Eritrea: SIRS, If You Want to Gossip

2 December 2020
analysis

"Kamsa meta," my daughter explains, is "Thank you," in Korean. She picked this and other Korean expressions in what I call is accidental learning. She enjoys Korean movies and regularly watches KBS World, a Korean television channel with subtitles in English. If my daughter had the serious intention of learning Korean, I think she would watch the programs with more seriousness, and obviously with a different purpose than she now watches it with.

Speaking of multilingualism, I often think of Qeshi Teweldemedhin Ghebremedhin (1866-1930), the well-known Eritrean translator of the Bible to Tigrigna and Tigre, and the father of the prominent Eritrean educator of the 1940s and 1950s, Yishaq Teweldemedhin. As a translator, he had a special gift for languages because he could speak and write about a dozen languages.

As a follower of the Swedish Evangelical Mission, he was sent to Sweden in the 1880s for further education. One day, as he was traveling by train, assuming that he (a black man in a European country) could neither speak nor understand Swedish, two fellow-travelers began talking about him unpleasantly. Teweldemedhin, not willing to depart without letting them know that he had heard everything, addressed the men in Swedish.

"Sirs," he said, "If you want to say anything against me without my understanding anything, please don't use any of these languages: Tigrigna, Tigre, Amharic, Geez, Arabic, English, Swedish, Greek, Hebrew, or German."

I have heard of a similar incident involving an Eritrean educator in Beirut in the 1950s. The Eritrean educator was on a scholarship and was studying at a Lebanese University. One day, sensing that he needed one, he went to a barbershop for a hair-cut. In the barbershop, some young people (assuming that he had no clue about the language) began to comment about his hair in Arabic, a language which he fluently spoke since he was from Keren.

One of them said, "Look at his hair. It is like black wire. If one were to give him a hair-cut, his hair would fly into different directions and badly hurt people's eyes."

"Does one use," another one jeered, "flower clippers to give him a haircut? I don't think they use normal scissors with his hair."

Seething with anger but planning his response, the Eritrean listened silently. It must have made him exceedingly angry for such talk is foreign to his culture, making fun of someone in his presence. It is not that Eritreans do not gossip but when they do they always make sure that they do it behind that person's back, and that their words do not in any way make their way to the person who is made a subject of the gossip. "This is just between you and me," is the introductory phrase used before such compromising talk is discussed. If revealed, such talk could break relationships and is very embarrassing to the gossip.

The Eritrean man had every reason to be angry because it is improper to talk about a person to his face, even in a language that the person doesn't understand, and many societies frown upon it. In Eritrea, friends joke about their friends, and often since this is done in the spirit of fun, and the friends who are joked about do not hold grudges. Sometimes, however, jokes could be too personal and the jokers are considered to have crossed the red line of decency, resulting in strained relationships or a breakup. But, the Lebanese were no friends. They were complete strangers, whom the Eritrean man had never seen before that day.

He must have decided to teach them a moral lesson, because as he left the shop he addressed them in Arabic, the language they used to maliciously talk about him.

"Sirs," he said. "If you had a haircut, would your hair jump into people's eyes? And hurt them badly? Yes, people need flower clippers when they give me a haircut."

Attitude is crucial in language learning. Most Italian officials didn't learn any Tigrigna or other Eritrean languages during their long colonization of the country. Neither did most British officials try to learn any Eritrean language during their occupation of the country. Both the Italians and the British depended on interpreters and translators. The British had a plan to encourage their officials to learn Eritrean languages but dropped it because the British Government claimed that they could ill-afford expenses on such projects. The plan was defeated and was abandoned. Instead, they continued to encourage Eritreans and Italians to attend the English Institute, whose sole purpose was the propagation of the English language. The same goes with the Ethiopians during the Haileselassie and Dergue eras, who imposed their language on the Eritrean population, and Eritreans had to learn Amharic as a school subject and studied other school subjects through it.

"I have taught in Senafe," a colleague told me recently. "You know what? I have seen Tigrigna men (wrapped in their gabis) speak Saho fluently. Similarly, the Saho also speak Tigrigna in the same way. Both groups have no difficulty switching between the languages. They effortlessly express their thoughts in both."

As my colleague has implied, the command of more than one language creates a bond and oils the wheels; at the time they learn a language people also learn norms, values, and mores of the society. People are more likely to have misunderstandings if they do not have a common language between them. Even if they have some conflicts they can talk, discuss their differences, and resolve them successfully. In other words, a common language paves the way for a harmonious relationship.

It is not uncommon for a great number of Eritreans to speak three or four languages. A colleague speaks five languages (including two UN languages). He is not an exception. Other people I know to speak four languages. One can safely say a great number of Eritreans speak three languages. They picked one or two of these languages from their classrooms and another language from their interactions with people from the other ethnic groups. They learn English at school, and their mother tongues at home, and another Eritrean language outside, in town. If you live in Massawa or Agordat, you will hear Tigre, Tigrigna, and Arabic spoke in the streets, the markets, tea-shops, restaurants, and other public places. In Keren, people use Bilen, Tigre, Tigrigna, and Arabic in their daily interactions.

Eritrean children learn at kindergarten and elementary levels through their mother tongue. Beyond elementary level, as a language of instruction, Eritrean languages give way to English, which takes a place of importance as students are required to have a mastery of the language if they are to be successful at school. The textbooks and the audio and video materials for middle school, high school and college students are all in English. To access the Internet, students depend on English. As a result, it plays a crucial role in Eritrean students' lives, greatly determining their advancement and their future lives to a great extent.

English is not left to such incidental circumstances because it is the instrument through which Eritreans get their post-primary education. One notices that many Eritrean learners of English do not have a very good mastery of the language. One notices that Eritrean children do not speak the language as fluently as they do other Eritrean languages. A Tigre child living in Keren speaks Tigrigna fluently as if it were his mother-tongue. Similarly, a Tigrigna child living in the same town speaks Bilen in the same way. On the other hand, unless exposed to films or television, many Eritrean students have difficulty expressing themselves in English. In short, exposure to the language in its natural settings facilitates the learning of a language and enables people to use it as successfully as its native speakers.

To some, learning a language could be a joy and may come to them effortlessly. To others, it is a burden, especially if it is a foreign language and is taught by divorcing it from its natural setting. It also becomes doubly burdensome if the learning is not assisted by technology, such as the Internet, films, and television programs.

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