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Finding the Right Words
An Ethiopian entrepreneur publishes the first Chinese language textbook in her country's native tongue
By François Dubé | VOL.10 June 2018 ·2018-05-28

Lina Ayenew has achieved an extraordinary feat: she wrote the first Chinese language textbook especially adapted for speakers of Ethiopia's national language
When Lina Ayenew set foot in China for the first time in 2010, she never imagined that she would make her own mark on Sino-Ethiopian relations.

After taking a position of English teacher in Hunan Province, in south-central China, the young Ethiopian woman was eager to immerse herself in the new culture. However, while learning Chinese, Ayenew quickly realized that something was wrong: Chinese textbooks in African languages ​​were nearly non-existent. Learners on the continent had to resign themselves to using third-language learning materials to learn Chinese.

Just a few years later, this situation has changed, thanks in part to Ayenew. In May 2016, she authored the first-ever Chinese textbook specifically designed for Amharic speakers, one of Ethiopia's official languages ​​spoken by about 22 million people.

"Much like my journey to China, this book materialized without a concrete plan," she said.

Published in Addis Ababa with the participation of the Chinese Embassy in Ethiopia, her book Dalu: Introduction to Chinese for Amharic Speakers generated unprecedented interest in her home country. The first 2,000 copies were quickly sold out, which took everyone by surprise, including Ayenew.

"The reactions in Ethiopia were positive. In fact, I was not prepared for how much demand there would be for it," she said.

From student to author

Originally from Addis Ababa, nothing presaged Ayenew's China journey. As a young girl, she was first attracted by the United States, where she embarked on her graduate studies in 2006. It is by chance that one day she was handed a pamphlet of the Yale-China Association, a U.S. organization that has been sending students to China every year since 1901.

"I decided to attend one of the information sessions, even though I thought it was hopeless because I did not have any China-related experience. But to my surprise, they said they accept applicants who, like me, were China newbies," she said.

Ayenew was sent to Xiangya School of Medicine with Central South University in Hunan in 2010, where she taught English and public health classes. After this first contact, she continued her discovery of Chinese culture at Beijing Language and Culture University for two years. When she came back to Ethiopia, she was shocked by how much her hometown had changed.

"I was really amazed at how China made a huge imprint in my city. Even though I visited Addis Ababa quite often while I lived abroad, I was still surprised by how many Chinese grocery shops and restaurants had popped up. The Chinese were also building the light rail across the city. Their presence was being felt everywhere," she said.

She quickly realized that language fluency was a much sought-after skill in this new context.

"I met with many Chinese nationals who worked in Addis Ababa, from shop owners to company executives. In our first meeting, many would hear my Chinese and offer me some kind of job or opportunity. You could tell that speakers of Amharic and Chinese were what they wanted. But at the time, you couldn't find many Ethiopians who spoke Chinese proficiently."

And for good reason: there was no single Chinese language manual in Amharic at the time. That's how the idea of writing one came about. "So, kind of like a hobby, I began writing this book. That is how it all began," she said. Her experience as a student proved very useful in her writing process. Many Ethiopians become discouraged after a few weeks of study, she explained, because the Chinese transliteration system is difficult to learn and there is a disconnection between the lessons and their daily lives.

As a solution, her textbook teaches Chinese pronunciation directly in the Amharic alphabet, allowing Ethiopians to approach this foreign language through a familiar path. "In fact, I felt that the Amharic script captured Chinese sounds so much better than the English alphabet," she said.

In addition, the content is directly related to the daily life and culture of Ethiopians, reducing the perceived cultural distance. "I made sure that the book included contexts that are particular in Ethiopia so that readers feel like our culture and Chinese culture have a lot of parallels." The textbook also comes with audio lessons teaching the basics of pronunciation and tones of Chinese, which are a common stumbling block for foreign learners.

A long-term relationship

In Ayenew's opinion, the "Chinese fever" in Ethiopia is not likely to subside anytime soon. She expects that more and more textbooks adapted to African learners will make their way to bookshelves. "Just a few years ago, no one was going to China to study. I remember that even in 2011 or 2012, many Ethiopians would be amazed that I was living in China. Today, it's commonplace," she said. According to the Ethiopian Investment Commission, Chinese investments in the country are picking up, particularly in the leather and textile industries. From 2012 to 2017, 279 Chinese companies had operations in Ethiopia, valuing at more than $572 million. In this context, Ayenew firmly believes in the importance of using and popularizing African languages.

"Although it is important to learn the languages of others, having an understanding of your own language gives you this dimension of understanding of your own culture. It is also important to not simply rely on the West as a way to connect Africa and China," she said, pointing out that more and more African languages are being taught at Chinese universities. "I think a line of direct communication can benefit both sides."

Indeed, Ayenew has no shortage of plans for the future. "I will soon launch a digital learning platform that brings more educational contents in local Ethiopian languages. I am cooperating with Khan Academy, a leading digital education organization, on this project," she said.

Convinced that the growing Chinese presence in Africa is a positive trend, she is also busy trying to document this process. Every year, she publishes Mega-Themes in Africa-China Relations, a summary of the most important trends in the field. "If you do not know about Africa-China relations, you should start from this publication. It first started as part of a consulting project and then took a life of its own since then. It is now in its fourth year," she said.

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