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Learning a new language is a tremendously difficult task. It certainly did not come easy. To learn a language fully, it requires you to experience it, speak it, and use it on a daily basis. Growing up, it was never like that for me. In Ethiopia, English is not the official language. It is, however, the most widely spoken foreign language among the educated. From the time, I was in middle school, I went to an elite private school; therefore, I had the advantage of studying English better than most of my family or friends.
But it was terribly difficult to master a language when the only time I could speak it was when I was at school between the hours of eight and four. When I got home, I only spoke Amharic.
My dad spoke a little bit of English, but not enough for us to have full conversations. My mom spoke no English at all. In elementary school, I was taught my ABC’s by English teachers if they ever came to the US and tried to teach English, they would be laughed at by American students.
Their competence and understanding of the language was very limited that a teenager that had just graduated from an American High School could have taught better grammar.
After elementary school, my parents moved me to a S.O.T., a private American school. I went to S.O.T. from Fifth grade to Seventh grade. The school had a strategy to motivate us to speak English.
Throughout the day, if we spoke and wrote our daily five sentences journal in English, we were given five star stickers. Whenever we were heard speaking Amharic, our star stickers would be taken away. The whole point of the star stickers was that at the end of each week the teachers would collect them.
The student with the most star stickers out of about thirty students in one class would receive some form of prize. The prizes varied from candies, school utensils, passes for homework, extra-credit on a tests and quizzes to tickets to watch movies or games. This was my main incentive to speak and write English primarily throughout the day, especially when the teachers or teacher assistants were around. I always tried to avoid them, so I could speak Amharic freely with my friends and actually be able to fully and thoroughly understand what they were saying.
Basically, studying English in Ethiopia was like taking a French class in High School for two to three years. Learning French depends on your having learned a series of complex conjugations, sentence arrangements, or pronouncing words. Yes, you are going to be able to remember the basics and conjugate words correctly, but that does not certainly qualify you to be able speak the language fluently, for communicating effectively or submitting an essay that covey exactly what you mean to get across. Of course, when you leave high school, if you no longer take a French class, the likelihood of your remembering most of the French is extensively low. For me, the same applied to studying English.
When it came to writing, I focused solely on applying the grammar rules and spelling properly. This is not to say that was wrong but my major focus on making the paper grammatically correct took away from the rhythm of the paper. It lacked the application of coherency, development, audience awareness or any kind of distinction. I had a problem with making my paper flow smoothly and not be so rigid or overly formal; this is a problem I have yet to fix.
At the end of 7th grade, I got a visa to come to America. I dreaded the fact that I was going to be out of my comfort zone, actually moving to a country where English was the official language. I moved to Atlanta, Georgia when I was thirteen years old. I came alone – leaving my mother and the rest of my family behind to my father, who immigrated to the US in 2001. It obviously was a major culture shock for me. Perhaps, it was more than I could handle.
When I was on the plane on the way here, there was an eight year-old Indian-American girl sitting next to me. She was also traveling alone. Because I was seven years older, I told her – in my extremely broken English she tried really hard to understand that I would be there for her if she needed someone, if she were ever scared. Her facial expression seemed to say, “I think you might be the one that is in need of someone”. I kept quiet the rest of the plane ride. She spoke, I listened and nodded often whether I understood what she was saying or not. That moment significantly foreshadowed what lay in wait for me as I arrive in Atlanta. I’m the kind of person who likes to express myself. But that was about to come to an end because I now realized that I would be unable to express myself with such a substantial language barrier in my way.
When I arrived at Atlanta, it was remarkable to see my dad after 6 years of separation. It was August 8th, 2006. DeKalb County Middle schools were starting in a week, so my dad took me to the international student center and I tested out of ESOL classes. I thanked my star stickers when I was placed in a regular 8th grade English class. Sequoyah Middle was filled with immigrants, mostly Hispanics. But it did not work out to my advantage because most of them also did not know how to speak English properly. Therefore, there were two language barriers to overcome. After a couple of months, I gradually became better at understanding. Afterwards, Speaking became somewhat easier.
I started to read often because my books kept me company during lunch hours. It became an escape from the unfriendly environment, and it kept me busy. I remember reading “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”. Of course, I had my dictionary out, checking for each and every word I did not understand. But it changed me. It gave me new sets of vocabulary. Perhaps, It gave me a much deeper sense of apprehension and insight into the English language itself. After a while, I grew to love to read. What was meant for as an escape from the discomfort became just for my utter delight. I would ask my teacher for books that had easier arrangement of words and vocabulary.
Within 6 months, I was able to comprehend almost anything that was said to me without any problems. I made friends. In 9th grade, I joined the reading bowl team. We read about six or seven books a semester and competed in the county reading bowl team, then state and then finally nationals. It was fantastic. Reading helped my imagination grow. I went from being the new immigrant kid that did not know how to speak proper English to competing in state reading bowl contests. It made me feel worthy and incredibly accomplished. Still to this day, I remember how I felt the day we won second place in the state competition. I can honestly say that reading altered my life.
I wish I could be as passionate about writing as I am about reading. I hate writing more than I hate waking up in the morning to my roommate’s alarm. It is excruciating. Every time I’m assigned to write a paper, my anxiety level unbearable. I procrastinate every day till the day before the paper is due. I would go out to eat, do laundry, complete all chemistry and math home works on the back of the book – all of which I resent on a daily basis. I would do absolutely anything but write. I’m always increasingly frustrated, annoyed and aggravated because I am almost never able to articulate and convey exactly how I feel from thoughts to ink and paper.
I remember in 11th grade I had a paper due in American literature. Being as indecisive as I am, the fact that we were allowed to choose any topic, made the situation enormously time consuming. I literally sat in front of the computer for nearly 5 hours and I only accomplished two paragraphs. The blinking cursor on the blank screen became my enemy. But through the process I erased and added several paragraphs. It outright disappointed me that what I was thinking was not completely and totally carried out in what I wrote. It diminished any sense of confidence I had in my writing when my papers appeared incomplete or out of point because I was not able to join the main and focal points with my creative ideas. But I’m improving as time progresses and it will ultimately improve just like my speaking and reading abilities have. My writing is better now than it was yesterday but still not as it will be tomorrow.
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