As an individual who is bi-lingual, my personal experience with balancing different languages has at times proved to be trickier than one would think. Being born and raised in a place where the majority of the people I encounter on a daily basis speak English was quite different from the language I spoke at home. My parents are immigrants from Ethiopia, where the official language there is known as Amharic. The language is apart of the many Semitic languages that are native to that area of the world. As an Ethiopian-American I would initially master English, before being able to learn Amharic. Once I turned 7, my parents would send my brother and me to Ethiopia, to spend a whole summer with extended family before school would start. There is where I would be exposed to a different lifestyle, one that was exceptionally unique from my life in the United States, but ultimately being forced to take up a new language.
It all started when my uncle Tilahun would greet us at the airport.
He yelled out, “Enkwan dena metachu!”
This means “Welcome home/here!” I smiled
hesitantly, for this man was absolutely new to me, but I knew I was with
family. My brother at the time would be the one to engage anyone in
conversation for he had already managed to master the language. He replied
back, “Enkwan dena kwayachu” which translates to “Glad to be here.” We made our way to baggage claim to get
our luggage and soon afterwards we were in the back of my uncles old-school
truck. The trip to his house took forever, as my brother and I would
occasionally glance at one another, while we both looked out the windows
observing what would be our new home. We finally arrived and would be met by
four of my male cousins who were eager to see our faces. We made our way inside
and were shown to our rooms, as we were starting to unpack, my grandmother came
in, “Tsion, yene lidge adegeshal, ende enastash te meshlialish” which
translates to “Tsion, my child your getting big, your starting to look like
your mother.” I replied back with
the little Amharic that I knew; “Egserestelin” (Thank You) and I smiled. My
grandmother knew that I had a lot to learn still, while she hugged me.
Yet, I would manage to pick up the language relatively fast, for over the next the couple of weeks, the biggest lesson I would learn wouldn’t come from my family, but from the kids in the neighborhood. It was a warm day, I wore my white dress that my mom had bought back in the states and I was eager to show it off. I was accompanied by one of my younger cousins, for he was my guide while my brother was away with my uncle exploring the city. My cousin introduced me to his school friends and I met two other girls named Gelila and Wusho. They were friendly, with two white bright smiles, long hair, and their jean jacket outfits. For a second, I even thought they were twins. One of them carried a jump rope and the other a bright set of colored chalk. “Enechawet!” said Wusho, which meant, “Let’s play”. I replied back, “Ishe”, which means, “Okay”.
We started jumping rope and would take turns when one of messed up and got caught up in the rope. They taught me different words as we played while they sang songs. I would repeat what they would say and gradually I would end up managing to speak more fluently. The sun was soon making its way westward, which meant that we needed to go home. We said bye to one another, “Chow Tsion” and I replied back “Chow Wosho” “Chow Gelila”. My cousin and I made our way back home, to find my brother drinking coffee with my uncle. “How was your day, Tsion?” my brother asked, “It was good, I think I’m getting Amharic now”, I replied back.
If it wasn’t for those two girls that would spark my interest in learning Amharic, I think I wouldn’t have ever let myself learn. My parents were amazed to see me speak it so fluently, when we came back, because I was able to understand every word they would say and be able to respond back. This relates to James Baldwin’s “If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me, What is?” in which he states, “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order to not be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate.” This factor is what forced me or influenced me to take up a new language, because of the situation that I was placed in. Ultimately, it made me draw further connections to people and further/better my communication with others.