Creative Education
2011. Vol.2, No.4, 402-407
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.24058
Comparative Analysis of Instructional Language Issues in
Ethiopia and the United States
Daniel S. Alemu1*, Abebayehu A. Tekleselassie2
1Department of Educational Leadership, The Sage Colleges, Albany/Troy, USA;
2Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University,
Washington, USA.
Email: *
Received July 21st, 2011; revised August 26th, 2011; accepted September 4th, 2011.
Crafting and implementing language policies that address the needs of language minority students have always
been challenging. The major challenges include addressing such concerns as: How do we address the language
needs of minority students, while keeping the academic standards high? Should the role of minority Language be
cultural maintenance or the facilitation of instruction through the mother tongue? To what extent does the use of
minority language prepare the child for the global world? Through comparative analysis of practices in the
United States and Ethiopia, this paper explores the background, approaches, and challenges/controversies in im-
plementing polices that cater for language minority children in t h e t w o c ountries.
Keywords: Instructional Language, Mother Tongue, Language Policy, Ethiopia, Unite d States
Effectively teaching language minority children has been an
issue debated among educators, policy makers, parents and
other stakeholders. The debate even gets more complicated in
nations with multiethnic/multilingual societies than those with
comparatively fewer numbers of spoken languages. Policies
aimed at addressing the needs of language minority students
have been challenged from various groups. The major chal-
lenges include addressing such concerns as: which ethnic
groups reserve the right of introducing their language as a me-
dium of instruction and how does such practice impact national
interest and even national unity? How do we address the lan-
guage needs of minority students while keeping the academic
standards high? Should the role of minority langue be cultural
mai nten ance or the facilitation o f instruction through the mother
tongue? To what extent does the use of minority language pre-
pare the child for the global world?
By presenting common practices and models in addressing
the instructional language practices in the United States and
Ethiopia, the article explores the background, approaches, and
challenges/controversies in implementing polices that cater for
language minority children in the two countries. Finally, it pre-
sents the similarities and differences between the practices in
the two countries and draws lessons to Ethiopia on how non-
native speakers can learn in multilingual nations.
Background on Educating Language Minority
Students in Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s education system has been undergoing funda-
mental change following the collapse of the socialist regime in
1991. The change encompasses many aspects of the education
system including the policy, management, organizational struc-
ture, teacher training, and the curriculum. A once highly cen-
tralized administration of the Federal Ministry of Education,
has now been decentralized into many states, district-level
bureaus, and departments demarcated along ethnic/language
lines. The decentralization process has been packaged with
various change initiatives one of which is the change in lan-
guage/medium of instruction.
Until the current government took power in 1991, the media
of instruction in Ethiopia’s formal education system were
Amharic (for elementary level) and English (for junior high and
above). Whereas the socialist government (1974-1991) had en-
couraged the use of some 15 ethnic languages in non-formal
education, the imperial regime (that ruled the country until
1974) preferred to use one official language (Amharic) with the
intention of safeguarding national integrity.
Instructional Language Policy in Ethiopia
With a total population of 73,918,505, the May 2007 Ethio-
pia’s Population and Housing Census puts the nation to be the
second most populous country in Africa (CSA, 2008). Ethiopia
is a country with rich and diverse ethnic/linguistics composition
with 80 languages actively spoken. However, one language
(Amharic) remained to be the national language and the me-
dium of instruction throughout much of the country’s history. It
is only in 1974, when the socialist government took power that
the uses of other ethnic languages were given emphasis for
instructional purpose.
Several questions can be raised to further understand what
contributed for the dominance of Amharic. It is worth noting at
this juncture the country’s history, and mainly its government
system. For several centuries, Ethiopia had been under a feudal
monarchy where democratic values such as addressing lan-
guage/ethnic issues were down on the bottom of its agenda.
Rather, the monarchy advocated the notion that the use of one
national language is imperative for the country’s integrity. Thus,
introducing other languages for instructional purpose had been
conceived as courting national disintegration. Proponents of
this idea credit using one language as a medium of instruction
for the country’s long history of independence.
In the past four decades several attempts were made to ad-
D. S. ALEMU ET AL. 403
dress the issues of languages of instruction in the non-formal
and formal education sectors. From the late 70s to the early 90s,
the socialist regime that replaced the monarchy promoted a
policy to conduct non-formal literacy programs in fifteen ethnic
languages (Ayalew, 1999). The other policy decision by the
socialist regime was transcribing these languages in the Ethio-
pic script (traditionally used for Semitic languages in the coun-
try). Almost all of these languages were in unwritten form until
that time. However, the socialist government did not push for-
ward to use them as instructional languages in the formal sys-
In 1991, when the current government took power, it demar-
cated the state/regional boundaries along ethnic lines and pro-
vided the new states the autonomy to choose their state’s work-
ing languages and to implement a decision on new instruc-
tional language policy. As a result the new ethnic-based states
were demarcated into 14 (at least initially) ethnic-based bo-
undaries that comprised as many as 20 ethnic groups per state.
