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Re: What language should Ethiopians speak?
Fiseha Haftetsion
January 31, 2013

I am writing this piece in response to Dr. Ghelawdewos Araya’s article entitled “what language should Ethiopians speak?” published on June 4, 2012 by www.africanidea.org that was inspired, as he said, by my draft article entitled “choosing a working language in multiethnic nations: rethinking Ethiopia’s working language policy”. 

Dr. Ghelawdewos’s article incorporates well-articulated multifaceted issues in relation to choosing a common language in diverse countries such as Ethiopia. The central theme of his article is, however, to retain the status quo in Ethiopia i.e. Amharic and only Amharic should remain the working language of the federal government of Ethiopia. He even said Amharic should remain the working language of Ethiopia. There is a huge difference between the phrases ‘working language of Ethiopia’ and ‘working language of the federal government of Ethiopia’ but I will consider this as a mistake of ‘the tip of the pen’ and pass to more important issues. For arriving at the conclusion that Amharic should be the language of communication at the center, Dr. Ghelawdewos rightly articulates the importance of speaking indigenous languages. He further argues that language is not a mere instrument of communications. Rather it’s a way of expressing, developing, and shaping ones identity, culture, and psychological makeup. I can’t dispute these assertions. 

On the other hand, Dr. Ghelawdewos mentions issues that are not directly related to the arguments raised in my draft article but which are important issues for consideration in designing language related policies. Whether Ethiopian languages such as Oromifa should use the Latin or Ge’ez scripts is not directly related to what should be the language of the center for Ethiopia. The urge for Ethiopians to start writing in their languages is also an important advice but again not directly related to the main debate. Hence, I will consider some of the points as mere advises and focus on issues which I consider are at the center of the main debate.

Let me start by reemphasizing why Amharic can’t serve the benefits a language can provide a modern Ethiopia. Amharic is not helping Ethiopians integrate themselves into the global employment and business opportunities. Adopting Amharic as the language of the center is giving unfair advantage to its speakers at mother-tongue level and discriminating the other peoples of Ethiopia. The advantages are multi-dimensional; employment, promotion of culture and identity are among the key ones. The culture, songs, and customs of one group are presented as if they were that of Ethiopia and the others as if they were those of the nations and nationalities only. 

I fully subscribe to the argument that speaking one’s indigenous language has advantages that transcend communication. But the point is can one argue that such advantages can be served by speaking Amharic only? I don’t think so. Dr. Ghelawdewos tends to equate speaking Amharic by the diverse groups in the country with speaking ones indigenous language. Amharic is as alien as any of the European languages to many of the Ethnic groups of Ethiopia. The argument that many of the Ethiopian languages are interconnected as evidenced by common words found in many of them is not tenable. There are common words between Italian and Tigrigna or Amharic, between French and Tigrigna or Amharic, between Arabic and Tigrigna etc. Freno, Marcato, Shemis, Mano, Defter, etc…are words of foreign origin that are used in many of our vernaculars. 

Dr. Ghelawdewos explains how historically Amharic became the language of the center. For him, Amharic was ascended to its current position due to the central geographic position occupied by its speakers. Amharic had also secured the consent of kings like Yohannes (whose mother tongue was Tigrigna) to remain the language of the center. These may be true but history can’t defy current necessities. History’s importance is in learning from the past. And human beings are always making history. The new history may not necessarily be a replica of the past. New systems, arrangements, and ways of handling things can be developed in order to deal with new challenges and problems. The reality during the 19th or the 20th century Ethiopia is different from the current Ethiopia. 

I completely agree with Dr. Ghelawdewos on one key thing. Ethiopians must be able to develop their indigenous languages to any level possible including using them as languages of higher education. This was one of the key arguments in my earlier draft article. I went to the extent of arguing that elementary education throughout the country must be given in one’s mother tongue. This includes eliminating the elitist foreign language schools that are particularly proliferating in the capital. American school, French school, Italian school etc. will never serve the interest of the general public and the indigenous languages. If everyone is educated at least up to the eighth grade in her mother tongue, there is less likely that the country will be exposed to cultural domination from abroad. Hence, it’s less related to speaking Amharic at the center or not. 

As it appears currently, Amharic is tantamount to a national language. The media time in the government owned institutions is highly dominated by a single language i.e. Amharic. I am not sure if the Ethiopian tax payers have agreed to that effect. Had Amharic had advantages that can’t be obtained by speaking the other languages that could have been somehow justified? But that’s not the case. Dr. Ghelawdewos argues that separating a language and its speakers is important. This seems theoretically right but it’s not practically possible particularly in the Ethiopian context where the second majority in terms of population and roughly the most historically advantaged group speaks the language of the center as its mother tongue. Save to exceptions, many find it difficult to adequately explain themselves in languages other than their mother tongue. Hence, it’s a matter of fact that the Amharic speakers will find it easier to join the federal institutions than the others. May be next comes those whose mother tongues are of same family with Amharic. It will definitely contribute to a hierarchy of who gets what in the federal institutions. 

As Dr. Ghelawdewos rightly puts it, language is not a mere instrument of communication. In addition to the issues mentioned earlier, it impacts ones feeling of pride. I will leave what the feelings of the Amharic speakers and the other nations and nationalities towards their languages and cultures will look like in a country that has Amharic as the only language of the central government. The arguments in favour of indigenous languages can’t be presented to defend one’s stand against the adoption of a foreign language as a language of the center only. They are equally important in defending one’s native language against domination by another local language. 

A possible solution could have been adopting all the languages spoken in Ethiopia as languages of the center. A critical reading of the spirit of the 1995 Ethiopian constitution albeit article 5 of the same and the justifications for the struggles preceding the most recent revolution leads to such a conclusion. This is the approach followed by small countries such as Switzerland. A relatively bigger South Africa has recognized all its languages as national languages. But it is not feasible for Ethiopia because of the large number of the languages-they are estimated to range from 70 to 80- and the limited resources the country could offer. It’s a very recent history that demands for ethno-national equality were at the center of the turmoil the county had to endure. It is also a unique country where only a single language spoken by basically a single ethnic group is adopted as the only language of the center just very similar to the imposition of the Afrikaner by the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Tanzania may be another example but the language of the center has native speakers that are numerically insignificant compared to the whole population. This demonstrates how unfair the current language policy of Ethiopia is. 

One thing must be stressed though. A careful design is needed to only reap the advantages that can be obtained by speaking a foreign language and to protect the indigenous languages and cultures from foreign domination. One of the key measures is to implement a strict policy of educating every child in her mother tongue at least in the elementary schools. Additional key solution is to devolve many of the social, cultural, and at least lower level educational policies to the regions or the constituent units of the Ethiopian federation. The federal government should focus on key policies related to economy, defense, and foreign relations. It can do this effectively speaking a neutral foreign language; without favoring some and disfavoring others and with little impact on the indigenous languages and cultures at the same time.