At the Intersection of Language, Culture, and Code

About Scratch

Image from “About Scratch” at

Ethiopia is an ancient country that traces its history, through the Solomonic Dynasty, all the way back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. The national language of Ethiopia is Amharic, the second most widely spoken Semitic language in the world (after Arabic). Amharic has its own written form, an abugida of graphs called fidel. The International Community School of Addis Ababa is an English “island” where are surrounded by the fascinating sights and sounds of the Amharic language.

Outreach opportunities abound in Ethiopia and we have eager students in our high school CAS program who are also native speakers of Amharic. We are harnessing that enthusiasm here to produce an Amharic translation of MIT’s Scratch programming language. With support from Shruti Mohnot at MIT we now on our way towards our goal of translating the colorful blocks of the Scratch programming environment into Amharic fidel.

As anyone who has ever done translating can tell you, dictionaries and web-based translators are not as useful as they might seem. Pen is easily translated to ብዕር, for example, but what about Pen Down or, harder still, Change Pen Size by X? This necessitates quite a bit of backfilling for our students (Logo anyone?) and leads to even more questions.

What, for example, is a Block? I have explained that it is like a brick, using Lego to demonstrate. My student Daniel has reminded me that Ethiopian children are extremely unlikely to know what Lego blocks are. I have used bricks as another suggestion, pointing to the walls of our school. My students patiently explained to me that those are “adult, job words” that children would likely not know or understand. Ethiopian children don’t play with blocks or bricks it seems, so we are considering other culturally appropriate translations. (“Stones” or “tiles” seem more likely at this point.)

Sprites, Backdrops and the several dreaded math terms (sin, mod, sqrt) loom on the horizon as our translation work proceeds. At this point our goal is to share a completed translation of the Scratch blocks by the end of the current school year.

If you would like to see our translation work-in-progress, it is available on the MIT servers at You can download the blocks.po file of the latest translation and load it into Scratch by shift-clicking on the language icon. This will turn your view of Scratch into our view of Scratch as shown below.


Partially-translated view of MIT’s Scratch interface.

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