Time to make English a working language of Ethiopia’s federal government

8 mins read
By Meareg H

federal governmentPromoting English would depoliticize the fraught language issue, bring Ethiopians together, and provide practical benefits.

Ethiopia is a diverse country without an official national language, where Amharic has been the country’s federal working language and regional states have been left to make their own choices.The formal use of local languages burgeoned with the implementation of federalism during the rule of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). However, considering the number of indigenous languages, accommodating every demand for federal language status is unrealistic and economically infeasible. Similarly, promoting some local languages to federal status would pose major challenges for non-speakers.

Furthermore, given the strong national competition, attempting to pick only one local language as Ethiopia’s official language would be so contentious it could endanger stability. For example, given its historical imposition on speakers of other languages, adopting Amharic would be objected to by those who suffered in the past and by those who aspire for official language status for their native tongue.

Yet, if done equitably, having an official language would be in the national interest and encourage unity. Given this, it is of great urgency to refine the policy on federal working languages, which could mean upgrading English.

New policy

In addition to being the working language of the Amhara region, Amharic plays the role of a common language, especially in Addis Ababa and other urban centers. It should also be noted that, compared to other indigenous languages, it has historically been a beneficiary of privileged policies and had the role of a national language under previous regimes. However, a new language policy has been ratified to include the Oromo, Tigrayan, Somali and Afar languages as federal working languages.

The timeliness of this policy cannot be overstated, as these languages are some of the most widely spoken ones in the country as well as the wider region. For example, Afaan Oromo has the greatest number of native speakers and also a considerable number in Kenya. Similarly, Tigrigna is also the lingua franca and de facto working language of Eritrea. Somali is spoken in both Somaliland and Djibouti, as is Afar in the latter.

However, this recognition means that the federal government will grant these languages the same official role as Amharic, which will be costly. Unfortunately, considering the sheer number of languages spoken in Ethiopia and other implementation challenges, adopting this policy could be problematic. On the contrary, not revoking the privileged status of Amharic and refraining from elevating other languages will not provide a lasting resolution.

Language dilemma

In a nutshell, the language dilemma is between granting more federal working status, with the respective economic challenges, or setting just one federal working language, and suffering unfavorable political repercussions.

Hence, one way to balance these interests would be to introduce one language to play the role of a federal working language. Under such a setup, communication between a particular region and the federal government would be facilitated by the use of this language, alongside the option of translating the message to the region’s working language.

Today, institutions and citizens in different countries use international languages in order to have better access to information and opportunities. As such, for strategic, historic or religious reasons, it is common for major global languages like English, or French, to assume de jure or de facto status of working language either solely or alongside other local languages.

English is used as a medium of communication in many international organizations, is taught as a compulsory language and continues to serve as a Medium of Instruction (MoI) in middle school, high school and higher-level educational institutions. This use of English as a MoI goes back to Emperor Haile Selassie I, and was replaced by Amharic in primary schools during the Derg regime.

It was only in 1994 that the Ethiopian Education and Training Policy mandated the use of ‘mother tongues’ in primary education, approving the use of English as the MoI in only secondary and higher education. Furthermore, given that higher education materials are readily available in English, applying English as the MoI at the different tiers of education would be pragmatic, so long as it does not contradict the pedagogical recommendation of using native languages during primary education.

Looking forward

Moreover, considering how the national literacy rate is increasing, and combining this with the fact that the 70 percent of Ethiopia’s population is under 30,  the general population is projected to double by 2050 and with the increasing national internet penetration, we can expect English to be ubiquitous in a few years’ time.

As such, making English a compulsory federal working language would be a forward-looking strategy as it is increasingly popular among the youth and is perceived to be neutral for all our ethnic groups, making it a federal working language could also counter the weakened sense of unity in the country.

In time, this approach will be significant in re-framing perceived inequalities among local languages. However, upgrading English would pose a challenge for those who lack a good command of it. But this can be mitigated by improved teaching and offering plenty of platforms where local languages are used instead.

Given the current volatile situation, it should be clear to all actors that the political and economic stakes are far more consequential than concerns over adopting English as our federal language. Hence, all stakeholders should consider this proposal in order to try and achieve a stable, envy-free and well-coordinated relationship between different regions and ethnic groups. 

