Linguistic loners: It’s OK if you’re a Polish expat in Britain but are there any Amharic speakers in the house?

Half a million other people speak Polish according to a survey published last week. But what if you’re one of only three Amharic speakers here?

Zulfugar Rufatoglu, 83 - language: Azeri

Azeri speakers are so hard to find in England and Wales that the Census provides no exact count. Zulfugar, who worked as a journalist in Azerbaijan before moving to the UK with his young family, is one of 13,551 categorised in the lonely-sounding “West/Central Asian Language (all other)” box. But Zulfugar says the UK Azeri community is growing.

“In 1994, the BBC World Service opened an Azeri service, so I was invited over as I had some command of English. Back then, you could almost count the number of Azeri speakers in the UK with your fingers, and other than my colleagues there was nobody you could talk in Azeri with,” he says. But nowadays, “if you’re invited to a wedding you might see 200 or 300 Azeri speakers”.

Zulfugar has read reports about isolated Polish speakers with some cynicism. He believes that rather than creating Polish enclaves, the children of Polish immigrants will end up speaking English as their native tongue.

Azeri speakers already incorporate English words such as “smartphone” and “iPod” into their everyday speech, and some young Azerbaijanis aren’t as fluent in the language as they like to believe. “In English, you might say ‘I’m not happy’, but in Azeri there is a completely different phrase for that. They translate the English into Azeri which would be laughable in Azerbaijan,” he says. “My parents spoke literary Azeri, but for many of the younger generation English is their native tongue.”

London’s Azeri community is “very divided”, he says, with some residents having a very poor command of English. “You have those in west London who work for English companies like BP or the BBC, but those in north London, along with the Turkish, haven’t really integrated that much. They feel very comfortable speaking their own language, and that isolates them. It’s a shame, because Britain has an open society and a democracy, and there are many things to enjoy.” 

He can understand why some British people feel “frustrated” by the “huge influx of immigrants coming over”. Zulfugar, who now lives in north London, has certainly made an effort with languages. In addition to English and Azeri, he can speak Russian. “Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union, so my second language was Russian,” he says, “but now I count English as my second language.”

He even teaches British diplomats how to speak Azeri with the language training company Communicaid. “They were brilliant. One became fluent within a year.”

Azeri facts:

Countries spoken: Azerbaijan, Iran

Number of speakers: 24m

Number of people in UK who list it as their main language:  up to 13,551

Notable UK communities: North and West London

Useful phrase:  “Zehmet olmafa hefabi veren” – “Can I have the bill please?”

When Martha arrived in London from Zimbabwe 12 years ago, she knew she was in for a culture shock. But it was only when she went to buy some basics that the cultural differences really hit home. “I went to Tesco, and there were so many varieties of egg that I was confused and I walked out without buying anything,” she said.

Rather than stay in the capital, however, where she could take solace in the companionship of more than 5,000 fellow Shona speakers, she moved to Monmouthshire in Wales, where she is one of just three.

Martha lives with her husband and 18-month-old daughter on a farm in Abergavenny. She started her own business, and is so proud of her language and her Zimbabwean roots that she teaches schoolchildren about African culture.

Not all Shona speakers feels this way. “When some people arrive in the UK, they pretend not to speak Shona, it’s not something they want to be associated with,” she says. A woman came to my house and told me she was South African, but as she was walking up the stairs in her high heels she almost slipped and said “maihwee”, which is the Shona equivalent of “Oh my God”. It’s so upsetting that people feel they have to deny their culture and their country. The problem is Mugabe – he speaks fluent Shona. Some of my friends sound completely English – you would never know they were a Shona person.”

It was President Mugabe’s regime that persuaded Martha to leave her homeland. Working as a geography teacher in a school in Mutoko, near the border with Mozambique, she attracted the ire of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, who accused her of indoctrinating the children in politics. “In fact, I was teaching the children about the economic crisis, which was on the syllabus,” she says. “They came to attack me in my home, and I didn’t feel safe going to school.”

But Martha is determined to ensure her daughter grows up speaking Shona, in addition to English and Welsh. “My favourite phrase is ‘iwe’ – hey you! If your children are misbehaving you can tell them ‘iwe’ and make them pay attention.”

When she and her “cockney” husband married, he had to endure all the traditional Shona rites. “It’s very hard if you’re not Shona – [the bride’s relatives] do everything to try to put you off, they say “You don’t want to marry my child”. He had to pay the dowry, and sometimes, if you don’t know the culture, they say “20 cows” and you just pay it, but he negotiated them down to 12.”

Shona facts:

Countries spoken: Zimbabwe and Southern Zambia

Number of speakers: 11 million

Number of people in UK who list it as their main language: 21,395

Notable UK communities: Croydon, Slough, Leicester

Useful phrase: “Ndinokumbirawo kuti musakurumidze kutaura” – “Please speak more slowly”

Hirut Haile, 42 - language: Amharic

“Amharic isn’t really a language that you hear very often,” says Hirut, who is one of 8,615 native speakers in England and Wales. Hirut is a social worker who lives in Hackney, where there are just under 300 Amharic speakers – a substantial amount compared to most parts of the country.

“I don’t tend to speak it other than sometimes with my children or on the phone with my friends,” she adds. “The biggest community is in London, where you can go to Ethiopian restaurants and they play Amharic songs. If you were in Newcastle or Liverpool then you might feel quite isolated.”

Hirut’s two children are both in primary school, and while she is keen for the boys to learn Amharic, she says it isn’t the easiest of tasks. “There’s no other place they can practice other than during Church services where there are Amharic translations on the screen.  There is one other family in my children’s school that speaks Amharic, but while me and the mother chat in Amharic, they speak in English.”

Moreover, Hirut has a tendency to discipline the children in Amharic, with its hard consonant sounds. “They know when I’m muttering in Amharic, and they know what I’m talking about. They know when I talk in Amharic I’m not saying a nice thing! My son will say “mummy you’re cross with us!”  You can’t get angry in English it’s just impossible.”

Nevertheless, she says her children enjoy listening to Amharic songs in the car (“they don’t ask for the music channels so they must have an interest”) though she sometimes has to translate the words.

But keeping a grasp on her own Amharic skills has  become something of a trial. “There are new words in Amharic now that I might not understand, technology ones,” so she keeps a dictionary with her “just in case”.

Still, Hirut thinks it would be a good thing for the English to learn more about the language, or at least be more aware of some of the more positive things about her East African home.

“Ethiopia is known for the famine, and its long distance runners, but the language is really beautiful and we have a great culture,” she says.

Hirut learned English at school, and while nowadays she is completely fluent, it was hardly a labour of love. Rather than learn about Britain’s history, she received tough lessons in English grammar and vocabulary.

And could an Englishman learn Amharic? “I don’t think foreigners would have a reason to learn it. I can’t see any commercial or business purpose for it,” she admits. “It has 127 or more letters  so it can be difficult.”

Amharic facts:

Countries spoken: Ethiopia, Eritrea

Number of speakers: 25m

Number of people in UK who list it as their main language: 8,615

Notable UK communities: Leeds, Hammersmith and Fulham

Useful phrase: “Ye babur tabiyaw yet new” – “Where is the train station?”

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