Sunday, April 27, 2014

Syncing with the Syllabary

Well, it happened sooner than I expected. Anemo took an interest in what I was studying this morning on the couch.

As I mentioned in the last post, I've decided to tackle the sprawling Amharic syllabary, and so yesterday I picked out a few of the easier Amharic letters to memorize first, namely the seven vowel sounds associated each with the sounds 'b', 's', and 'sh', for a total of 21 letters. (They are more appropriately called 'syllabograms' but I'll stick with the word 'letters' for simplicity.) This morning, while Suzanne and her sister Nicole were out buying food for Anemo's birthday party at the beach, I asked Anemo to quiz me on the 21 letters I've learned. I gave him the flashcards and he read aloud the English transliteration of the Amharic letters (like 'bih', 'shay', or 'soo'). By the time I had written ten of them, Anemo asked if he could try. He obviously needed a few hints about where to put the vowel marks but he did remarkably well:
Anemo drew a line under my letters, labeled each section, and asked me to quiz him. He was delighted to learn that the first two letters of his second line actually spell "seesaw," which is the same word in both English and Amharic.
I chose to learn these three consonant sounds first because I thought they showed clearly how vowel sounds are indicated by the marks added onto the basic consonant forms. (Anemo caught on to the pattern of vowel markings quickly.) However, there is one discrepancy that I have yet to figure out. You'll notice in the screen shot below that the seven vowel sounds (basically 'uh', 'oo', 'ee', 'a', 'ay', 'ih', 'o') look the same on the consonant forms (ignore the 'q' form for the moment) except the sixth one (the 'ih' sound). Why, instead of having a line jutting out from the left side of the consonant as on the 'b' form, do the 's' and 'sh' forms turn their top line diagonal to represent that particular vowel sound? It doesn't make any sense. Either I'll learn the logic of this inconsistency later, or, what's more likely, I'll find out that's just the way it is with no rational explanation. (In fact, taking the longer view, I'm sure most of these musings on Amharic will seem absolutely silly once I've gotten a decent handle on the language. Nevertheless, I want to document my own process of discovery.)
I started with the 'b', 's', and 'sh' groups of letters (ignore 'q'). The sixth column is the one that befuddles me with its inconsistency.
Considering how much Anemo was anticipating his afternoon party, I was thrilled that he showed such a focused interest in the Amharic script this morning. Anemo's A.M. today may have been quiet and academic, but his P.M. at the beach was a celebration of joyful physicality. The party could not have been more fun.
Anemo is at the far right in the orange sweater. The boys did more digging of holes than building of sand castles at the beach, but they all had a blast!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Manna from Heaven

This evening I took the 44 bus from my neighborhood, the Inner Richmond, across the park to the Inner Sunset, to pick up some delicious food at New Eritrean Restaurant. Getting the food was really my secondary purpose. I really wanted to get my "elevator speech" recorded in Amharic by a native speaker. My family has been in this restaurant before, and we've spoken a few times to a man named Manna who is incredibly kind. Luckily he was there, and his two daughters, ages 4 and 7, were coloring at the bar (they are on Easter break).

While waiting for my vegetarian sampler takeout order, Manna patiently translated my five sentences into Amharic, explaining some of the phrases in more detail. From this initial recording I can start to build my vocabulary. Meanwhile, I will search for other Amharic speakers to provide alternative translations. I've also decided to start learning the alphabet, even though Jan suggested reading and writing could be placed outside the scope of this project. It's just too cool to resist. According to one source, there are 231 "letters" in the Amharic alphabet, but these are really 33 consonants each connected to 7 vowel sounds. Manna said he had recently started teaching his daughters the alphabet. They had mastered the sounds and were now going to start on writing the script. I have a strong hunch that Manna is going to be an important person on my journey.

Manna in front of the bar at New Eritrean Restaurant on Irving Street. A super guy.

Manna gave me a book of matches from the restaurant. It shows the entire Amharic alphabet, and there are many more than 231 symbols printed. I need to figure out the exact number.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Elevator Speech and Elevator Music

The elevator speech is the one you give when you have to explain yourself or your brilliant idea in a short amount of time, about how long it takes to ride an elevator up three or four floors. Jan, my language coach, suggested I write such a speech describing my project in about five English sentences and then learn how to deliver the speech in Amharic, asking a few Ethiopians to speak it into my iPhone so I can practice. I gave a copy to Abeba last night at Oasis Cafe. Her English is competent, but she indicated she couldn't translate it on the spot. My goal this week is to get at least three versions of this speech recorded in Amharic. Here is the text:
It reads: "My name is Stephen Lessard. Five years ago my wife and I adopted a boy from Ethiopia. His name is Anemo and he is now seven years old. I am taking time away from my teaching career to learn Amharic. I want to show Anemo how much I value the place he comes from so that he will become more curious about Ethiopia."
This contains all the basic information I want Amharic speakers to know about me: my name, my profession, my marital status, my Ethiopian son, and at least one of my motivations for learning Amharic. I realize that by emphasizing my motivation to increase Anemo's interest in Ethiopia I run the risk of undermining any personal benefit to learning Amharic. Yet I really do believe Anemo's future as a bicultural person is my primary motivation at the moment. We'll see if that's enough to sustain me.

