Language Issues

Mother tongue
Amharic has traditionally been the Ethiopian lingua franca but there are about 90 different Ethiopian languages or dialects. Primary schools taught children in Amharic until 1994, when the government promoted use of ethnic languages as the medium of instruction. Children whose mother tongue is not Amharic are still disadvantaged since they also have to learn Amharic. Amharic shares the Ge'ez script with other Semitic languages such as Tigrinya (Tegrigna), the Gurage languages and related Harari . Afan Oromo is the mother-tongue of about a third of Ethiopians and it, together with Wolaytta, Afar, Sidama and Somali use a Latin script. This can cause interference with learning English because the sounds represented differ from those used in English.

There are particular difficulties in trying to introduce mother-tongue teaching when the mother-tongue is only spoken by a small minority. In North Omo, there are eleven main ethnic groups with their own languages as well as non-tribal people speaking Amharic. Local languages do share common features but, since language is a marker of identity, no one language could be chosen. Attempts to introduce hybrid languages caused language riots, so the four main ethnic groups were allowed to use their own languages, but at that time, textbooks and teaching materials were only available in Wolaytta and a hybrid language. Some children were still disadvantaged if their mother-tongue differed from the local language because they were left with no language that could be used beyond the local area. Children whose mother-tongue was insufficiently developed for use in instruction could be taught in Amharic. Parents and children could dislike mother-tongue teaching because the mother-tongue could be learned at home while Amharic and English provided work opportunities and access to higher education.

Practical difficulties included recruiting teachers by ethnic group rather than language ability. Consequently, some teachers were expected to teach their ethnic language even if their ability was poor while other teachers, who could speak the ethnic language, were not recruited. Teachers who could speak the local language had no training in its structure or written form. Local languages could lack standardization and their vocabularies might be too limited to cover the curriculum. Lack of dictionaries and grammar books meant that teachers had no guide to the proper use of language and textbooks were the only written material to help students with reading. One solution to these problems has been to allow bilingual instruction and Amharic sections in some schools.

In 2010, an Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) for grades 2 to 3 in six mother tongues (Afan Oromo, Amharic, Harari, Sidama, Somali and Tegrigna). found that only about 5% of children had a reading fluency above the benchmark of 60 words per minute. In a sub-test of reading comprehension, the percentage of grade 2 children scoring "0" ranged from 69.2% in Sidama to 10.1% in Addis Ababa. By grade 3, this percentage had dropped to 54% and 3.8% respectively. It was poor reading comprehension that accounted for poor results in other tests. Overall, boys scored higher than girls but this was due to girls' low scores in rural areas. Girls scored higher than boys in urban areas.

English is the medium of instruction for later years in some primary schools, all secondary schools and in higher education. Politically, some Ethiopians regard English medium instruction, with English textbooks, as replacing Ethiopian culture with Western values and loss of identity. The failure of Ethiopia to modernize was because modernization was based on Western values rather than renewal within the Ethiopian tradition. Educational systems foster national unity by inculcating social, cultural and political ideas and these need to become Ethiopian by replacing English instruction with instruction in Ethiopian languages. Amharic or Afan Oromo are spoken by more than 60% of Ethiopians, so it is essential for these languages to be learnt by Ethiopians.

Currently, English medium instruction is having a detrimental effect on Ethiopian educational attainment. English is a foreign language in Ethiopia with little support from the media outside educational establishments. A study of English instruction in primary schools of the Gedeo and Sidama zones (SNNPR) found that grade 5 students' English was so poor that they were unable to learn. Their teachers' English was too poor to teach their students and there was lack of English teaching materials.

The Ethiopian teach English for life (TELL) program aims to improve English teaching in primary schools. New textbooks in English, Amharic and other mother tongues have been printed and are being distributed to primary schools. TELL is instigating a nationwide in-service teacher training program and an EGRA. Between 2009 and 2011, TELL began by training a group of master trainers in improved instruction techniques with new English textbooks and teacher guides. Master trainers trained trainers of teachers in each region. Trainers of teachers provided a 4 day in-service training to primary school teachers. Teaching techniques for grades 1 and 2 teachers focused on teaching children to speak and listen to English, to read and write English and on vocabulary and story telling. Seventeen different techniques were taught to grades 3 and 4 teachers which continued the focus on reading, writing, vocabulary and story telling. In a follow-up three months later, some of the teachers were using the new techniques. Teachers for grades 1 and 2 had most difficulty with using unfamiliar techniques that required children to think and talk aloud independently. Teachers for grades 3 and 4 seldom used double entry. This is a technique that requires interaction with peers to categorize information from a text. Constraints for all teachers included large class sizes, children at different ability levels, lack of time and lack of new textbooks. This type of one-shot training is not enough. There needed to be further follow-ups and collective participation involving the headmaster and other teachers to encourage problem solving and reflection.

Poor English continued to be a problem at university. Instructors at Addis Ababa University (AAU) found students' English so poor that they confined assessments to written tasks rather than alternatives such as presentations or debates. Students with the lowest competence in English were placed in the College of Education for training as teachers and would thus be the most ill equipped for English medium instruction.

Communicative language teaching (CLT) was tried at Arba Minch and Hawassa universities. Teachers, department heads, and vice-presidents agreed that teachers needed support to implement CLT but in-service training had little effect on teaching. This was probably because in-service CLT training consisted of short courses without supporting follow-up. Managers said they supported professional development but, in practice, this was given low priority in the face of crowded timetables and budget cuts.