Two out of three city based freshmen know more about the New York tri-state area better than they know how far Mekelle is from Addis. A similar ratio will explain to you the life of Pablo Escobar better than they can about any beloved local artist.
Many shake their heads at this. Let me mention something here. If someone explained the life of Pablo Escobar in Amharic and not fluent English, it would be a bit more acceptable.
I have been highly frowned upon for writing in English, speaking in English and now it basically feels like people are out to get me for knowing the English language. I am going to write this from my perspective because I cannot really speak for anyone else but I strongly feel this is an idea shared by many of my peers that my initial title for this piece was going to be “Defense for a Generation”. It’s corny too so I guess my second option works better.
I learned English the same way I learned Amharic. That is, I don’t actually remember learning either one. I speak both fluently enough. I won a certificate for my English skills in first grade and it was a pretty happy idea for anyone who heard. I wasn’t discouraged by anyone. No one blamed me for bringing death to the language of this proud nation…..
I don’t know how the sudden idea that speaking English would kill Ethiopia started but it got around to me sometime in high school when suddenly the skill that once won me certificates was instead getting me dirty looks in the streets and having me branded as a wanna-be. Last year I got into a couple of fights, big ones with onlookers and a circle and everything but a crowd chanting fight fight fight . Both times it was with older men who claimed to be educated people and presented their argument to me in English, speaking to me like I was a moron. They insisted, out of nowhere really, that it doesn’t make one civilized to speak English. I think what one man said was, “If you went to America and spoke English, they will laugh at you.” This same person also insisted I should be speaking Ge’ez instead.
I would like to be speaking Ge’ez but no one taught me how. My childhood friend went to ቄስ ትምህርት ቤት and no one took her seriously because it was a sign of poverty to not be able to afford a private kindergarten where you learned A for Apple and B for Ball…. My parents had a deep appreciation for Ge’ez. My mother could read and speak it but she really needed me to learn English because she wasn’t very good at English and people had laughed at her for it. When I won that award for my English skills in first grade, she and my father thought they had set me in the right direction. It was good parenting that their friends appreciated.
This is what happens in many households. I read in the book ፒያሳ ሙሃሙድ ጋር ጠብቂኝ by Mohammed Selman about an interview with the famous athlete Haile Gebreselassie and how it turned out his daughters didn’t know any Amharic songs. The interviewer even thought that the kids didn’t speak Amharic at all. Haile Gebreselassie needs English in his career or he is going to be the next big hit on vine. He probably raised his kids to be fluent English speakers because no one was going to laugh at them for not speaking Amharic.
Everything in class is given in English and honestly, your chance of understanding any school material is primarily dependent on your knowledge of the English language. Ethiopia is now accepting South Sudanese students on scholarship. These kids don’t know a spot of Amharic. The standard medium of communication in universities is English. If our teachers don’t speak English well enough, we might as well just be learning the courses in gibberish. We lose our respect for them because their lack of the language to explain or pronounce the material translates to them being inadequate instructors.
Basically, it is a socially dangerous thing for anyone to not know English in this age.
When I was in 12th grade, my entire class did a broad research for Amharic class about the diminishing use of Amharic language in schools in Addis Ababa. I was very active in this research and I think it surprised a few of my classmates. Somehow they thought me reading more English books and watching more English movies meant I hated everything Amharic. I still don’t like those of my classmates.
What we learned from this research was that a majority of private schools had English names for marketing purposes. Parents choose the more profound sounding names for their children. Kids aren’t encouraged to speak much Amharic outside Amharic class. Many of the directors explained to us that it is to practice English. Language is like a muscle that you train. If you don’t use it, you might lose it and they counted on the kids learning English not them forgetting Amharic. “They can go speak to their parents in Amharic.” One of them said. I have a personal experience with this. When I was in third grade, our unit leader came into our class and told us we should be speaking in English in the halls and if we ever find our friends speaking Amharic, we should tap them on the shoulder 3 times as a reminder to speak English. I have heard of extreme cases with language monitors who would go snitch on you as well.
