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Towards a complete education in Amharic

By Samuel Wolde-Yohannes PhD

Before I lay out my reasons and arguments in support of the ideas implied by the title of this article, I would like to quickly dispel the misunderstandings it could generate upon a first glance.

First of all, even though one may read this article and be led to make one’s own skewed conclusion, its purpose is not to promote the supremacy and hegemony of Amharic over the other languages of Ethiopia. Whatever the status of the Amharic language has been so far in Ethiopia, and whatever it will be in the future, the goal here is to call the attention of its native and non-native speakers to further develop it as to transform it into a language that is not merely relegated to administration, commerce, literature and the media, but one that could become the medium for science, technology and scholarship. How this can be done will be discussed later in this article.

Secondly, the reasons, arguments and suggestions presented here in support and development of Amharic applies equally not only to the other major languages of Ethiopia, but also to the ones spoken by the smaller minority ethnic groups. The reason I chose Amharic is because of its important role in State formation and education in Ethiopia’s modern history, and because it remains the closest thing we have to a lingua franca in the country. 

Finally, my excuse for writing it in English is precisely because my education in Amharic, or for that matter, in any one of our native languages, has been incomplete. An exercise, I must add, that would only confirm the presuppositions of this article. 

Modern education, or more precisely Western education, began in Ethiopia in the first decade of the previous century with the opening of Menelik II School and the Alliance Française of Addis Ababa. The primary objective of these schools was to prepare the future administrative cadre, and indeed its graduates went on to serve in government and diplomacy. Even though Amharic has been the medium of traditional learning, it was not to become a medium of Western learning until the late fifties with the decision to make it the language of instruction for primary education. At first, the intention appeared to be that the same would happen eventually with secondary and tertiary education. However, this never materialized. Well past 60 years after, the structure of language policy in education has not changed substantially, except perhaps for the fact that Amharic has been replaced by other Ethiopian languages in the various Killils in primary education. Secondary and tertiary education is nearly universally imparted in English. And there does not seem to be a concerted effort to change this policy and practice any time soon. For the past hundred and ten years, Ethiopia has depended mostly on two Western languages to educate her citizens: French until the late ‘40s, and English since then. My contention is that this needs to change in the near future. The reasons for this are varied and of primary importance. 

Even though Amharic has never been declared the official language of Ethiopia, it has functioned as such in government, commerce and the media. Its literary output has been sizeable, though the areas of its focus are rather restricted and mostly non-academic. If the objective is to turn Amharic into the medium of not only secondary and tertiary education but of science, technology and scholarship in general a vast preparatory work needs to be done first. However, before I describe in what consists this work, I need to provide reasons why Ethiopia must abandon once and for all her dependence on a foreign language as a medium of not only higher education but of science, technology and scholarship in general. 

Most psychologists and pedagogists agree that children learn better and with total confidence if taught in their mother languages. I contend that it is not fundamentally different for adolescents or young adults. The sense of being completely “at home” in one’s language is very rarely replicated in a “learned” language, unless the learning of the language begins at a very early age. When a foreign language is introduced in the secondary school, it is almost certain that its mastery will always remain elusive, and there is bound to be certain permanent lacunae. 

If Ethiopia is determined to maintain English, or any other Western language for that matter, as the sole medium of secondary and tertiary education, she needs to invest massively in recruiting an army of native speakers of the language or highly proficient teachers in it. To continue as we have been doing since the demise of the imperial regime will only perpetuate the abysmal mediocrity that is so pervasive in our public schools. Moreover, adopting such a strategy is tantamount to being willingly “colonized” anew, or at least submitting voluntarily to the linguistic imposition of the West. Indeed, whereas most of our fellow Africans have adopted the language of their colonizers involuntarily and continue to use it often as their official language of their countries, we Ethiopians have basically submitted to the same stratagem without even being forced!

Using a so called “world language” as English has no doubt its advantages, so much so that even countries which had perfectly serviceable languages  have adopted it for purely economic benefits. However, I believe that language is such a core component of our cultural identity that it should never be part of our economic calculus only. I am not even sure how a culture can maintain its peculiarity and originality without a language it can call its own! The moment a nation or a community adopts another language, it can only aspire to create a derivative, or at best, a syncretic culture that can only produce a break and discontinuation with its past. Indeed, maintenance of one’s language is as important as the preservation of one’s culture.

The constant incapacity of our Ethiopian educated citizens of sustaining a serious conversation both in private as well as in public without peppering their sentences with foreign words, or even spewing repartees in the language of their education, suggests only an incomplete mastery of one’s own language. Such tendency is for some evidence of their advanced education or even sophistication; in my view, it reveals only the profound deficiency of our educational system. I am in fact of the opinion that a language as rich – if not in actuality at least in potentiality- as the one we have, should put all of its efforts in eliminating the division between the language of everyday life and the language of education. In the following paragraphs, I would like to make some suggestions how could this be accomplished. 

