Ethiopia is a country in which many foreigners live and work. Many of them work in embassies, multilateral organizations, international development organizations and missions. More and more however we see an influx of foreigners in the private sector as foreign companies come to invest or carry out tenders they have won. As a result, management of companies is affected by the global dimensions that foreigners bring along as well as by the Ethiopian way of doing things. And while the foreigners are often surprised and frustrated because things work differently here, the Ethiopians have their own opinions about the way the expatriate goes about managing the business. Let us look at some of the dimensions that affect international management in Ethiopia.
The first obvious dimension is communication. It is widely recognised that English is becoming the global language of business. Although many Ethiopians speak English, relatively few English-speaking foreigners learn Amharic or any of the other Ethiopian languages. In business dealings, therefore we will thus typically depend on each other to communicate in English as a second or even third language. This dependency can have important disadvantages and cause problems like:
Learning only what the other party wants you to know and tells in English.
Getting into misunderstandings because the other party’s English is not as good as you think.
Losing opportunities by being limited to dealing only with people who speak English.
By the way, these problems are reciprocal as the English of the Ethiopian business partners is sometimes better than that of the foreigner. Now, when dealing with somebody who speaks an unfamiliar language, translation becomes necessary. Here, too, problems can easily occur. Translation is difficult and often imprecise, especially in fast paced conversations and discussions. I accompanied an evaluation mission recently to some projects in the countryside. The evaluation team was of mixed foreign origin and they wanted to discuss the project achievements with the communities. Three languages were used and I am still not sure whether the evaluators got objective information or they heard what the translators wanted them to hear or they heard what they wanted to hear themselves. Even in writing, translation may fail to deal accurately with local idioms and other features of language.
There is also the silent language of body postures and gestures that can vary across cultures. It is quite easy to move or behave in a familiar way, only to insult someone without meaning to. The “thumbs up” sign is a clear example of this as it means “jolly good” to westerners, while it may have a political meaning or considered vulgar or insulting somewhere else.
Realising the importance of knowing at least the basis of the language of the people you are working with visited the Mekane Yesus Joint Language School (MY-JLS), which was established some 45 years ago and which changed its name to Mekane Yesus Language and Intercultural Center, MY-LINC. The name change now allowed the school to present itself as a centre for training and equipping people to cross cultures, linking people to people, and cultures to cultures.
MY-Language and Intercultural Center is situated at Ayer Tena, on the southwest part of Addis, and is owned by the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, with eight partnering mission organizations on the board running the center.
Students come from all over the world and are involved in various kinds of development and church work in the country, but also others attend the center.
The school uses the Growing Participator Approach, which is found to be effective, thorough and fun! This approach, developed by Dr. Greg Thomson, is a six-phase program that emphasizes the socio-cultural nature of language learning, helping the learners to build relationships with people from the host world. Such a person, or Nurturer, will help the language learner, or the Growing Participator (GP) to grow into their community and into their world.
At the MY-LINC one can learn the first four phases. The two last phases will be learnt by one self, using the techniques, learned from the program.
The center teaches Ethiopian languages and currently offers courses in four languages, the most common ones being Amharic and Oromo.
Regular courses are offered in the fall and spring semesters. During the summer, there are eight weeks Summer Courses. Language learners can choose between a Normal Track of 3 hours per day or Fast track of 4.5 hours per day. There is also Normal Plus, of 3 hours plus additional hours according to your needs. The daily schedule is from 8.30 – 12.00 (3 hours plus ½ hr break) for the Normal track, and an additional 1.5 hours in the afternoon for the Fast track.
A Special Track is also offered, primarily for parents with small children. This track has only 1.5 hour per day, Mon-Fri and the time can be arranged according to students’ needs and the capacity of the center. Tailor Made courses are offered according to the need of the students. Evening Classes are offered for 3-7 students in 6 or 3 weeks blocks (see school fees).
There are of course other ways to get familiar with the local Ethiopian and there are many individual teachers offering their services, while there are also books, like the well- known “Amharic for Foreigners”. Also, online, courses may be found like for example from the Live Lingua Project.
The point I am trying to make however is that is it very important and helpful indeed for any foreigner, to learn some of the local language. It will help you as foreign visitor, manager, investor, teacher, missionary to become more effective in achieving what you came here for. It will open doors and make your stay in this country enjoyable indeed.