My friends and I went to Education Bureau and Ministry of Education to raise the question of why Amharic wasn’t given as a university entrance exam. The officials were very reluctant to talk to us and when they finally did, the answer they gave went something like, “We expect that you have been taught enough Amharic in previous grades. As the language you will be expected to know very well in universities is English, we don’t need to evaluate your Amharic knowledge.”
We went around to different high schools and gave out questionnaires at random and one of my favorite questions in the questionnaire was if they knew all the Amharic letters by heart. Many ticked that they did and because I am evil, I insisted that we go around checking if they actually did. They didn’t. I won’t hide the fact that my friends and I didn’t know it all by heart either.
We went to different Medias like Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (It was still ETV then) and Fana Broadcasting Corporation. A very cooperative guy from FBC said something I liked. “We use the standard language of Communication that doesn’t require us to use exact Amharic terms. We use everyday language and our presenters and reporters speak the way anyone off the streets does and the standard language is that we mix English words with Amharic.” (I am of course paraphrasing. This was like four years ago. I won’t remember everything word by word.) I liked what he said because he was very open and honest about it while practically everyone else we talked to felt accused and they weren’t as cooperative as they could have been.
So coming back to haters of the English language, there have been questions like, “Why don’t you guys just use English where it belongs?” and “Why don’t you listen to more local musicians, local authors, local movies…?” and “Why don’t you know more about everything local in general?”
Note here: The word local by itself has started to feel like a degrading insult to many. I remember one kid from Mekelle got mad at another kid for referring to him as a local.
I will write down my answer for the above questions starting from the last one.
Why don’t you know more about everything local in general?
Mediums to let you know about anything local are newspapers, gossip and EBC. Our newspapers are basically EBC. I don’t know how to say it better.
There are budding sites on social media and such, entirely dedicated to local information only. The term I would use for them is scary. They get biased a lot and those ones about celebrities have been ripped apart by Alex Abraham so much, I’m surprised there haven’t been any celebrity rants or suicides. Who are our bloggers? Who are our reporters? With the search for engineers lately, the history departments in universities have died and journalism and literature are following. So history? News? Celebrity news? Facts about Ethiopia? Facts in Amharic at all?…. anything about the foreign world is available at the click of a button….and I have said it before, I will say it again. The majority of Ethiopians are better critics than doers. It’s easier for us to rip these sites apart than to support them and whoever is on the other side is ill equipped at defending themselves.
Why don’t you listen to more local musicians, local authors, local movies…?
There is better art out there. There. I am not saying there aren’t any artists here but the fact we can download foreign music off pirate sites for free and that they are better at marketing themselves is helping them.
We don’t even really know how to find the good stuff here. It’s getting better now but it could still use some help.
Why don’t you guys just use English where it belongs?
Someone said something like; he who mixed two languages doesn’t know either or something. Maybe that’s a thing. I don’t know. At this point I think we are just very confused. We were supposed to use English out of class and now we aren’t. We aren’t supposed to practice it anywhere but we are expected to magically speak it fluently and all in the classroom… hmm.
I’ll add one more. The one everyone uses to personally attack me. Why don’t you write in Amharic?
English is easier. It only has 26 letters. You only need to tap one button for one letter on your devices. I read a lot of English material because it’s what I was raised on and the material is better. I listen to more English music because I get it easier and it really is beautiful. I watch more foreign movies because they make me want to tear out my eyes less. I could go on and on.
I love my country. I actually thought I was going to become an historian because I thought it was totally unfair that our history was being taught to us from material written by foreigners.
The fact that English rolls off my tongue better does not mean I hate Amharic. That’s just a stupid idea. I can’t speak a word of French or Italian but I love the ideas of Paris and Rome.
Our generation has been criticized, insulted, and hated so much and to my heart breaking surprise, by the people who once applauded my first grade English Language award. Well, here’s where I point the finger.