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Amharic heritage language class to teach reading, writing, culture to Ethiopian high school students in Los Angeles

Rahel Woldegaber understands how difficult it can be to teach children another language.

By STEPHEN STEWART Originally Published in the Daily Bruin

Born and raised in Ethiopia, Woldegaber is a native speaker of Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. After moving to Los Angeles several years ago, Woldegaber faces the challenge of raising her own children to speak Amharic.

“A lot of parents don’t have the time or energy to teach their kids,” Woldegaber said. “It requires a lot of commitment and consistency to spread a language that is not dominant. Everything (here) is English.”

Along with teaching her children Amharic, Woldegaber will also be leading a summer Amharic heritage class through the UCLA Center for World Languages.

Amharic was chosen as a course offering this summer in an effort to reach out to the large Ethiopian population in Los Angeles, said Agazit Abate, the administrative specialist for the Center for World Languages. The class is built for high school students who grew up in Amharic-speaking households and wish to become more proficient at speaking and writing the language. The course is designed for high school students because they lack the access to college language classes during the year, Abate said.

“It’s an opportunity for people to have this class where they have never had it before,” Abate said.

The class aims to accommodate students with a wide variety of proficiency levels in the language, but it will be a challenge, Woldegaber said.

Most students who take the class are already good at listening and speaking the language but are unable to read it, said Kathryn Paul, executive director for the Center for World Languages. For that reason, unlike traditional second-language courses, the class will not focus on basic vocabulary that a native speaker already knows. Instead, the class will focus on improving reading and writing and teaching native culture, Paul said.

Students will also interview their parents in Amharic for homework assignments.

“We want the parents to be excited about the class,” Abate said. “It’s an experience as a family and a community.”

Abate is a heritage speaker, or someone who grew up speaking a language other than the dominant language of the region. While she is currently helping Woldegaber plan the class curriculum, she recently taught herself how to read and write in Amharic.

“We can provide a service to the community that is not there,” Abate said. “The language itself is underserved.”

When the heritage classes began in 2006, only Russian was offered. Now, Amharic and Russian are offered along with Persian, Chinese, Hindi and several others, Paul said.

“We’ve gotten calls from parents to add Vietnamese, Spanish and Portuguese, but we don’t know yet,” Paul said. “There is obviously interest.”

High school students can also take the class for foreign language credit at their high school if approved by their counselor, Abate said. With a total cost of $150, the class is more affordable than most college courses, she added.

For Woldegaber, teaching the class will be an opportunity to provide high school students’ families with something she wishes to have one day.

“To have (my children) come home and speak to me in my language would be a huge deal,” Woldegaber said.

Center for World Languages