By Meki Shewangizaw
I was eating with a friend at a restaurant by my job one day when one of the men next to us leaned over and asked us to please speak in Amharic instead of English. I wasn’t surprised, by then it might have been the fifth time someone has made this request. Whether it is going grocery shopping, eating at a restaurant or even walking down the street, strangers will ask some variations of this same question.
Language and the use of English have been a daily conversation since I’ve been in Ethiopia. I’ve heard a range of opinions on the topic. From a taxi driver who thinks it’s essential for his kids to be fluent in English to a store owner who believes it’s ruining the younger generation.
The most interesting conversation I had was during my visit with my great aunt. I was explaining the work I was doing in Ethiopia and naturally, somebody picked up my accent and asked me if I grew up in the United States.
This led to a discussion about the use of English in Ethiopia. He explained that he supported learning English but hates how it is seen as superior to any of the native A wall of flags hang outside a building
“Learning English is good, it lets you communicate with people from all parts of the world, but it should be just that: a communication tool. But knowing English here, particularly being fluent, makes some people feel as if they’re better than those who don’t. It’s an indication that you’re better off.”
To some extent the latter is true, there is a significant difference in the quality of English fluency when it comes to private and public schools. Families with higher income can afford to send their children to private schools that focus on English fluency. Although the quality of English education varies greatly from the public to private schools in Addis Ababa, there’s an even greater distinction from schools outside of the capital.
“There’s a huge difference in English fluency when you go outside the capital,” explains Dr. Solomon Desalegn, who attended a private school in Bahir Dar. “The discrepancy comes out of the curriculum. The schools outside the capital just stick to the curriculum mandated by the Ministry of Education (MoE). The schools in Addis, particularly private schools, provide additional classes to supplement the standard curriculum. In public schools, you have a class to learn English as a foreign language, but the rest of the courses are in Amharic. For example, you would take environmental science in Amharic until grade 7. Then instruction for future science classes will be in English, which can be difficult for students to transition to. But in private schools, you would have environmental science in Amharic, as the MOE demands, but you would also take environmental science instructed in English at the same time. Majority of classes in private schools are supplemented with an English version.”
It’s also important to note that the schools located in areas of Ethiopia where Amharic is not the native language, must also teach their students Amharic and English at the same time.
Although Dr. Desalegn attended a private school outside the capital and has the same fluency as private school students in Addis Ababa, there’s a notable difference in his accent. When teased one day about his heavy accent in comparison to Dr. Kassahun, he replied: “Well of course her English is better, she’s an Addis Ababa girl!”
Dr. Hellina Kassahun, who attended Cathedral, a private institution located in Addis Ababa, from elementary to high school, explains “We would have one class in English and then the same class in Amharic. Our mode of communication at school was mainly in English.”
“When you speak in English outside of school, people see you as being spoiled. Most importantly, they think you’re moving away from your culture but it’s not the case, it’s just communication. The schools that focus on English fluency are training us to be global citizens.”
However, some private schools go as far as telling students that they are not allowed to speak in Amharic once they are on campus. I’ve also heard of Ethiopian children living in Addis Ababa but can’t read, write or speak Amharic because their parents refuse to teach them.
“Teachers wouldn’t directly say ‘Don’t speak Amharic’ but it was implied and incentivized to speak in English,” says Dr. Rania Ibrahim, who attended School of Tomorrow. “The use of English is necessary but there needs to be a balance. I know there are parents who refuse to speak to their children in Amharic, but my parents saw English as a language to advance my career. My mom would tell me and my siblings to speak to each other in English and she would speak to us only in Amharic or Tigrinya.”
It is a goal for most schools to create a generation of global citizens and understandably so. Ethiopia is the second fastest growing economy in the continent with a GDP growth rate of 8.5% in 2018 (International Monetary Fund). As the country continues to grow, the English language will play a critical role in the progress of globalization.
But like all things, balance is necessary. It’s undeniable the power that language has on identity. It not only shapes us,but also our culture and how we interact with one another. Language connects us to the people we love, our culture, our music, our ideas and beliefs.
Language is of course used for communication but there’s a significant difference between a foreign language and a native language when communicating with someone. As I write this piece I can’t help but think of Nelson Mandela’s quote, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his mother language that goes to his heart.” I hope that Ethiopia, with over 80 languages, maintains a balance as the country inevitably makes its mark in the global community.