The number of languages used as media of instruction varies
from state to state. In the Southern Nation, Nationalities and
Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS) alone, for instance, eight
local languages of instruction have been in use at the pri- mary
level (Cohen, 2000).
Ethiopia’s Approach
Ethiopia’s 1994 Education and Training Policy states that
“primary education be given in nationality languages” (FDRE,
1994: p. 23). The underlying assumption of the policy (as stated
in the policy document) is that the nationality language is the
“mother-tongue” of all children that live in the area where the
specific nationality language is spoken. This approach has been
reflected in the implementation of the instructional language
policy. The specific aspects of the issues associated with this
approach has been discussed below.
Major Issues on the New Instructional Language
Policy in Ethiopia
The instructional language policy has been compounded by
several challenges. The major ones being: intrusion of political
agenda, the problem of mixed communities, regional disparities
in readiness and resources, and the push to monolingualism.
Each of these problems is discussed below.
Intrusion of Political Agenda
Proponents of the newly instituted instructional policy of
Ethiopia do not seem to argue for its pedagogical merits as they
do for its political advantage. They tend to value the gains in
terms of the rights of the language groups to use their ethnic
language more so than its instructional advantages. Putting high
premium to political gains has been typical of various educa-
tional change initiatives in Ethiopia. The instructional language
policy formulation process is a case in point. Right after the
current government took power in 1991, it convened a confer-
ence in Addis Ababa from July 2-6, 1991(Ayalew, 1999) and
issued a policy guideline for immediate implementation of in-
struction in 5 major ethnic languages at the primary level. In
addition, the Ethiopic alphabets that were in use by at least 15
ethnic languages for non-formal education purpose during the
socialist era was questioned and a decision was reached to use
Latin alphabet for the Qushtic languages (which represent the
southern and eastern parts of the country) and to retain Ethiopic
alphabet for the semetic language groups (that constitute most
of the languages in the northern part of the country). These
important decisions were made in a political gathering where
educators and community/ethnic representatives were missing
from the table. Moreover, by the time the national Education
and Training Policy (that gives provisions to implement ethnic
languages for instruction) was signed into law in 1994, several
states have already implemented the language policy. For these
reasons, detractors argue that the policy formulation process of
the new instructional languages lacks systematic effort to ex-
plore the pros and cons of using certain languages and scripts
for instructional purpose; thereby amplifying the political mo-
tivation of the process. As Getachew and Derib (2006) argue,
“political decision took over the conscious planning and con-
sultation with professionals” (p. 58).
The Problem of Mixed Communities
In Ethiopia, the settlement pattern is mostly mixed where
minority language speakers live within a dominant ethnic group
territories, especially in urban and suburban areas. When the
new policy was implemented in 1991 (as per the decision of
political parties), no arrangement was made for children in
these communities. The language minority children in mixed
communities were then forced to learn in languages that they do
not speak or what is called in a complete immersion model. As
a result, minority parents had to pull their children out of
schools, and enrollment witnessed a dramatic drop in the areas
settled by mixed communities (Hoben, 1995). This practice
negates the 1953 United Nations Educational Scientific and
Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recommendations that stated
“if mixed groups are unavoidable, instruction should be in the
language which gives the least hardship to the bulk of the pu-
pils, and special help should be given for those who do not
speak the language of instruction” (as cited in UNESCO, 2003:
p. 28).
Regional Disparities in Readiness and Resources
The language policy introduced by the current government is
just one among several reform initiatives packaged in decen-
tralization of the education system. Decentralization gets crip-
pled when nexus between regional and local constituencies is
lacking. Many authors (Swanson, 2000; Gibton, Sabar, & Gold-
ring, 2000) contend that success in decentralization depends on
how well efforts are integrated to ensure the attainment of
common societal goals. The implementation of the instructional
language policy seems to have been affected by disparities in
capacities. Most language minority regions/states in Ethiopia
are disadvantaged not only in infrastructures but also in edu-
cated manpower who speak the minority language. As a result,
in some disadvantaged regions, individuals as under-qualified
as seventh grade dropouts were assigned as district (woreda)
education supervisors and as primary teachers just to fill posi-
tions by individuals who speak the needed language (Alemu &
Tekleselassie, 2006). In addition, no sufficient material prepa-
ration was made by the time the implementation was declared
and for several years afterwards (Dereje, 2001). Thus, many
educators argue that the instructional language policy plays a
role in widening the existing disparity between advantaged and
disadvantaged ethnic groups.
The Push to Monolingualism
The new instructional language policy has been a product of
a political move that pushed each ethnic region/state adopts its
own official language. By so doing, each state promotes a
monolingual education where the national official language
(Amharic) is abandoned by the overwhelming majority of the
new ethnic based states. As a result, what has been practiced in
Ethiopia is reduced to monolingual model rather than bilingual
or multilingual education.
Background on Educating Language Minority
Students in the United States
Despite the claims of the critics to subscribe bilingual educa-
tion to some political interest groups, evidences account that it
has always been the fact of life in the American society. Part of
the evidence is derived from the US Constitution. Beiren (1993)
documents that, the forefathers, who framed the US constitution
deliberately reserved the choice of language to the individual.
Given this broad provision (yet subject to various interpreta-
tions), the practice of bilingual education started as early as
1600, with German speaking Americans, opening the first
school that catered both in German and English (Beiren, 1993).
In the years that followed, the instruction of children in the
language other than English obtained further legal ground, with
several state laws authorizing the practice.
During the early history of America, elements of language
repression were rare and immigrant populations enjoyed the
right to use their language for instructional purpose. The prob-
lem however came to picture during World War II (Rothstein,
2000). Following the War, anti German sentiments grew and
American nationalism came to picture. Triggered by the trend,
15 states passed legislation on English as their official language.
The situation then shifted against bilingual education forcing
many immigrant students to join English immersion classes
(NEA, 2000).
A revival of bilingual education came during the 1960s
(NEA, 2000; Beiren, 1993). Among other things, the severe
drop out rates among language minority students, and a series
of court cases accentuated the need. Most importantly, the Civil
Rights Act of 1964 laid a foundation by requiring school dis-
tricts to provide additional support to Limited English Profi-
ciency (LEP) students. It also served as stepping stone for the
adoption of the Bil i n gual Education Act of 1968. As per the act,
limited Federal funding was assigned for LEP students who met
the poverty criteria. Later, the program included other LEP
After a period of relative success, several factors again con-
spired to swing back the balance form bilingual education to
English immersion classes. The challenge first came from cul-
tural uniformists and conservative ideologues who, among
other things, questioned the involvement of the federal gov-
ernment in language choice, which according to them is the
jurisdiction of local districts (NEA, 2000). Since 1980s events
against bilingual education further conspired; the new federal-
ism ideal of the Regan Administration, and the English only
movement were the most influential ones to this effect (Duig-
nan, 2000). After the 1990s, on the one hand, the drift towards
globalizations is bringing a renewed interest on bilingual edu-
cation. On the other hand, some states are taking measures to
outlaw its practice. Under these circumstances, the issue has
become subject of debate crossing several issues.
The United States’ Approach
Educating language minority in the United States has a very
long and complicated history. No one approach has been im-
plemented to address the issue in a uniform manner. States have
tried varied approaches from complete immersion, bilingual
education, to English as a Second Language (ESL). The phi-
losophies behind each approach have proponents and opponents
as discussed below.
Controversies around Teaching Language
Minority Students in the United States
The major debates on teaching language minority students in
the United States can be categorized in five areas of contro-
versy: pedagogical approaches, public opinion, culture, global-
ization, and politics. All are presented in brief below
Debate over Pedagogical Approaches: Bilingual
Education vs. English Immersion
One major debate on both sides (Bilingual education and
English immersion proponents) tends to be the pedagogical
superiority of one method over the other and its impact on the
school performance among LEP students. Proponents of bilin-
gual education argue that children advance in both English and
other subjects when native language instruction is used and the
transition to English is gradual (Zehr, 2000; Krashen, 2000).
Central to this assertion is the threshold hypothesis (Cummins
cited in Mitchell et al., 1999; Krashen, 2000) in which know-
ledge of primary language is assumed to facilitate learning in
the second language (i.e. English). Cummins further warns,
children in English immersion classes are more likely to even-
tually end up monolingual (in English) despite their mother
tongue spoken at home.
By contrast, the critics of bilingual education assume that
rapid and intensive English instruction is the fastest path to
English and subject area mastery. The central notion here is the
interference hypothesis that asserts learning second language is
best facilitated when learners are immersed in the second lan-
guage and given minimal support in their first language (NEA,
2000; Unz, 2000).
Controversy over Public Opinion
Throughout the debate over bilingual education both the
proponents and the opponents try to win the support of the pub-
lic, and mainly that of parents. Cases of parental opinions are
widely documented in either side of the debate. Opponents
question why bilingual education has been put in place in the
face of growing parental dissatisfaction about its efficacy
(Chavez & Amselle, 1997). Widely documented in their study
are the Hispanic parent reaction in Los Angeles, and Denver,
the Latino family revolt in New York, in all of which parents
preferred English immersion classes to bilingual education.
Other evidences ar e a lso common.
The proponents of bilingual education, however, tend to re-
ject this accusation. They argue that most of the alleged paren-
tal grievances over bilingual education are associated with cer-
tain practices (such as inappropriate placement of children) than
with the program itself (Krashen, 2000). They also question the
way opinions are drawn from parents. Biased questions (for
example the association of the two programs with future job
opportunities) are among the reasons, according to proponents,
that have been misinterpreted for parental grievances over bi-
lingual education.
D. S. ALEMU ET AL. 405
Controversy over Culture: Transition or
The debate over bilingual education often takes both groups
into the issue of bicultural education as well. On the one hand,
the supporters of bilingual education put a bitter blame on the
melting pot ideal of Americanizing immigrant as the harshest
treatment of degrading the culture and heritages of immigrant
children. They maintain that American schools had been prone
to reinforce existing ethnic, racial, social class hierarchies.
They further lament that first generation immigrants were able
to get into the middle class “not because of but in spite of,”
their schooling (Duigma, 2000: p. 2).
On the other hand, the critics charge the trend of associating
bilingual education with bicultural education as the greatest
historic mistake. The critics further question the potential out-
come of this instance on the future of LEP students. For them,
the claim that bilingual education serves as instrument to instill
ethnic pride, or as a therapy for low self-esteem, will only keep
immigrants tied to their old culture, further maximizing the cost
of their transition to the American culture.
In addition, critics also question whether it is the role of
schools to focus on either cultural transition or cultural mainte-
nance. This question is mainly relevant in terms of the role of
bilingual education as has originally been deemed necessary for
LEP students. The original intention of the program, as well as
the belief of Federal authorities, was that the program helps
serve as a transition to English mainstream programs (EFF,
2000). Authors (for example, Shultz, 2000; Duigma, 2000),
however documented evidences contrary to this claim. Many
schools, for example, keep students in bilingual classes after
they have become proficient in English. By so doing, bilingual
programs are accused of becoming instrumental for cultural
maintenance. The critics further dub the trend as a de facto
reversal to segregation, a turnaround of the same rights immi-
grants were decrying at the time when public schools were
Globalization as an Issue of Controversy
The advocates of bilingual education reduce their detractors
as tracking behind times when they establish the importance of
bilingual education in light of the current trend toward global-
ization (Rodriguez, 1998). Bilingual children, the proponents
argue, are assets to the nation; whereas, monolinguals are dis-
advantaged to effectively function in several national endeavors
(such as the enforcement of law and intelligent gathering) that
eventually affect the role of the country in a competitive global
The move towards globalization, however, is not perceived
as a threat by the advocates of English-immersion. They posit
that if other languages such as Chinese or Spanish capture
world importance, English ranks in a class by itself. They fur-
ther argue that fluency in Spanish or Chinese may provide a
significant advantage, but luck of literacy in English represents
a “crippling or fatal disadvantage in our global economy” (Unz,
Political Controversies
The issue of language of instruction has often been politi-
cized. In circumstances where politics intrude into pedagogy,
the real actors on the matter will be pushed out of the scene,
and the instructional role of schools will be displaced for po-
litical motives. As Shultz (1998) observes, through the debate
over bilingual education, the political fortunes of the program
have been defended by group of self-appointed academics,
educators, civil right advocates and other ardent believers. The
parents, whose children participate in bilingual education,
Shultz laments, are left as spectators. Still worse, both groups
orchestrate parents for political purposes. In extreme case, the
intrusion of politics is even felt in the classroom. Duigma
(2000), for example, notes a forceful Spanglish attempt of the
1970s in which 750 black children were put in Spanish or Chi-
nese classes. What compounds this absurdity, as Duigma, dubs
is that not one of those children speak either language at home.
Hence, the central issue—what is better to educate language
minorities—gets derailed and political interest overtakes.
Similarities and Differences between Practices in
Ethiopia and the United States
Although the social, economic, political and overall devel-
opmental contexts differ between the two countries, there are
some similarities and differences worth mentioning with regard
to addressing the issues of language minority students.
One of the similarities is that both are multicultural nations.
Multicultural nations face more challenges with regard to
crafting inclusive policies than those with less diverse commu-
nities. The other similarity is, in both countries, most educa-
tional policy and change initiatives appear to be addressed in a
top-down approach. The newly implemented Education and
Training Policy of Ethiopia and the No Child Left Behind Act
of the United States are good examples. Moreover, in both co-
untries, intrusion of politics on educational matters often over-
looks the pedagogical advantages to children. Election season
debates and speeches are evident in both countries.
Four main differences can be mentioned. First, there is a
clear difference in perception of minority groups about the
mainstream language. In the Ethiopia’s case, the mainstream
language, Amharic is perceived by minority language speakers
as a language of the oppressor by linking it to the long history
of power dominantly held by Amharic speakers. As a result
adversarial tone is apparent between minority language propo-
nents toward the mainstream language. In the case of the
United States, the value of the mainstream language, English,
for social mobility is not questioned. Rather, the debate is on
how minority language speakers can better learn and assimilate.
The second difference is that language minorities in the US
are immigrants or children of immigrants unlike Ethiopia where
language minorities are natives who always lived in the country.
Potentially, this would be an advantage to Ethiopia due to cul-
tural connections that could facilitate understanding. In reality,
however, the debate in instructional language issues in Ethiopia
often focuses on differences rather than similarities. As a result,
in Ethiopia’s case, children’s pedagogical needs are down-
played and cultural maintenance is overplayed. This is partly
due to the tone set by the country’s education policy that over-
emphasized on non-pedagogical element of instructional lan-
guage benefit, specifically “to recognize the rights of na-
tions/nationalities to learn in their language” (FDRE, 1994: p.
10). In the US, however, the direction of the debate is on how
to meet the pedagogical advantage of children while maintain-
ing the culture.
The third difference between Ethiopia’s and the United
States’ approach in addressing instructional language issues has
to do with the roles federal and local level government play. In
Ethiopia, state governments have very limited autonomy where
the federal government sets the political tone on how local/state
level administration implements policies. As a result, the in-
structional language policy did not take into account regional
disparities in resource and capabilities of the states which is
exhibited by inconsistent and controversial implementation. In
the United States, there is a clear power structure and role be-
tween the federal, states, and school level administration on
formulating and implementing policies.
The fourth difference is on the focus of the debate itself. Two
very important issues of debate in the United States: public
opinion and globalization are missing from the instructional
language debate in Ethiopia. Part of the reasons for lack of
public opinion is the absence of vibrant free press and the pol-
icy formulation process that excludes grassroots voices. On the
other hand, obsession of the policy makers on internal matters
motivated by political expediency (centered in ethnic politics)
has result in ignoring the implications of globalization on lan-
guage policy.
Conclusion and Implications
Educating bilingual children in the United States focuses on
helping immigrants with limited English proficiency to be able
to master English so that they can learn as their native class-
mates. The practices and debates range from bilingual edu-
cation to English immersion (structured) to English as a second
language (ESL) although consensus on choosing the best
method/program seems impossible (at least for now). The com-
parative advantages of each method should be seen from its
benefits to the children. While legislations like proposition 227
in California conclude that society is favoring English im-
mersion there is still apprehension from bilingual proponents
that the current trend in globalization, where multilingualism/
bilingualism appears a big plus, might put not only the children
but also the country at the disadvantaged end.
As in the United States, public opinion on teaching language
minority children is diverse in Ethiopia. Politicians, in both
countries have been playing roles in intensifying the debates on
educating language minorities not only by supporting or op-
posing a certain pedagogical approach but also by injecting
such sensitive issues as civil rights and ethnic equality.
In Ethiopia, the government attempts to address the issues by
instituting a policy of teaching students in their mother tongue.
Educating children in their mother tongue has several potential
advantages: it closes the gap between home and school lan-
guage (Krashen, 2000; Rothstein, 1998), increases the com-
mitment of parents to school affairs (Rothstein, 1998), and
raises the educational performance of respective communities
(Rodriguez, 1998). At the same time, it is worth noting that
these potential advantages would be realized only when suitable
conditions prevail. Given the problems that the instructional
language policy has encountered (such as intrusion of politics,
problems with mixed communities, and lack of regional readi-
ness) during its implementation, it is reasonable to question the
extent to which the intended advantages have been gained.
Ethiopias new education policy states provisions that allow
each ethnic group to teach in its own language. As a multilin-
gual nation of eighty language/ethnic groups, the implementa-
tion of Ethiopia’s language policy, however, has not been an
easy task. This is further complicated by the varying size of the
ethnic groups that speak the languages. Of the total 80 lan-
guages spoken in the country, for example, 56 of them are spo-
ken in one (SNNPR) region/state (Getachew & