Here’s an important fact about me. I think of myself as a fast learner. I expect to be good at things, and so learning new things is fun. The corollary to this is that I avoid tasks that I think I am going to be bad at. Failure messes with my image of myself, and wreaks havoc with my ego. I’m not proud of this, and it is something I need to work on. But for now, anyway, it’s true.
Which is why I am really uncomfortable with learning foreign languages. I am just not very good at it. I did OK in high school German and French but these were by no means my best subjects. I passed my reading exams in grad school in both languages but that’s only because I was allowed to use a dictionary and I am really good at looking things up.
So this living abroad business presents a few communication problems. Like I said, I am really good at looking things up, so the first thing I do is get a dictionary. But there is no point to studying ahead of time. I won’t remember it.
My husband has a very different approach. Andreas is a natural at learning languages – he’s fluent in three of them and wants to add more to the list. When we found out we were moving to Syria, he got himself an Arabic language program for the computer and studied every night. I spent about 20 minutes total on this activity and secretly felt vindicated when I learned that classical Arabic was not useful for conversation.
While we were living in Bosnia, Andreas started studying Amharic, the most common language of Ethiopia and the one spoken in the Addis region. He had learned 300 words before we even got here.
I am determined to catch up. The school is offering Amharic lessons to teachers. Andreas and I signed up and have had two lessons so far. Andreas is the star pupil. I feel like I should be in the corner with a dunce cap on. However, I can now say: De nah neh? (How are you?) On a good day I can also say: De nah nen, igzee abi yhair yemesken (I am fine, thank the Lord). On a bad day I stick with English.