amharic speakers, Ethiopiaphiles, please advise
September 12, 2010 1:28 AM   Subscribe

I live in a diverse community with a large population of folks of Ethiopian descent and recent Ethiopian immigrants. Children from amharic speaking families are probably in the majority at my son's grade school, which is within walking distance, so I find myself often strolling along with a number of Ethiopian moms, many of whom are just learning english- and they have been introducing me to some very basic amharic- hello, good morning, thank you.. just a few words at this point.

I find myself drawn to learning this language beyond greetings and formalities- every new word I'm given has me running home to google spelling and phrases and... when said aloud they sound so beautiful to me. I've joined an online students-of-amharic community but I'm wondering what else I can do on my own to get started? I think if I can locate a basic, reliably proofed/edited, starter guide and comprehensive index of verbs and their conjugation,s I can then ask my new friend, Sahai, to hang out and chat at the coffee shop down the street (Ethiopian).

Anyway, all of this background is not really necessary (other than, I guess, to establish to myself that it would be a useful language to invest limited time in b/c I've got roots in this community )because my simple question is:

If you've learned Amharic on your own, outside of a class, how did you? It seems there are very few books.

The best tool available that I've been able to find is the, now decades old, kit given to Foreign Service students, which consists of 25+ cassettes and some texts, and it's expensive. (I have dilettantish tendencies and 3 kids so it isn't prudent to obligate myself with a big cash outlay until I've worked at this new preoccupation for long enough that I know it's not a fast moving weather system)

Any other cultural fluency you can inpart is welcome and needed, too.

Because, for example, unlike the other women I've met so far, Sahai has prominent tattoos (that may be writing) on her neck, face (small markings), and a larger character, I think, on the center of her forehead. They are not fresh and have that old tattoo tealish-black blurry look (but are not unappealing in the least). She looks to be in her 30s and she carries herself in a way that could indicate some self-consciousness with this exotic difference . I could be totally misinterpreting but she wears high necked things on 95 deg days and I think she seems to hold her head in such a way as to minimize exposure of the markings, which are in rows up to her jawline on the left side- no disguising them without a balaclava or something.

I did compliment them which was our first conversations starter- I'm covered in ink so I thought, if she was uncomfortable, maybe she'd be less so around me, of course that could be entirely wrong. And I asked her if she got them when she was a child or teen (affirmative) and whether they had any religious meaning (no.) There's a non-deep reason I asked, not interesting enough to write about, but I'm wondering if that was invasive/stupid? she didn't seemed offended but maybe thought it was an odd question. Just curious. not neurotic, but I like to be optimally sensitive if I can.

Thanks for sticking with the long question- I'll risk that the unnecessary details might help someone give me tips from the field.
posted by hellboundforcheddar to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I study Indian languages, so I don't have too much advice specific to learning Amharic, but I can speak to trying to learn languages which are less taught and have less useful materials.

Do you live in the Bay Area (guessing because of the large Ethiopian/Eritrean population in Oakland)? If so, Berkeley's Center for African Studies says that they have taught Amharic in the past, and has a form to request a tutor. You might also want to look into whatever the Peace Corps uses to train their volunteers. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if resources for studying Amharic increase in the near future, given the increasing intimacy between Ethiopia and the US.

I've seen on someone's bookshelf a really useful-looking book designed for learning endangered languages without recourse to anything but native speakers. Unfortunately, I'm not finding a name for it; has anyone else heard of this?

Good luck!
posted by goodglovin77 at 1:58 AM on September 12, 2010

well, here is
a dictionary, amharic-english/english-amharic
dialogues for basic conversation
an amhharic basic course
a reference grammar

for starters. If you want more, check out

For finding real-live-people, you might try craigslist, or something specifically for finding language exchange partners near or far. I use polyglot club. The name is dumb and the website annoying, but I find the big local meetings are full of interesting people and have also had luck finding a partner to help me at the same level with a language that doesn't even have a big local community here. Yay!
posted by whatzit at 2:12 AM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Those old foreign service materials are free in the wild. Here you go, no link, iPhone.
posted by Iteki at 2:22 AM on September 12, 2010

It doesn't look like Iteki's link includes the cassettes, but yeah, foreign service stuff is public domain.

Here's another link with the 25 cassettes and two pdfs.
posted by wayland at 2:40 AM on September 12, 2010

oops. As anyone can see, there are only 11 recordings on the link I posted. I don't know whether that covers all of the 25+ recordings you mentioned.
posted by wayland at 2:43 AM on September 12, 2010

The important thing when learning is to actively try and use what skills (however little) you have with native speakers. When they correct your mistakes, get them to do so in Amharic. If you exclude the crutch of going back to English you learn faster in a "sink or swim" style. I food that going to Algerian and Moroccan bars in Paris and speaking to the folks there (they knew no English, I knew how to say hello in French, during the day only) helped my Arabic immensely. Also, and I'm not sure this could be condoned as a teaching method, with a few beers in me I stopped worrying about being 100% grammatically correct at all times and so the conversation flowed that much quicker.
posted by Biru at 3:20 AM on September 12, 2010

*found. Bloody iPhone!
posted by Biru at 3:21 AM on September 12, 2010

this is great= thanks for the feedback so far. Biru- what you are describing is exactly the way I learned Spanish and learned it many times faster than French and German.

so far does any one have any insight about Sahai's tattoos?
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 4:28 AM on September 12, 2010

I found this image in a search for "Ethiopian tattoos". It is from this article, which is probably not the right part of Ethiopia for your question, but might contain some useful information nevertheless.

Other web pages I skimmed mentioned that a cross in the centre of the forehead is common in Ethiopia. Could your friend's forehead tattoo be an intricate cross?
posted by lollusc at 5:56 AM on September 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

lollusc you nailed it. those are the tattoos! And I guess the mark on the forehead might be a stylistically crude coptic cross... off to read the article.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 6:38 AM on September 12, 2010

Ask at your kid's school. They probably have someone who helps the kids learn English. Perhaps that person knows some Amharic and would be able to give you some basic resources or tutoring.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:48 AM on September 12, 2010

No help on the language (though I agree it's gorgeous), but I got the impression from an Ethiopian friend that her hand tattoo (also an aged coptic cross) hadn't been entirely voluntary, maybe as some sort of larger ethnic marking/violence. But it seemed to be a sensitive subject for her so I didn't probe further. Good on you for trying to find out more while being sensitive.
posted by ldthomps at 7:42 AM on September 12, 2010

National Geo story on the tattoos.

In Egypt, Copts also use the cross tattoo.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:58 PM on September 12, 2010

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