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IN THE SPOTLIGHT
ICS Addis and MIT Translate Scratch Into Amharic
By Aaron Tyo-Dickerson and Kristi Williams 26-Apr-17
Scratch is a computer program made and shared by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is used by children around the world to create programs and share games, simulations, musical instruments, and art projects. Now students at the International Community School in Addis Ababa (ICS Addis) are leading the charge to translate Scratch into Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language.
Grade 9 student Daniel Mekuriaw said, “I am doing the Scratch translation because I want people who speak only Amharic to use it well and I am enjoying the translation process as well as the people I am working with.”
Jim Laney, ICS Head of School, stated “The International Community School of Addis Ababa places a high value on learning through service to our host country, Ethiopia. There are many needs in a developing country, but since we are a community of teachers and learners, we always look for ways we can serve through education. Schools in Ethiopia have limited resources and the national curriculum emphasizes traditional rote learning. Our teachers and teaching assistants regularly work in local schools and teacher training colleges to model modern teaching and learning methods. We use simple resources that promote engaged learning, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity in Ethiopian classrooms.”
As part of the school’s ongoing efforts to share effective educational practices, ICS teachers and teaching assistants offer annual intensive weekend workshops for local teachers, sharing best practices and standards. During one of the teacher workshops, Aaron Tyo-Dickerson, ICS Technology and Innovation Coach, was inspired to ensure that the local school teachers and their students could learn computer programming through Scratch. Aaron contacted MIT and organized an after-school activity in which ICS students translate Scratch into Amharic. “I want Ethiopian children to be as excited and inspired by Scratch as children in other regions of the world,” said Aaron Tyo-Dickerson. “Making Scratch available to them in their language is an important first step towards that goal.”
A project that began last school year is now reaching its end goal. Our HS students worked after school and on weekends to complete the translation.
“All I’m doing is giving to others the opportunity that was given to me through adapting the program into my language,” said Kidus Amare, Grade 10. The students are nearly finished with the translation, after which Scratch in Amharic will be available worldwide. However, translating has been a challenge.
As with many languages, nouns and pronouns are gendered in Amharic. Verbs, too, can have genders, including imperative commands. So, before we even started, we needed to decide whether Scratch was feminine or masculine. Our translators determined that Scratch commands would be written in the masculine imperative from.
Even harder than translating words is translating names for cultural constructs, such as the ubiquitous word “block.” Our student translators informed me early on that Ethiopian children don’t play with blocks. Aaron suggested “brick” pointing out the walls of our school. They discussed this option briefly but informed him that bricks are used by adults to construct buildings, not as playthings for children. Children would therefore be unlikely to know this “adult” word.
To help unravel cultural differences and distinguish “adult” vocabulary from that used by children, we held a “jam session” and invited native Amharic speakers to attend. The event was a huge success and we had answers to “brick vs. block,” “tint” vs. “shade,” and many more discussions. Teachers, parents, and students collaborated to get us through most of the remaining elements.
ICS Art Teacher Abenet Asnake said, “The Scratch Jam session was an interesting and fun activity where members of the ICS community as well as other Amharic language experts (who typically do not work with each other) came together and collaborated on translating words and terms that would be applied to the Amharic version of Scratch. While doing our part to make this wonderful project a reality, we sometimes disagreed but eventually came to a consensus. I enjoyed being challenged as well as learning from not just the adults that were there but the dynamic middle and high school students who partook in this activity.”
We are working to complete the Scratch Amharic translation by Aril 2017. Jim Laney had this to say: “The project to translate Scratch into the national language—Amharic—is a prime example of how ICS Addis can serve others in Ethiopia by championing modern educational tools. The project has brought together the school’s computer educators, students, artists, and musicians. Our goal is to provide an engaging learning tool that can potentially reach more than 35,000,000 youth in Ethiopia. Amharic Scratch will become a vehicle for developing creativity and problem solving for children and youth who have limited English. It will make coding and computer science more accessible to tens of millions of school-aged children, in and out of the classroom. I am proud of the leadership and spirit of service that our Amharic Scratch team has shown to get this project rolling, and I look forward to helping them promote it across the nation when it is ready.” l