The project of expanding the Amharic language to be able to translate modern concepts and objects began with Ethiopia’s introduction of “Western ways” of doing things. But it became a deliberate and systematic plan with Ethiopia embracing socialism (or communism) as state ideology and world view. Such words as “Abiyot” (revolution), “Hebretesebawinet” (socialism), “Adhari” (reactionary), etc… were examples of felicitous coinages that are still in use today. The efforts of the many scholars who toiled behind the scenes to make Amharic speak and describe a new social and intellectual reality had the effect of enriching the language further. What we need today is an academy of Amharic language not only dedicated to preserving and correcting the use of the language, but one that is mostly engaged in the coinage of new words that could translate adequately the scholarly, scientific and technological terminology at the basis of all education and research.

In this regard, Amharic is particularly in an advantageous position since it has a vast resource in the Ge’ez language to draw from, as it has in the past. Once the scholarly and educated public is provided with a substantial reserve of newly minted scientific and scholarly terms it can proceed to the translation of the more important texts in each one’s field of expertise or competence. This in turn can form the basis for the compilation of the textbooks and reading material for secondary and tertiary education. Eventually, an integral education in Amharic or in one of the national languages can emerge within a generation or two. This could usher a true flowering of an enriched, elevated and more sophisticated native intellectual culture. In effect, what I am suggesting here is far from being a new experiment. One need not look further than present day Israel that in less than a century has not only revived but also modernized a virtually defunct language, and made it a medium of the entire educational system, of science and scholarship. As it were, more books are translated in Modern Hebrew than in any other language today! What is lacking in Ethiopia is not financial resources- though this can definitely help – but a general awareness and willingness to acknowledge the incongruence and untenability of our language policy in education, and the concerted effort to change it. 

By advocating Amharic, or any other native Ethiopian language as the medium for all our educational system, I am not suggesting that English or any modern European language should be completely dispensed with. On the contrary, it should be taught from the first grades of elementary school to the completion of secondary school as is often done in most countries of the world. In fact, our future Ethiopian students should be encouraged to become more proficient in one other foreign language of their choice. This will not only benefit them personally but will enrich their nation as well if they apply it in the service of the public. 

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  1. Dear Dr. Samuel Wolde-Yohannes,
    I do understand your worries concerning language policy and the development of our beloved nation. What you suggest here could take at least a generation to begin to consider it as an option. Also, it is going to depend on the will of the next generation–esp a generation brought up on local identity politics. Your suggestion that “Ethiopia must abandon once and for all her dependence on a foreign language” however will put us back in the Dark Ages! I don’t believe that is what you have in mind. As you admitted early on in your article your proposal fails to grasp Ethiopian reality; in other words, the Amhara (the ethnic group you belong to) will reap the advantages of a policy you put forward (as will cousin Tigrayans). Your project will be viewed as malicious. And it should not surprise anyone, including you. Here is a recurring problem. Every time national policy issues are discussed by “ethnic scholars” and “narrow nationalists” it somehow ends up relegating those outside the particular group to a second class status pushing them to more anger, resentment, and extremism. The past 30 have shown us that your approach is not going to work. Every time Eskinder Nega, Mesfin Arega, Prof Getatchew Haile, Derg Major Dawit Wolde Giorgis, NaMa open their big mouth their bigotry floods the public square polluting hearts and minds! I would advise calm, cooperation and common purpose so as not to give rise to a Jawar, Asaminew, or Seye.

  2. Thanks Dr. Samuel

    Given the current toxic atmosphere in the country the idea you forwarded appears very bold, to put it mildly. Having said that, I feel for any objective and nationalist Ethiopian the idea is very welcome. However, the obstacles are enormous, as Alem has indicated. The country is being torn apart by extremists of all kinds, the worst being ethno-nationalists.

    My view would be that Dr Samuel’s ideas need be debated perhaps in learned circles first. I’ve observed that some visionaries have raised related issues looking beyond Ethiopia proper and in the contexts of Ethiopianism, Pan-Africanism, etc.

    First thing first, the critical urgent challenge is doing away with the current ‘constitution’ and replacing it with a proper one that reflects the will of the Ethiopian people..I believe that will pave the way…

  3. Subject: Towards a complete education in Amharic May 28, 2021“ By Samuel Wolde-Yohannes PhD

    Humble Commentary, 1 June 2021
    Modern Education” in foreign languages that was introduced in Ethiopian schools was the beginning of ‘slavery with inferiority complex ’ to make Africans completely hypnotized trying to emulate other cultures and consequently hating themselves. Let us be honest. It is too long to narrate the crime perpetrated by Europeans over the Black African People. The entire population of a Continent was hypnotized to memorize and worship the history of the murderers — correspondingly, hating thyself!!!!

    Dr. Samuel Wolde-Yohannes brought a fundamental question that should have been raised a long, long, long time ago. We were hypnotized and busy to memorize the history of foreign lands and correspondingly hating ourselves. THE END


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