I don't ride in many elevators these days, so I don't know if "elevator music" still plays in them. But I did recall that kind of ambient, background effect when Jan recommended I listen to YouTube videos featuring Amharic speakers. The idea is to just have the audio playing in the background while occupying myself in other ways, subconsciously absorbing the sounds of the language, its melody and rhythm, contours and cadences. I love the idea of making progress while doing other things.

There are many interviews in Amharic on YouTube. And there are plenty of men's voices. The one problem is that the interviews are mostly recorded from radio, and the interviewee is typically speaking through a phone, so the fidelity is not great. No matter. When I found an interview about 40 minutes long, I put it on a speaker and commenced doing other things. First I played Temple Run 2 for a while, figuring that such a mindless game would leave my brain free to take in the language, but looking at a screen didn't make sense. I stare at a computer too much already. Then I decided to just take a short afternoon nap on the couch with our dog Softy. That was much more pleasant, and the language, despite its irregular, jerky rhythm, became quite soothing after a while. Maybe it was due to Tamrat Layne's calm, subdued voice. The former Ethiopian prime minister spent 12 years in prison for corruption and embezzlement, so I suppose he had plenty of time to mellow out.

After dinner I listened to that interview one more time while Anemo built one of the Lego sets he chose yesterday for his birthday and while I folded clothes into piles around the dog. Folding laundry is the one activity that I really believe, under the right conditions, could drive me out of my mind, so I was glad to have a higher order brain activity (though subconscious) going on simultaneously.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Launching the Amharic Project

My son turned seven today. Anemo was born in Ethiopia in April of 2007 and became my son in February of 2009. But that's a story for later. Recently, I decided to use Anemo's birthday to launch what I am calling the Amharic Project. The goal of the project is simply to become as fluent as possible in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, in one year...by the time Anemo turns eight.

That's the big, ambitious, rather abstract goal. Such goals need to be broken down into smaller steps for the student to recognize progress, and I am working with a language acquisition specialist to do just that. Jan Marston, who lives in Des Moines, Iowa, has dedicated her life's work to figuring out how people ideally learn a foreign language. She speaks no Amharic whatsoever and doesn't plan to. Instead, she's helping me both think theoretically about language acquisition AND break the process of language acquisition down into realistic, incremental, concrete steps.

This blog will allow me to document those concrete steps and the progress they lead to. Some of those steps will be specifically linguistic; some will be more broadly cultural. Additionally, I am hoping that the blog will convey the diversity and resilience of the Ethiopian diaspora in the San Francisco Bay Area. With permission, I aim to tell the stories of some of the native Amharic speakers who assist me along this journey, seeking to understand the variety of push and pull forces that have compelled each individual to immigrate to the United States. I am also interested in their stories of English acquisition. Finally, I need this blog to hold myself accountable. Though I will have part-time employment during this project, a substantial portion of my day will be devoted to learning Amharic. I want a record that my time was spent meaningfully and intentionally, recognizing, of course, that there will be fertile and fallow periods throughout this undertaking,

Anemo's birthday dinner tonight certainly felt meaningful. My wife and I took Anemo to one of his favorite restaurants: Oasis Cafe at the corner of McAllister and Divisadero in San Francisco. The Ethiopian food here is among the best we've had, and the environment is consistently warm and friendly. Abeba Gedam has always been so kind to our family, and tonight she delivered a complementary chocolate muffin for Anemo (candle included!), after we had polished off a delicious vegetarian sampler.
Anemo using the injera to pick up his dinner. He likes the milder yellow lentils (misir wot) the best. Anemo is wearing a hat because his head was recently shaved at Westside Cuts just a block away.
Abeba and Anemo with birthday treat. We learned that Abeba's son, Nobel (can't hurt, right?), turned thirteen yesterday.
 So the project is launched. And I only spoke two words of Amharic today...the two I already knew: selam (hello) and amaseganalu (thank you). I have a long way to go.