The Politics of Language in Ethiopia -Part 4

Though there are a number of different formulations, it seems that there are at least three primary political goods any language policy will need to deliver to the citizenry:

1) Communication/information: Access to the full range of information which enables the participation of citizens is determined and structured by language policy. As Patten puts it, ‘a person is better able to exercise his rights if he receives communications from government officials or public utilities in a language he can understand’ (2001: 696). Those who cannot do so are more vulnerable to having their rights and interests overlooked. A democratic language policy, whatever we decide that is, should provide all citizens equal access to the information, education and opportunities of all others, following the principle of equality.

2) Autonomy: A number of multiculturalist theorists have identified autonomy as a prerequisite for democratic participation. This means that citizens must have not only the freedom to make their own choices, but what Kymlicka (1995: 82) sees as a sufficiently wide range of meaningful options and opportunities from which to choose. This being so, language policy can either promote or hinder individual autonomy by eliminating or providing barriers to participation. This also relates to the cultural component of language identity, since language forms the way we engage and interact with the wider social and political world. It includes the ability to access and express one’s cultural identity, which is most typically accessed through the language of that group (Réaume, 2003: 290–91).

3) Recognition: This includes the individual psycho-social benefit to citizens when the language in which they express themselves most comfortably is recognized publicly and permitted privately; it is also referred to as symbolic affirmation of citizen’s identities. In particular, since language identity is so closely related to ethnic identity, recognition of linguistic diversity is an important symbol of the state’s position on the various nationalities which compose the state. Citizens who feel that their language is not valued by the state may resist efforts to incorporate them.

An effective and ethical language policy must somehow provide for these political goods. How any state does this will also be subject to various constraints, including history, the total number, relative size and geographic spread of languages, and the economic and human resources available. We know that many states continue to focus on the first, most obvious, political good of communication, to the neglect of the other two.  Language policies of states generally address issues of intra-state communication as well as government–citizen communication through a variety of means. But states ignore the political goods of autonomy and recognition at their own peril, since these are so far-reaching and pervasive as to be arguably imperatives in the modern world. 

Political goods are justifiably abstract notions, not policy formulations.  History and contemporary innovation in language policy provide us with a number of models on how the political goods provided by language can be delivered in multilingual states. A brief discussion of these policy options sheds greater light on the ethical and justice dimensions of language policy that are obscured by the description of political goods provided by language policy given earlier. And since the day-to-day implications of actual public policy is how citizens will most likely assess the relative strengths of the state in meeting their rights-claims, it is useful to consider typical policy formulations with respect to language.
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Smith, L. (2008). The Politics of Contemporary Language Policy in Ethiopia, Georgetown University. Journal of Developing Societies 24, 2 (2008): 207–243

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