Wednesday, June 6, 2012


I am so, so glad that we were able to learn some Amharic before the boys came to us. Many adopted older children experience months of frustration when they are unable to communicate with their new families. Having been in situations myself where I couldn't communicate with the people around me, I know how disheartening it is. I am so thankful that our boys haven't had that frustration. Not that we are having deep conversations in Amharic or anything, but we can cover what the boys want and don't want, what the many strange and new things around them are, and what's coming up next in the day. I find myself circumlocuting a lot and oversimplifying a lot, and I am doing unspeakable things to the grammar, but I can get basic messages across.

Many people have the misconception that mixing languages will hinder a child's second or third language development. It's not hard to see why that isn't true. If you are relying on the new language only, the child is figuring out meaning based on context, maybe what you're pointing at, or the way you're gesturing. But if you can offer the word in both languages, it's easy to make the meaning clear, and for more abstract concepts, too. 

Dinosaurs were scary for the kids until I could say in Amharic, "They lived many years before. They all died. Now there aren't any."
"No dinosaurs in this country?" the kids wanted to know.
"No dinosaurs in this country. No dinosaurs in other countries. They all died."
Now the boys like dinosaurs.

Just little things like that. They can tell us that they want the shirt they wore yesterday, or ask why there are so many cars parked somewhere, or tell us that the white van reminds them of someone in Ethiopia except his van had more windows, without having to struggle to get their meaning across. I can explain used car lots, disabilities, nontraditional families and Barack Obama in simple terms that satisfy their curiosity. The only thing that has stumped us so far is space and photos of the Earth.

Of course all this communication means that we know when our kids are saying unflattering things in Amharic too, such as their backseat commentary, "You're going the wrong way. You don't know the way. This isn't right," or  A to T, "You're hairy and fat," or A to me, "Your underwear is big like a grandma's."

Overall, deciding the learn Amharic was one of the best decisions we made during the adoption process.


  1. Your Amharic far far out passed mine. I wish I had studied longer and harder but the little bit I did learn was invaluable. What a blessing to the boys and to you!

  2. You know how to say "granny panties" in Amharic? That's quite impressive. :) Seriously, though, it's so fantastic that you learned so much Amharic to help the boys (and you) through this time. Wonderful.

  3. Ha, Kelly beat me to the question I had - there's a word for "granny panties" in Amharic? You have to tell us what it is!

  4. OK, Kelly and Liz, I changed it to the more literal translation, "like a grandma's." :)

  5. Kyra, I am struggling because I do know some good phrases and words, but they are all directed at a girl, NOT plural. I am kicking myself that even in my attempts to talk I am just going to sound like a complete idiot. So humbling.

  6. Granny panties, I love it. I wish we could be so helpful to our boy when he comes home, but he speaks Anuak. I've searched the Internet and not found any kind of translation assistance or even words or phrases. He'll probably pick up a little Amharic during his few months at our agency's care center in Addis, but who knows if he'll recognize them with our garbled pronunciation.