English. I would always be fluent, and she would always have to stumble.

Do They Not See The Birds? (Thoughts from Arabic Class, P.1)

I’ve started attending Arabic classes twice a week — one class for standard Arabic, and one class for Qur’an.

In Qur’an class, the student beside me reads the verses out loud with a fluency I have yet to achieve, repeating longer and longer sections of the verse until she can recite the verse in its entirety. Like much in life, there is a method to the learning, and she is an expert in the process. It comes out in breaths, not sentences. Exhale, and there is a verse. Quick inhale, and the recitation resumes.

Standard Arabic class, on the other hand, is stilted for all of us. It’s strange, somehow, like learning a language we already know — me, having already studied it, and the others, having recited in it for their entire lives. We read quickly, beyond thinking about the pronunciation of individual letters. Yet, we still stumble on basic grammar, asking the teacher what the difference between “he” and “she” is.

Yes, of course, we nod vigorously as she re-explains what we knew all along, somewhere inside. This learning is like digging up treasures we buried ourselves and then forgot the locations of.

Pieces of both classes echo in my mind at the end of the week, an alternating chorus.

What is your name? Where are you from?
The knowledge is only with Allah.

What is your nationality?
Do they not see the birds above them with wings spread and folded in?
Her brother is an engineer.
Return your vision to the sky. Do you see any breaks?

Fluency still feels like a distant horizon, but there is some poetry in not fully understanding.

Bilingual Reading Practice for African Languages

As a language-learner, trying to read in your target language is great practice! For those who already have some basis in the language, it can really help you hone your skills. For those with less experience, it’s a great way to immerse yourself (especially when real-life immersion isn’t possible).

That being said, it’s also really challenging! Sometimes, if you don’t understand what a text is saying, it’s easy to get lost and simply give up. Since Google Translate doesn’t support many African languages (or at least not well), it’s hard to figure out what a confusing sentence means.

That’s why bilingual reading practice (where the passage is available in both your L1 and your L2, both your first and second languages) is so helpful. You can read, and then check that you understood. Read, and then use the translation to figure out what that weird sentence meant. Read, and then deduce some new grammar rules based on the translation.

So, for your language-study needs, here are a few (online, free) bilingual reading resources. Happy reading!

  • Nalibali has MANY stories on their website, available in various South African languages: English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, Siswati, and Xitsonga. For language-learners, this would be for the intermediate level.
  • Bilingual-Picturebooks has a really cool tool where you can search for books by language, and then generate a book by selecting the two languages you’d like — super cool! As far as African languages, they have books in Luganda, Pulaar, Siswati, and Tigrinya.
  • Global Storybooks has a cool tool where you can select books by country, and then toggle each page between the languages of that country. For example, the Kenya page allows readers to flip back and forth between Swahili and English versions. Plus, it includes audio! Countries/languages include CAR (Sango, Peul, Zandé), Gabon (Fang, Myene, Punu, Nzebi, Mbere, Shira), Ghana (Dagbani, Dagaare, Ewe, Frafra, Ga, Gonja, Hausa), Guinea (Fulani, Maninka, Susu, Kissi, Kpelle), Kenya (Swahili, Ekegusi, Gikuyu, Kikamba, Maa, Ng’aturkana, Olukhayo, Oromo, Samburu, Somali), Madagascar (Malagasy), Mali (Arabic, Bambara, Bomu, Tieyaxo Bozo, Toro so Dogon, Maasina Fulfulde, Mamara Senoufo, Kita Maninkakan, Soninke, Koyraboro Senni, Syenara Senoufo, Tamasheq, Xaasongasango), Mauritius (Kreol), Nigeria (Pidgin, Fulfulde, Hausa, Kanuri, Yoruba, Zarma), South Africa (isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sepedi, Setswana, Sesotho, Xitsonga, siSwati, Tshivenda, Ndebele), Sierra Leone (Limba, Mende, Temne), Rwanda (Kinyarwanda, Swahili), Tanzania (Maa, Swahili), Uganda (Swahili, Acholi, Adhola, Alur, Aringa, Ateso, Kakwa, Khayo, Kinyarwanda, Lubukusu, Luganda, Lugbarati, Lukhonzo, Lumasaaba, Lunyole, Lusoga, Ma’di, Runyankore, Rutooro), Zambia (Bemba, Nyanja, Tonga, Lozi, Tumbuka), as well as the relevant foreign languages (French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Gujrati, Mandarin, etc.) for each country.

If you know of any other bilingual reading resources, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list!

