This is the third post in the Language Nerd’s series on Ethiopian linguistics. Follow the links for the intro, part one, and part two. Today’s post comes mainly from an interview with Dr. Moges Yigezu and from his book Language Ideologies and Challenges of Multilingual Education in Ethiopia: The Case of Harari Region.
As I mentioned in the introduction, there are about eighty-five languages in Ethiopia, and the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution says that they’re all equal. What exactly that means isn’t defined, but after a long series of governments that promoted only Amharic and tried to squelch everyone else, it’s a huge change.
Amharic is still the working language of the federal government, but every region (regions being like Ethiopian states) can choose its own language. Tigray uses Tigrinya, Oromia uses Afan Oromo, and so on. And within each region, any language can be used for primary education.
It may not be the first thing that comes to mind,* but mother-tongue education is a huge deal. For one, it’s way easier on the kids – imagine being six years old and trying to learn both how to add and the language that addition is being taught in at the same time. For another, it’s mega prestigious. Educating young people through their group’s language is a way to pass on indigenous knowledge and affirm the culture’s importance.
So how do languages get into schools? Step one is having the group want it to be used in schools. No one is out wandering around beggng groups to toss their languages into kindergartens; if a group wants to, they have to get the process started themselves.
Some groups, for various reasons, don’t go do this. Some don’t have the time or energy – there are only so many leaders in a population, and if your leaders are focused on other priorities, like getting a good clinic in the neighborhood, mother-tongue education might not be urgent. Others don’t particularly care if their kids are educated in Amharic. Since it’s the language used most throughout Ethiopia, some people want their kids to get a head start there, so they’ll have greater mobility and more options in the future. Or they may want their kids educated in their region’s language. The whole point of the policy is to give greater respect to indigenous groups’ choices, and that includes the choice to let go of their language if they want to.** There are forty-one languages currently in schools or being developed for schools right now – that’s a friggin ton of languages, but still less than half of the total number in the country.
But say a group does want mother-tongue education. Step one is to call in a linguist and get it documented, a process I went over in some detail last post. Step two is surprisingly massive drama: choosing a script.
See, there are two big scripts in Ethiopia: the Latin letters, like this post is written in, and the native Fidel script. Some groups spring for Fidel out of national pride; others, like the Oromo, plumb for Latin, sometimes as a political move to distance themselves from the Amhara. When the choice is being made, there are committees, councils, meetings with the public – it’s a big debate.
Again, your quality linguist is a total non-partisan. When Dr. Moges helped set up the Aari in the Omo Valley for mother-tongue education, he designed two scripts, one in Latin and one in Fidel, and then stepped back. Religious leaders pushed Fidel (it’s tied to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) while politicians wanted Latin. Eventually the Aari went with Latin, but it was touch and go for a while.
The next step is preparing materials. The sticking point here is often scholastic vocabulary – do you coin new words? Put together old ones with enlarged meanings? Borrow from English or Amharic? More thorny issues, and you know what that means – more committees.
Only at this point, when the language is written down and basic teaching materials have been roughed out, can the group apply to the regional government for legal recognition and a bit of help. The government’s duties are to make sure basic subjects a well-covered, the textbooks are printed, the teachers are trained, all that good stuff. And it is, in fact, a well-funded and efficient government service – I’ll understand if some of my readers need to go back and reread that bit a few times to understand. But the Ethiopian government has designated language equality and mother-tongue education a priority, and they ain’t messing around.
Not that it always goes perfectly. At first, there was a spate of medium-sized groups getting regional power and using that to suppress even smaller groups – really not the idea, guys. But the kinks are starting to be worked out, now, and in a region like Harari parents can choose to send their kids to schools where they’ll be taught in Harari, Amharic, Oromo, English, or Arabic. While many students are taught in their mother-tongue, Dr. Moges was surprised to find that many others were not. Some people wanted their kids in religious schools (Arabic – it’s a Muslim area), some wanted an international language (English), some wanted intra-Ethiopian communication (Amharic). But with the Harari region’s flexible school system, everybody gets to make choices, and mostly everybody’s happy. When people have choices, by jimmy, they make them.
The biggest remaining problem, Dr. Moges says, is that most of these languages have no written language beyond the textbook. After kids finish school, they’re stuck rereading their primers or swapping to another language. There’s support for writers in endangered languages, but it’s a whole other process. A good number of languages find their way onto television, though, and the radio has a channel or two for everybody.
And what’s the next step in language policy? Well, if you happen to be a nerd with an ear to the ground, you may have heard rumors of interest in a second official working language. A language widespread across the south. A language that connects Ethiopia to Kenya. It would take a constitutional amendment, and a helluva lot of debate, and obviously even more committees. It’s not talked about much yet, but. But. The possibility is out there.
Afan Oromo as the second national language in Ethiopia. You heard it here first.
The Language Nerd
*I thought first of interpretation in the courts, but then, that’s kinda my thing.
**I can’t overstate how important this is. I mean, I’m all for revitalizing endangered languages, I just wrote about how important they are, but sometimes you read articles by linguists that are in love with the languages at the expense of the people who speak it. Especially painful when it’s a white researcher in an area white people colonized, and the argument ends up being “I know my ancestors blew through here and overwhelmed your language and maybe outlawed it and made it endangered in the first place, but now you should totally listen to me when I tell you to forgo any the possible benefits of learning English/French/whatever and speak only your native language instead, because I definitely know better than you, for real this time.” Just… just don’t do that. Jeez.
People wanna revitalize their language, that’s rad, I support the hell out of that. People don’t wanna, man, that is their choice, I respect that too. More here: Another View of Endangered Languages.
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A huge thank you to Dr. Moges Yigezu, and to the Graduate Library that let me in to read LIaCoMEiE:TCoHR. I’ve also used snippets from Dr. Zelealem Leyew’s “The Ethiopian language policy: A historical and typlogical overvew,” an article in the Journal of Ethiopian Languages and Literature.
Update: An example of the debate over scripts from Dr. Baye Yimam.