There are at least three types of reasons that language is so connected to ethnic and citizenship identities in Ethiopia: historical, pedagogical and political. Identification of these emerged through interviews conducted in Ethiopia in 2001 and 2003, and they share common themes with existing scholarship on language policy globally. In this article I will contextualize contemporary Ethiopian language policy within the historical, pedagogical and political objectives of the citizenry.
The political component of language policy relates to the symbolic and practical implications of language recognition in multilingual nation-states. Language is political in Ethiopia precisely because it represents the nation building project, and because, in the context of limited resources, any language policy change would require a drastic realignment of resources which is politically unpopular with the dominant group(s).
In Ethiopia, the historical distribution of the political goods of communication, recognition and autonomy has been highly skewed, benefiting native Amharic speakers disproportionately. And because Ethiopian-ness at the national level has become synonymous with Amharic-speaking ability, any local level reinterpretation of Ethiopian citizenship represents a radical political stance and a threat to the privilege of these dominant groups.
With regard to teaching pedagogy, it is widely believed by teachers and school administrators in Ethiopia today that teaching academic subjects in children’s mother tongue (MT), especially in their early years, helps students not only learn the subject better but also enjoy school more. The scholarly debates over the pedagogical benefits of MT instruction have been the subject of linguistic and educational study for at least several decades and are outside the scope of this work.
However, it is worth noting that the influential study on this issue by UNESCO, which led to international public support for MT instruction, continues to be cited by educational administrators and teachers in places like Ethiopia. There is a general belief, particularly among teachers and school administrators at the community level, that MT instruction is pedagogically preferred. There was some regional variation in this (almost all teachers in Wolaitta mentioned the UNESCO study, whereas in most other zones, it was only mentioned by some).
The pedagogical benefits were more often cited explicitly by teachers and school directors, although parents were consistent and unanimous that their children understood their subjects better, and had a greater interest in school, under a policy of MT instruction. In addition, parents from all regions repeatedly pointed out that they were in a much better position to assist their children with school work if it was in their mother tongue, since few are literate in any other language, including Amharic. These two points are especially compelling in Ethiopia, where low enrollment rates and high drop-out rates, even in primary schools, have historically been directly related to a perceived (and often very real) lack of relevancy of modern education to the needs of rural families in particular.
Early language policy was detrimental to the educational aspirations of non-Amharic speakers, who were forced to enter a learning environment at age six or seven years in which everything was taught in a foreign language. Often peasant families saw little use in such an education when their children were not even able to come home and tell them what they learnt, particularly when their labor was so needed at home and in the productive sectors of agriculture and pastoralism. Studies in the early 1990s noted the rapidly declining enrollment figures in Ethiopian schools in the final years of the Dergue, in part due to the effects of war and instability, and the irrelevance of the educational objectives (Martin et al., 2000).
The politics and pedagogy of language were often cited by parents, teachers and school administrators during interviews in the different regions of Ethiopia in 2003. The reasons for this, however, are tied to the historical development of nation-state consolidation and particularly, the explicit role that language dominance played in state-building and attempts at nation-building. I will next outline the historical processes related to nation-building, specifically as these were influenced by an evolving language policy under successive Ethiopian regimes. Greater attention is given to developments under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the 1994 National Education and Training Policy (NETP), as related to language policy. I also present the basic changes in language policy and the results of focus group surveys in various parts of the country, related to language and ethnic identity. But first I consider the relationship between the political goods that language policy can be expected to deliver, and the process of nation-building in modern Ethiopia.
Smith, L. (2008). The Politics of Contemporary Language Policy in Ethiopia, Georgetown University. Journal of Developing Societies 24, 2 (2008): 207–243