The Sounds of English

By 6th November 2013 April 4th, 2017 Libraries, books and literacy

We spent our first week getting to grips with the projects, setting up the monitoring and a fair amount of that time translating, formatting, editing, printing, copying, hole-punching and binding some books to go in our project school libraries. These are very simple books in English and the local language that will allow children to read very basic stories and quickly compare English and local versions to grasp the meaning of English words.

By the end of the week, we were ready to give Link Ethiopia’s ‘Sounds of English’ training, part of the Library and Literacy Project.  The 8-hour course was designed by Sue Lawrence, a Norfolk-based, THRASS-trained, percussionist (aren’t we all), on her 4th trip to Ethiopia.  Her phonics training and experience teaching English to Ethiopian pupils on a previous visit gave her a great insight into what the course needed.

And what it needed, as our literacy data confirmed, was a very basic level of phonic training with the end goal of improving literacy.  We wouldn’t dream of teaching phonics to teach a foreign language in the UK, but Amharic shares very few sounds with English and with a number of excellent exceptions, the teachers English ability isn’t enough to adopt an immersive approach.  Phonics is used more like a crutch, to support the learning of a language that would be decidedly tricky without it.  Moreover, when talking to Ethiopians, it’s as though Ethiopia has been quietly evolving a language on its own, leaving even some highly educated Ethiopian’s indecipherable to any non-Ethiopian.

To their and Sue’s credit, the teachers, some of them with 40 years teaching experience, took to it all with gusto and without a hint of resentment at being taught how to teach.  We measured them 4 times on a handful of phonics sounds and basic words, and by heck, they got it!  A few ‘e’ and ‘i’s excluded, they all made headway, which was extremely satisfying. Then the star of the class, or class swot, rose to give a delightful speech, in English, in honour of the end of the course.

We couldn’t understand a word.  I tried.  I really tried.  But there it was, indecipherable.

It wasn’t as bad as it initially seemed. We were not going to teach old dogs new tricks, or specifically, change the tricks they had ingrained in themselves daily for year after year.  We weren’t seeking to deconstruct and re-teach their entire pronunciation in 8 hours.  However, we could make sure they knew each sound in isolation, and give them techniques we knew worked, to teach their pupils. Although it’s too late to improve the pronunciation of older generations, they can at least be given the tools to effectively teach the next lot.