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Teaching My Child Amharic: A Mother’s Quest to Keep her Heritage Language Alive

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*This post is in collaboration with Fidel Creations*

Teaching the Amharic language

Raising a child to be bilingual can be extremely challenging when there aren’t many language resources available in the languages they are learning to speak. Amharic is one of the main languages spoken through out Ethiopia. The Ge’ez Fidel, its written form is an ancient writing system. It is actually the only native African writing systems still in working use today. However, in other parts of the world, resources in Amharic are very limited.

I would like to introduce Meron. She and her husband are originally from Ethiopia, however she and her family now live in the USA where English is the community language. Meron is passionate about teaching her daughter Amharic, and its written script Ge’ez. She is doing what she can to make sure that her family heritage stays alive including designing and producing her own resources.

A quest to teach our daughter Amharic, our heritage language

My husband and I were both born in Ethiopia and moved away from our birth country at different ages. I left my birth country Ethiopia in 4th grade and spent the rest of my elementary and high school years moving and learning new languages in different countries until we settled in the UK. My parents never spoke to us in English. As a result, Amharic and our culture and traditions became the only constant thing in our lives so we held onto them very closely.

Even though the outside environment changed with every transition to a new country, the inside of our home was always the same. Home was our little Ethiopian bubble filled with Amharic books, Ethiopian music, art and food.

My husband on the other hand left Ethiopia in his early twenties and is a fluent speaker of English.

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We now live in the US and have a daughter who is three and a half. We had always planned on teaching her Amharic from birth, however her arrival to this world was a bit complicated. She arrived at 28 weeks and spent some months in the NICU. Once home our focus was on getting her healthy and caught up. This included lots of visits with speech, physical and feeding therapists.

In the process of getting her caught up we used a lot of books, music, baby and toddler classes and toys. But everything was either written, sang or instructed in English. While I always felt strongly and conscious about teaching my child Amharic, our focus went in a different direction, getting our child to recover from a bumpy entry into this world.

My husband and I speak to her in a mix of both Amharic and English. She also hears Amharic from her grandmothers. Her primary language is English, but she understands some Amharic words and is slowly learning the Amharic Ge’ez script as well.

Keeping the Amharic Language and Culture alive

There’s such a divide in our community about being bilingual. Some people are really critical if they hear you speaking to your child in English. They assume you hate your culture and openly tell you to speak to them in Amharic. Others believe that English or the majority language is the way to go and will help with advancement in the school system.

Our culture is important to our family. We keep it alive through food, music, participating in traditional ceremonies, exposing our daughter to diverse books, toys, art and visiting lots of family and friends who share our culture. Fortunately, for us we’ve always lived in cities that have a large Ethiopian community so exposure hasn’t been so difficult.

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For me one of the challenges has been the cultural and language race. The majority language and culture is so strongly present in her life it easily undermines her native culture. Teaching her about her heritage through our everyday life is important. We avoid being gimmicky and teaching culture for the sake of teaching it. We want her to live it, the way we did growing up.

Finding resources in the Amharic Language

When we really started focusing on language, educational approaches and resources, I started to notice the lack of bilingual material for kids written in Amharic and English.

I saw my mum frustrated, having to read my daughter a book in English, and it was a basic animal board book. While she tried to translate the words/names from English to Amharic as she was reading it, I knew it was not sustainable. In that moment I set my mind to finding better resources. I even had books sent to me from Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, I was not pleased with what I found. First, I couldn’t find any board books that were baby friendly. Secondly, I really wanted something bilingual. Finally, I felt the illustrations and design aesthetics were quite different from what our daughter was used to and always chose another book (often English board book) over the Amharic books.

I decided for her second birthday I would give a very simple Amharic/English hand made paper books with farm and zoo animals as birthday favors. Even though I didn’t have them ready in time for her birthday party, the concept evolved into publishing an actual board book.

Fidel Creations

Fidel Creations is a design studio established by myself with a product line highlighting the Ge’ez script (Fidel) and Ethiopic icons/symbols/motifs front and centre in its design philosophy. Our philosophy is simple; we want to layer the Ge’ez script into your visual landscape interpreted into beautifully designed products.

Amharic Resources for Kids

The line includes the first ever Amharic Fidel (alphabet) Animal poster, placemats, bilingual Amharic/English animal board-books as well as Personalized Ge’ez and English name prints.

I truly believe these are powerful mediums for nurturing a love of language, literature, culture and that which is most empowering – self-love.

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One of the things that really set us apart is that there really isn’t anything like this on the market celebrating an African script. Plus we focus on design and artistry, which make our products not just educational but also fun, bright and modern.

Our Ge’ez custom name signs are so popular because families and kids love seeing their names written in the Ge’ez script. It creates an instant connection and deepened level of interest in the language and script.

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Children who are surrounded by products and items that reflect their heritage develop a higher sense of pride of where they come from. They become open to speaking the language publicly and practice more.

Love of books and literacy starts early and our books encourage co reading in a language that is native to parents and grandparents planting the seed for the love of reading early on. Being exposed to books, toys, art and print that reflect their language and culture in a cute and aesthetically familiar design will increase their engagement.

In the near future other categories will be added to the collection to provide busy parents with an instant culturally relevant nursery décor that adapts to their existing style simplifying the integration of culture in their home.

If you are teaching your child Amharic or want to learn about the Ge’ez script, make sure you check out the Fidel Creations products or follow them on Instagram.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing this family story, heritage culture, and a collection of beautiful visual resources. I am looking forward to learning more about it.

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