Life in Eritrea not speaking Tigrinya

Language, simply put, is a medium through which communication is mechanised; but it’s value is greater than just that. It is the instrument in which we process and understand our thoughts and feelings as humans. It’s an accumulation of words that help us understand ourselves and the world around us. Knowing your mother tongue is an integral step to understanding your community.

I was born and raised in London, England; and despite being raised with a strong patriotic sentiment, I never learnt Tigrinya. Often, children within the diaspora are raised in one of two ways, which influences the extent of their linguistic abilities in relation to their mother tongue. The first being spoken to in the language of their parents and learning the language of their residing nation at a later stage such as school, and thus becoming bilingual before the age of five or so. The second is being spoken to in the language of the country they are being raised in, as in my case that was English, at the expense of learning the native tongue.

Growing up, not knowing Tigrinya was nothing but a slight inconvenience. But as I got older I realised how much I missed out on by not knowing Tigrinya. With each family member that passed away, I realised that I had lost my opportunity to get to know them as a person and a lot of that was due to me not speaking the same language. I started to see how history was destined to repeat itself if I failed to learn Tigrinya, how many more relatives whose character I would only learn about through second hand stories despite us occupying the same space. Due to my busy lifestyle, after several failed attempts I recognised my inability to commit to learning Tigrinya in London; hence my decision to move to Eritrea.

Truthfully, at the beginning of my trip resentment was a reoccurring feeling. At every trial and tribulation where language proved to be a barrier I resented my parents for not teaching me Tigrinya. I resented anyone who mocked my attempts at speaking the language or lectured me on the importance of speaking Tigrinya, before resenting my parents again for not teaching me the language. Eventually, those feelings died down as I realised that the anger was not doing anything but omitting the responsibility from myself, and detaching myself from the truth that in the present moment I was the only person responsible for my progress in learning the Tigrinya language.

Out of fear of embarrassment, I found myself doing little things that would inconvenience me or curb my progress of language learning. For example, I would always choose to sit at the back of the taxi, and risk being squashed, to avoid having to have conversations with the driver and exercise my poor linguistic ability. When in fact, I could simply sit at the front and have the freedom to move about whilst using the opportunity to initiate conversations with the taxi driver, in attempt to practice the theory I’ve learnt. That however is still a work in progress.

The impact of not speaking Tigrinya on friendship making can be deemed as semi-problematic. As whilst I was able to find a group of friends that had an invaluable impact on my self-growth, I found comfort in making friendships with people that I could adequately communicate with, in other words with fluent English speakers. This approach to friendship making, placed a limitation on friendships I could make amongst the local population. Potentially leading me to miss out on potential lifelong friendships, but also meant that I spent my days speaking English which slowed down the progress of my Tigrinya learning.

However, all hope is not lost. There are steps I am taking that are aiding my progress in learning Tigrinya. Many people attribute the technique of ‘full immersion’ as being the best technique in learning a language. When it came to choosing a place to reside in Eritrea, I chose to stay with non-English speaking family members as opposed to living alone or with Anglophones; in order to incorporate speaking and listening to Tigrinya in my everyday life. I also decided to invest in private tutoring to help expand my vocabulary and aid in my pronunciation of words but I temporarily halted this approach as I realised that if I learnt to read the Ge’ez alphabet, I could learn the same things from the books I already had at a fraction of the cost. Which prompted me to start memorising the Ge’ez alphabet and my progress in identifying the letters of the alphabet have drastically improved as a result of this independent study. I also have a friend who is attempting to improve her Tigrinya fluency and we have weekly meetings for the sole purpose of Tigrinya study. This gives us the opportunity to discuss what we’ve learnt over the week, test each other and motivate one another to keep trying; all in a judge-free zone.

Remaining motivated is not easy especially when the rewards of our efforts are not immediately reaped. I have faith that by the end of my time in Eritrea, I will have reached the level of fluency I could have only dreamed of this time last year. For now, I’m just learning to see the beauty in the journey.

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