More news: Hiber Radio Daily Ethiopian News Oct 12, 2020



  1. Subject: “Time to make English a working language of Ethiopia’s federal government’ By Meareg H, ZeHabesha, October 12, 2020 .

    Very Short Sad Commentary
    Using a foreign language as a substitute for a common indigenous language in an ACIENT African Independent Country, with a written language derivative of Geez, with grammar and all ——NOT less comparable to the European Latin language and its derivatives —— IS NOTHING LESS THAN HISTORICAL ULTIMATE DISGRACE, INSULT AND ULTIMATE DEMEANING TO THE AFRICAN BLACK RACE. SHAME, SHAME SHAME.


  2. Heheee!!
    ይቺ ሽውራራ የ EPRDF ሀሳብ ነች!!!
    ዘሃበሻ :-when you post kind of scholarly looking articles, it would be nice to know the academic capacity, neutrality, affiliation and contact address of the person. That would allow the reader to know if the writer is biased or has special motive or interest to write. Specially in major national policy issues like this.
    This article looks biased because in many places it mentions “Privileged Amharic “ etc as if the writer has some grievance on that. I share his opinion of cost involved in making five regional languages national media of communication. Obviously we need national language one or more depending on sincere evidence based discussion ( regrettably politics will influence the discussion).
    In my opinion English in Ethiopia is so rudimentary ( will need to be improved for sake of our children for international communication) and not widely spoken be it even in colleges(verbally), it will be very difficult to consider it as national language and my even be costlier to introduce that.
    More importantly Ethiopia has its own ages old national language, Amharic, with which civilization including literature, artifacts, innovations written. Relinquishing the national pride to English, language mostly used by colonized countries and colonizers is tantamount to subjugation of the nation to colonization. The writer should know Amharic is parallel to Kiswahili which even other black Africans at times aspire to use it as African language.
    What we only need to do is be sincere, respectful to each other, take Amharic as great language without attaching it particular ethnic and use it as national language plus or minus any compelling addition.
    Much of the problem is our stupid, immature politics preventing us to respectfully unify with what we have and advance in global stage

  3. I applaud Meareg for proposing a solution to the issue of having an official language for the survival of Ethiopia as we know it. It would have made sense to keep Amharic as the official and national language as it has been for hundreds of years because it is widely spoken. Unfortunately, the Woyanes and OLFites didn’t want that for the real reasons they know better and put us in the predicament we are in now, and, it seems, there is no going back.
    From Amharas point of view, it is better that Amharic is not the official language because Amharas were considered beneficiaries even 50 years ago when anyone who had a certificate was guaranteed of a job.
    Even though the Latin Alphabet does not come close to Amharic Alphabet, the Oromos chose to use Latin instead of Amharic and are trying to destroy it as Shimelis Abdisa revealed it in his infamous leaked speech to Oromo elites.
    This is the fact on the ground and that is why Amharic can’t be reinstated to being the only official language. To me, to have five official languages is lunacy because it is too costly to translate and interpret official communications to so many. It is better to adopt a language that is acceptable to all. That is where English comes in as an altrnative as an official language because it is an equal opprtunity language.
    From what we see on TVs, the politicians and citizens do not complete a sentence in Amharic without throwing an English word in it. If that is what they want, let them legislate to make English the working language.

  4. Let’s evaluate the different types of English first , let’s choose which English are we talking about , the North American English , Jive , Britain’s english or some other type of English.

    Me personally say if Ethiopia have to make English a federal language then pick the British colonial English similar to which people in Kenya or in South Africa use. It will bring African Union .

  5. Mareg

    Please do not use one of the most prestigious name as fake name while you have slave mentality.

    What kind of sane person choose the colonizers tongue over his own?


  6. @Naizgi
    የባንዳ ነገር!
    ፈረንጅ እንደምታመልኩማ እናውቃለን!
    በምንሊክ የተነሳ ጣልያንኛ እን እንግሊዝኛ አመለጣችሁ እይደል!!
    ዘረኞች! Amara Haters!! የረገጣችሁት ሳር ተመልሶ አይበቅልም!!

  7. shame for your new official language propostion. You are slaves of English speakers mainly usa
    zehabesha dirowunim leboch ashkabachoch nachuhhhhh

  8. This is a sophomoric opinion, at best. Even the Ferenjis will laugh at you. On this site recently, we have read and admired about brave Ethiopian linguists with their African American counterparts trying to improve, develop, and promote Geez based language as a possible Pan-African language. And look who is writing now? Meareg. .

