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Solving the language puzzle

Solving the language puzzle

Ethiopians take pride in their diversity. Indeed, Ethiopia is truly a diverse country made up of indigenous people having different languages, cultures, religions and other identity-markers. It is perhaps one of the world’s most linguistically diverse nations; the same is true for ethnic diversity as well. True to form, most Ethiopians casually claim their country to have more than 70 local and unique languages actively in use, in different parts of the nation. But, here is the odd part: no one can really say, with certainty, how many languages are currently spoken in Ethiopia. While a number of people put this figure somewhere north of 80 languages, the majority recite a figure that is in the mid-70s.

In all seriousness, both assertions seriously lack in factual basis. The fact of the matter is that no one, meaning no credible institution, can provide the total number of languages spoken in Ethiopia today. Even the 76 seats filled in the House of Federation (HoF), which is made up of ethnic groups that live in every corner of the nation, is not the right proxy for language diversity in Ethiopia; since linguists claim that some of the smaller ethnic groups are not yet fully represented in this House.

Apparently, the irony of promoting a nation as culturally and linguistically diverse while having no idea as to how many languages are actually spoken in the country is not lost on the good folk at the Ministry of Culture. And a few years ago, they set out to conduct a massive research to conclusively settle the matter. However, the ministry, soon, realized that it needs help to attain this momentous and historic feat. So, they decided to approach members of the academia— department of language studies in Addis Ababa University (AAU).

After a while, it became clear that even AAU did not have enough manpower and resources to get to the bottom of it. This is when the two decided to take the matter to the HoF, a body made of nations and nationalities of Ethiopia. To the Ministry’s surprise, even for the HoF, things were not easy. On top of that, according to a recent UNESCO report, 28 Ethiopian languages are in danger of extinction, today.

On the other hand, given the reemergence of identity-based politics in Ethiopia, in the past two years, language, as it is related to rights and self-determination of nations and nationalities is rising to the top of the political agenda once more. The FDRE Constitution is unambiguously firm on the issue of language and the fact that all languages in Ethiopia are equal and should be treated as such. To further entrench this sentiment, the supreme legal document of the nation goes a long way to adopt terms that as much as possible reflect this symbolic gesture. For one, the Constitution avoids using the term “official” language, and replaced it with “working” language.

Accordingly, Ethiopia’s ‘working’ language so far is Amharic, a language having the widest speaker base in the country. The reach seems to be the biggest factor behind the selection of Amharic as the national working language. Yet, the Constitution has afforded regional administrations the right to select their own working languages and make investments towards language developments. Based on the Constitution, some six Regional States out of the nine have opted to select local languages to be used as their working languages, in their respective administrative territories. Further actualizing that right, some 53 languages in Ethiopia have already entered the education system, having developed their own alphabet and other language rules; now, primary level education is instructed to use these languages, resulting in development of the language itself and respecting the language rights of communities across Ethiopia.

Indeed, language is a serious rights issue. Including UNSECO’s stipulation that all children have the right to be educated in a language that they understand, language is at the heart of self-determination and other group/individual rights. Globally, there are two approaches to addressing language right matters, as far as literature goes. The first one is personality model, which focuses on the rights of individuals (a human right) to use their preferred language either in a private setting or in the context of accessing vital governmental services.

 This approach emanates from international human rights declarations and conventions, which consider the rights of individuals with respect to language as a fundamental human right. Such rights, as articulated in these declarations, are purely individualistic rights, derived from liberal political thought. The nature of such approach visibly links language right protection to individuals and citizens and not groups and territories.

Apparently, this also is the weakness of the individual approach; as it dissociates language rights from communities or groups and territories, where minority languages are spoken. Experts also argue that this model, while instrumental in further forging unity around a specific language type by the majority, is also criticized for perpetuating the dominance of such languages which are traditionally in a more privileged position. Territorial model of managing language rights, however, is more sympathetic to the plight of underprivileged languages and the identities associated with that language.

This approach entails recognizing the superior position of a specific language in a specific territorial demarcation, where speakers of that language reside. In a country like Ethiopia, where the political environment is increasingly animated by identity-based politics, the territorial model to protecting language rights could go far in addressing some latent communal grievances. Nevertheless, territorializing language protection could also have disastrous consequences in the form of widening gaps among various communities in the country. Even worse is its impact in nurturing communities that are widely divided not only in the language they speak but the shared values and national psyche.

