It is often argued that children should learn at school in their maternal languages. This is also what is happening in this country particularly in public schools all around the country. Public schools even require that children should be taught up to a certain grade in the local/regional languages and not even in Amharic, which is the national language in this country. Once children reach a certain grade, they need to switch to English language in which school materials for advanced education levels are prepared. On the outset, the fact that one uses their maternal or local languages for academic purposes may seem attractive. This is because the focus of the children will be on learning the subject matter and not the foreign language. On top of that, children will master and internalize their local languages when using these both for academics and at home.
But is this really the right way to go? I have been teaching for few years college students here in Ethiopia. What I learnt from there is that the English language can actually be a real bother for too many Ethiopian students. They get to university level without mastering the language. And unfortunately, (nearly) all higher education materials are written in English by foreigners. The English language then becomes a barrier between them and the subject matter. My observation at the time was that, the moment I switch to the Amharic language when explaining about the subject matter, the level of interest and classroom participation of students rises accordingly. I get more questions and even more students coming to my class from other classes to attend my lectures. But I knew that one of the main things that made the course attractive to them was that I was delivering the course in the national language. But unfortunately, when one reaches higher education, it is no longer allowed to give lectures in the local language and English becomes the teaching language.
This is the paradox that I fail to understand. If one is made to put a low emphasis on the English language at the beginning of educational years, how can one be expected to be perfect in English in later years where English becomes the only option? I would say I am totally against students learning in their local languages in their early ages if English is the only language required to succeed in higher education institutions in the country. During my campus life I have noticed that those students who have a good command of the English language are those who better succeed in their education and even in their careers after university. In my opinion, only in a situation in which the local language is usable at the university level should this language be promoted in the early years of education.
I did my primary and secondary education in a foreign language. Nevertheless, I have seen that this does not prevent one in any way from mastering perfectly their local language. I can speak, write and read Amharic perfectly. One need not necessarily lean in their local language to master it. There are plenty of other forms of promoting and cultivating one’s local language without using it in academics.
But caution should also be made in not losing local languages altogether. Nowadays, you can easily observe that many students going to private schools in Addis cannot speak proper Amharic. In fact, the means of communication of many of them is English where Amharic words are thrown in here and there. In my view, these students have developed a sense of “hatred” for the local language (for which you cannot blame them because this is probably what they are encouraged to do both at school and by their parents). The way I see it, English is the best option for academics in this country, from primary to higher education level. Whether we like it or not, probably except for language degrees, all degree programs in this country are offered in English. But learning in English should be without losing one’s own sense of identity, of course.