The Essential Guide to Amharic: The National Language of Ethiopia
Andrew Taross (Ethiopia 2011–13) & Abraham Teklu
Peace Corps Writers
Reviewed by Andy Martin (Ethiopia 1965–68)
The Essential Guide to Amharic by Tadross and Teklu, is exactly what it says it is, a brief guide to the language. At 163 pages, it is not a textbook. If you are going to Ethiopia for business or pleasure, the Guide could be helpful. If you want to learn Amharic in order to communicate with Amharic speakers for any length of time or depth, in Ethiopia or elsewhere, this is not a book I can recommend. In the biography of one of the authors, Andrew Tadross, he explains how, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, he made lists of vocabulary words for himself to memorize and how these lists eventually evolved into this book. Unfortunately this not an approach that will work for everybody. Applied linguistics research has shown that there is no one method or approach to language learning or teaching that works for everyone. The most successful texts allow for different learning styles and unfortunately this book does not do that.
In my own experience learning Amharic in Peace Corp training in the US and later living and working in country, we were taught by the then relatively new approach known as the Audio-Lingual method, which was a behaviorist methodology. There were very few grammatical explanations. Instead we repeated words and phrases over and over to form the habit of saying them. We were expected to deduce grammar rules from the phrases. This worked for some of us and didn’t work for others. I quickly became friends with many of the Ethiopians who worked in the training program and began using them as informants. When I wanted to say something, I asked them how to say it. When I heard something I didn’t understand, I asked them what it meant. By listening to them I learned a number of common expressions and their correct pronunciation. I continued to use this approach throughout my three years as a Volunteer in Ethiopia.
Let’s take a look at the book.
- Brief intro, and explanation of how to use the book.
- Followed by 7–page pronunciation guide with the Amharic alphabet explained.
- The authors suggest learning the alphabet as soon as possible to help with pronunciation and reading. This is not a bad idea, but incomplete without an audio component.
- The other major difficulty is that it’s not enough to be able to read Amharic by pronouncing the words correctly.
- There is also the issue of MEANING. You won’t know what you’re reading unless it’s single word signs. You can’t even look those up in the book because there’s no available Amharic-to-English section.
- The next 38 pages are devoted to grammar components, about a page for each.
- The final 100 pages are really a vocabulary handbook, divided by topic and wordlists for each topic.
- There are occasional photos and drawings.
- The lists are divided into three column: The English word, the Romanized Amharic equivalent, and the word/phrase in the Amharic alphabet.
- The entire book is like a giant English/Amharic dictionary, designed for English speakers, providing the English word or phrase and its Amharic equivalent, but organized topically rather than alphabetically.
- There is no actual dictionary or glossary.
- Also if you know an Amharic term or phrase and want the English equivalent, it’s not possible to find it in the book.
- At the end are a list of random “non-categorized” words, a page of Amharic-English cognates, a page of slang and expletives — some current, some in use 50 years ago when I was there; several pages of antonyms; and finally a verb list with a suggestion that they be memorized.
- There is no index either in English or Amharic
The Essential Guide to Amharic is more akin to a traveler’s phrase book. It could be a good general introduction to the language, even for a Peace Corps Volunteer. It would have been nice to have something like this as a reference 50 years ago. The book would be most useful as an aid to self-study.
I would not recommend it as a classroom text. The biggest drawback is the lack of structured opportunity to actually practice and use the language communicatively. This the student would have to do on her/his own. This is why I say that it could be useful while in-country, but not so much to learn it elsewhere. If one is sufficiently motivated one can find lots of Amharic, spoken and written on-line. If the learner lives in a large metropolitan area in an English speaking country, then there is a chance there will be a small Ethiopian community where the learner can make friends to practice what she or he is learning from the book.
Reviewer Andy Martin has an MEd. in TESOL. He spent the first half of his career in front of a classroom teaching ESL and training ESL teachers. The second half was spent working for eight different ESL publishers, the last and longest being Cambridge University Press. He retired seven years ago and began publishing two language related blogs, Rolls off the Tongue, a cartoon idiom guessing game, and What’s So Funny? that explains jokes to people who don’t get them. Both are available on Facebook. His greatest accomplishment is being married to the same woman for forty-four years and having two phenomenal children. Other than that he pursues two other passions, Aikido, and singing doo-wop acappella. He intends to spend the rest of his years in New York City.
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