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Lecture | This Time for Africa! Series

The Journey from Monolingual to Multilingual Language Policy in Ethiopia: Politics, challenges and opportunities

  • Hirut Woldemariam
Friday 16 December 2022
This Time for Africa! series
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


Multilingualism is a vital phenomenon and norm in Africa. However, in most of the cases, language policies, practices, and linguistic attitudes disregard indigenous languages. Even those countries that claim to have a language policy with multiple Indigenous Official Languages are not attaining multilingual practices beyond the education sector. The colonial legacy coupled with local politics seems to influence the continent not to take advantage of multilingualism as a linguistic resource for socio-economic development.

This presentation gives an overview of the key elements of language policies of Ethiopia in reference to the selection of Official Languages since the first century. I review the historical and contemporary dynamics and a unique trajectory of accommodating multilingualism progressively. Ethiopia, a home for over 80 indigenous languages, used to have a monolingual policy that upheld an indigenous National Language in a ‘one-nation-one language’ approach. Along with changes in the political system, the country has undergone an evolution of promoting multilingual policies that recognize the country’s linguistic diversity. 

Starting with a multilingual literacy campaign during the Military regime (1974-1991), the country has drawn a language policy that allows seven indigenous Official Languages to serve in their respective Regional States as of 1991. Also, over 50 indigenous languages have been introduced into the school system in their respective localities. Recently, the language policy has been further amended to expand the number of Federal Official Working Language from one to five indigenous languages.  The country’ journey to create inclusive and accommodative linguistic ecosystem has not been without challenges, but there are also opportunities and success stories to draw lessons from as will be discussed in the presentation.  

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