According to Hirut Kassaw (PhD), Minister of culture, reflected a similar sentiment while launching the first Ethiopia language policy in March this year. It is her view that Ethiopia, in spite of being a linguistically diverse nation, there is a serious lack in communities that are multilingual. “While we can find multilingual individuals in Ethiopia, it is worrying that the country does not have many multilingual or even bilingual communities or groups,” Hirut said. This, according to her, is the basis for inter-communal relationship and assimilation. Language experts as well say that if groups and communities don’t share languages, community to community interaction and relationship would remain largely limited, endangering national unity, eventually.

As far as, Ethiopia is concerned, save the recent language policy, the specific language model implemented in the Ethiopia in the past three decades seems to be the hybrid of individual and territorial langue approaches. While the selection of Amharic as national working language and the protection afforded to citizens based on that could fit the individual models, the overall right of regional units to select language of their choice for use in the public realm, could be understood as territorialized language approach.

To this effect, more than half of the regional administrations in Ethiopia have opted to adopt local languages as working languages, while the remaining three went on with the use of Amharic. Away from government services, language rights in the areas of education, has also come a long distance in Ethiopia in a relatively short amount of time. Today, as much as 53 of the languages in Ethiopia are used to deliver primary education to children residing in specific language territories.

This exercise of Constitutional rights has even devolved to zonal and lower levels of governmental structures in Ethiopia, where languages spoken at these territorial levels are made the working languages, argues Moges Yigezu (PhD), associate professor at college humanities with AAU and member of language policy drafting team. This is quite an achievement in itself, says Moges, speaking at the launching of language policy, but it is also undeniable that most of the local languages in Ethiopia remain underdeveloped due to the absence of a language policy.

Taye Assefa (PhD), a literary scholar from the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences and member of policy drafting team, is convinced that markets generally fail when it comes to language development; and hence, government intervention guided by unique policy directions is indispensable to save Ethiopia’s language endowments.

One of the outputs of this new policy seems to be expanding the mix of local languages which will be used as federal government working languages. Accordingly, apart from Amharic, Oromiffa, Tigrina, Somali and Afar have been selected by the policy, to serve as working languages of the federal government in the coming years, with possibility of increasing it in the future. While recognizing the public drive for expanding the pool of working languages in Ethiopia, the proposal generated mixed feelings among scholars. Some questioned the possibility of including additional working languages in Ethiopia, while Amharic is enshrined in the Constitution as the only working language of the federal government.

Both Moges and Taye, reiterated that what the policy generally reflects is, the direction that the government wants to go as far as language is concerned; but it could not override the Constitution. “This policy would need a whole lot of legal amendments, including the Constitution,” Taye explained, adding that, it could even be an opportunity to catch-up on a number of amendments that are required in the FDRE Constitution. However, the most pressing issue looks to be the decision to select four more languages as opposed to all the others. Predicated on the fact that even the Constitution has made it a point to say all languages are equal and same, selecting four for adding to the working language pool, seem to raise questions, at least among participants in the launch event.

Citing experiences of countries like South Africa, with 11 official languages, the drafting team defended the proposal firmly. As far as, Taye is concerned, selecting working languages and respecting equality among different languages are two most different issues. He argued, citing South Africa as an example, where 11 are selected and also out of the 11, the two are foreign (English and Afrikkaans), governments have the right to choose the administratively convenient languages for governance and it is a practice common everywhere in the world.

As far as an independent legal expert is concerned, the very idea of crafting a language policy by a federal body is questionable under the Ethiopian system as stated in the Constitution. A firm believer in the regional jurisdiction when it comes to language matters, including the development and promotion of local languages, the expert says that federal government should be restricted to writing laws concerning languages and protection language rights. “But, I believe that Constitutional amendment might not even be required to include more working languages in Ethiopia, it permissible under provisions,” he concludes.   

At the end of the day, even in the new language policy, one glaring absence is the conclusive number of languages that are spoken in Ethiopia; may be institutions that would come out of the policy could finally solve the puzzle.