Mandla: Duolingo for African Languages

I love hearing about people who see a problem and build the solution. For a group of first-generation African immigrants in the US, the problem was learning their heritage languages, and the lack of resources to do so.

Their solution? An online (phone and web) platform to help people learn African languages, called Mandla. Their intuitive platform is open for beta testing (and officially set to launch this fall). Mandla functions similarly to Duolingo, with users learning vocabulary through interactive activities (with both written and audio elements).

Duolingo is one of the most popular language-learning applications, but it leaves much to be desired in terms of African languages. The only African language currently available on Duolingo is Kiswahili, Africa’s most widely-spoken language.

Mandla, on the other hand, offers lessons in 14 African languages (see chart below), making it the first platform of its kind.

LanguageSpoken InMandlaDuolingo
HausaNigeria, primarilyYes!No.
KassemGhana and Burkina FasoYes!No.
LingalaCongo (ROC+DRC), primarilyYes!No.
MooréBurkina FasoYes!No.
OromoEthiopia and KenyaYes!No.
SomaliSomalia, Ethiopia, and KenyaYes!No.
SwahiliTanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and more! Yes!Yes!
ZuluSouth AfricaYes!No.

I am really excited about this platform as a language-learning tool, and look forward to their official launch this fall!

PS. If you’re a fluent speaker of an African language, Mandla is looking for volunteers to join their team! Check out their website for more info.

Essential Language for Travel Anywhere

If you’re travelling to a place where people speak another language, it’s your responsibility to figure out how to communicate! Depending on the place, you might also expect people to speak your language. Depending on what your language is, they very well might! Remember, however, that nobody is required nor expected to speak your language just because you do.

So, it’s up to you to communicate. Sometimes, that means hiring an interpreter, checking whether your smartphone translates that language, or (if you have certain sentences you need people to understand (such as communicating a severe food allergy to every restaurant you enter), making cards with those sentences in the language.

Whatever other methods you use, I’m also a strong believer in the importance of language-learning for travel. That’s right: try and learn the language (at least a little bit). Whether you’re visiting for five days or five weeks, being able to communicate — even on the most basic level — is essential to being a respectful traveller and having positive interactions during your trip.

Never fear, if you’re a novice language-learner: I’ve put together some simple recommendations of which words you might want to learn for your trip. If you’re just trying to learn a few words for a short trip, we won’t worry about grammar or full sentences — this is all about simplicity (even if you will occasionally sound very strange).

Top 10 Essential Words/Phrases

  1. Hello: Regardless of where you’re going, learn a greeting! Some languages have complex greetings, depending on the person and time of day — don’t worry about this. Just find a greeting that works for anyone, at any time, and use it with everyone!
  2. Good: Knowing how to say “good” is the easiest way to give a compliment (you can point to your meal and tell the waiter that it was good), or assuage any concerns (you can ensure concerned people that you are indeed comfortable and good in your bus seat). It’s useful in a thousand different circumstances. If you’re feeling extra motivated, learning the words for “delicious” and “beautiful” is also a great idea.
  3. Thank you: Some cultures use “thank you” less commonly than others, but it’s still a great phrase to know and use. When you’re travelling, you’re constantly a guest in someone else’s territory, and it’s good to share your gratitude for any welcome you receive. Bonus: if you’re up for learning another word, “please” is also polite.
  4. Sorry (Excuse Me): If you’re travelling somewhere you’re unfamiliar with the customs, norms, and simple traffic patterns, you’re bound to mess up at some point. If you bump into someone or accidentally do something rude, you’ll want to know a quick apology. It’s just manners.
  5. Bathroom: Just learn it. You don’t want to play charades.
  6. Restaurant: Whether you’re wandering around a city trying to find a place to eat, or confused as to whether the place you just entered actually serves food (this happens surprisingly often), being able to ask, “restaurant?” is incredibly helpful.
  7. How much?: You’re going to want to ask the price of something. Of course, you’ll also want to understand the answer; if you’re up for it, also consider learning numbers. This can really smooth out your interactions (especially when exchanging money).
  8. When?: When arranging transportation or planning anything, it’s super helpful to know how to ask the time. Even if you sound a little strange, saying “when bus Addis Ababa?” will get your point across. Again, knowing some numbers to understand the answer is also helpful.
  9. Where?: Here’s a great word to combine with some of your other words (remember, we’re ignoring grammar). You can ask “where hotel?” or “where restaurant?” or “where bus?” — super useful.
  10. ## People: Whether you’re trying to get a table in a restaurant or seats on a bus, it’s helpful to be able to communicate the number of people in your party. Just learn the number for how many you are and the word for “people.”

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.