    A fundamental error in the argument forwarded is that Amharic is the language of Amhara. Things have moved much further than that for centuries. It is as banal as saying English is the language of England.

    I also disagree with the opinion that because certain misguided elites proposed and even implemented the Latin alphabet for certain Ethiopian languages we should accept and go along with that. We know they do these without the consent of the people concerned, and for their own narrow agendas.

    To say that adoption of English would improve education is still a lame excuse. Tell that to the Koreans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Russians, etc. who produce the best and brightest students in the world. It is not because they used English!

    For your info., Chairman Mao had a policy of using the English alphabet (and language, I think) in China, thinking that will revolutionize literacy of the Chinese people. After years of implementation the wise Chinese understood it didn’t work, and reverted to their own alphabet and language. I believe, through time, the Latin alphabet imposed by certain elites in Ethiopia will be abandoned and the Geez alphabet will prevail.

  9. English a working language of Ethiopia’s federal government is not a bad idea at all. It’s worth considering. Many people are behind it 100%. Smart solutions to damn problem.

    • Bernard Shaw’s alphabet was conceived as a way to provide simple, phonetic orthography for the English language to replace the difficulties of conventional spelling. Amharic is a better phonetic alphabet than English and the language is spoken by the majority of Ethiopians. Ethiopians should encourage its use across Africa to replace the weak English alphabet though English can be translated to Amharic. Wishing now to hold back Amharic is a nightmare by Meareg.

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  10. Bernard Shaw’s alphabet was conceived as a way to provide simple, phonetic orthography for the English language to replace the difficulties of conventional spelling. Amharic is a better phonetic alphabet than English and the language is spoken by the majority of Ethiopians. Ethiopians should encourage its use across Africa to replace the weak English alphabet though English can be translated to Amharic. Wishing now to hold back Amharic is a nightmare by Meareg.

  11. Proposal Presented By Presdent SEKUTURE To Use Indigenous/ Native/Aboriginal African Language AMHRIC With Its Developed Alphabet Called ETHIOPIC And Supported By Majority At
    1963 E C On Establishment of
    O A U

    ከአፍሪካ አንድ ብቸኛ የኢትዮጵያ ፊደልና ቋንቋ እያለን በባዕድ ቅኝ ገዥዎቻችን ቋንቋ ተውሰን መጠቀም የለብንም የጊኒ ፕሬዚዳንት ሴኩ ቱሬ

  12. ሰላምለእርስዎ ይሁን
    አሁን ጊዜ ላይ ፓን አፍሪካኒስት የሀረር ወርቅ (የኢትዮጽያ ወርቅ ) ጋሻው
    1/ የኢትዮጵያ ብሄራዊ የሰራ ቋንቋ አማርኛን ከነ ምሉዕ ፈደላቱ ከዛሬ 30 አመት በፊት ጀምሮ የአፍሪካ አንድነት አሁን የአፍሪካ ህብረት የስራ ይፋዊ መገልገያ ቋንቋ እንዲሆን

    2/ በአፍሪካ ብቸኛ የሆነው አፍሪካ በቀል ኢትዮጵክ(የኢትዮጵያ ፊደል)
    ለአፍሪካ ቋንቋዎች ሁሉ በባሪያ ገዥዎችና በቅኝ ገዥዎች የላቲን ፊደል ከመፃፍ ይልቅ በራሳቸው አፍሪካዊ ኢትዮጵክ ፊደል እንድገለገሉ

    3/ ኢትዮጵያ አረንጓዴ ብጫ ቀይ ሰንደቅ አላማን የፍሪካና የጥቁር ዘር ሁሉ ነፃነት ኩራትና ክብር ነው በማለት መልኩን የተከተሉ አብላጫ አፍሪካ አገሮች 10 አገራት አረንጓዴ ብጫ ቀይ ፍጹም አንድ አይነት
    ሌሎች 37 አገራት አንድ ወይም ሁለት መልክ የተደባለቀ ከጠቅላላው 54 የአፍሪካ አገራት 47 አገራት 95% ገደማ የኢትዮጵያን ሰንደቅ አላማ የነፃነት ምሳሌና አርአያ በማረግ ወርሰዋል።
    እርስዎም ደጋፊና ተባባሪ እንዲሆኑ

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