Talk Amharic to me: Pitt offers new language

Raka Sarkar | Senior Staff Illustrator

“Kä, ku, ki. Rä, ru, ri. Tä, tu, ti.”

Junior Ruth Dereje sounds out each letter as she transcribes the intricate Amharic symbols on the chalkboard inside the Irish Room with precise delineations of each of their most minute but crucial features. Behind her, professor Waganesh Zeleke expands and shapes her mouth to emphasize the slight differences in sounds.

While there are only two students currently enrolled in Pitt’s inaugural Amharic course, the intimate classroom setting provides for an efficient and productive meeting time. The class convenes twice per week, and one session involves a slate of oral, listening, reading and writing activities.

“Mäskäräm, t’ik’imt, hïdar, tahsas, t’ir,” Zeleke sounds out a few of the months of Ethiopia’s thirteen-month year — providing explanation for the country’s last one that consists of just five or six days.

“That’s a short month,” Dereje responds.

The three relay discussions in Amharic about traditional and modern clothing in Ethiopia, how Ethiopians rely on natural sunlight for telling time and which dash separates a “ha” sound from a “hu” sound.

More than 25 million people worldwide speak Amharic — the official language of Ethiopia — as their native language. It is the second most commonly spoken Semitic language after Arabic, and according to Zeleke who teaches the course, it is becoming highly popular in major U.S. cities. And the Ethiopian population in the United States has risen about 25 percent since 1980, making it the second-largest African immigrant group in the country according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Now Ethiopia’s influence has spread to Pitt as a way to further develop the Africana studies program at the University.

“For me, language is part of identity,” Zeleke, a native speaker of Amharic who was born in Ethiopia, said. “So it’s not only language as a tool to share information or to exchange, but it’s also part of your culture, it’s part of the identity for someone who speaks it.”

Zeleke, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Psychology and Special Education at Duquesne, typically starts class next to her students as a tutor might, engaging them with passages on a laptop screen or textbook activities in “Let’s Speak Amharic, or “Colloquial Amharic. She also makes it a point to provide useful feedback to the students throughout the class session.

“Stop thinking in English,” Zeleke said to Dereje one class. “You’re doing really well, but feel comfortable saying it.”

Amharic uses a consonant-based syllabary adapted from the extinct classical language of Ethiopia, Ge’ez. Its complex writing system consists of more than 33 consonants that take seven slightly different forms depending on which vowel is used with each.

Dereje said she often practices the different symbols repeatedly whenever she feels it’s time for a break from other academic obligations — especially calculus.

The variations in form take time to get down before even being able to read or speak the language. Dereje has been exposed to the language at home her whole life and has always been able to understand it, but still struggles to converse confidently.

While she is studying computer science at Pitt, Dereje saw the course offering as an opportunity to explore her own Ethiopian heritage and salvage the Amharic speaking skills she grew up with.

“I just want to reclaim my lost language and be able to communicate with some of my family who doesn’t speak English,” Dereje said.

Dereje was born in Silver Springs, Maryland, but her parents are from Ethiopia. Dereje still has a good amount of family there and plans on visiting them in the future, which is why both she and her sister both jumped at the chance to pursue Amharic.

“It’s part of our culture — we need to know how to speak it, too, if we are going to go back to Ethiopia,” Dereje said.

The other student enrolled in the course, Jawanza Rand, is a Ph.D. student in urban education from Brooklyn who is conducting a comparative study between U.S. and Ethiopian school systems. Learning Amharic will provide him with an edge, as he plans on returning to Ethiopia for an extended period of time to further his research.

“I really enjoy visiting Ethiopia and interacting with Ethiopian people, and so learning Amharic is a natural next step to take towards being able to fulfill both of those things,” Rand said.

Pitt offers a range of African languages intermittently, including the Nigerian language Yoruba and the South African language Xhosa, but only when they are able to find instructors for them. Swahili is currently the only permanently standing African language with a full-time professor in the University Center for International Studies.

Macrina Lelei, the acting director of the Africana studies program, wrote a proposal last year to fund another African language in an effort to expand the Africana Studies program at Pitt. She suggested funding Amharic after struggling to find an instructor for Zulu and by chance meeting a native Amharic speaker and professor at Duquesne.

Zeleke will now teach Amharic 1 this term and Amharic 2 next term. Despite never having taught a language before, Zeleke jumped at the opportunity to teach Amharic when she discovered that the Less Commonly Taught Languages Center lacked African languages.

“Part of growing the program is [offering] more African languages if we can,” Lelei said. “There are other languages out there that you can learn, and they might be useful for something.”

Zeleke said in addition to educational and research purposes, there are a range of career routes that will make learning Amharic an especially vital tool for global competency and career advancement in the near future.

“I think there is plenty opportunity with this language for students who learn Amharic,” Zeleke said. “Learning Amharic will open up more opportunity for those people who are interested in intercultural communication, journalism or just helping.”

Today, the U.S. Commercial Service Ethiopia Office is currently the leading U.S. export trade agency for the U.S. government. The country’s GDP growth has also remained between 8-12 percent over the past 10 years as well, making it a highly appealing investment opportunity for major U.S. companies like American Plastic Technologies and Acrow Bridge. Amharic will likely be a job asset in the coming years.

But most of all, Zeleke and Lelei emphasized the importance of Amharic in broadening students’ cultural horizons and acceptance of different peoples.

“People start to see things in a different light, in a more positive and a more accepting way,” Lelei said. “It gives them a chance to learn that there’s another world out there.”

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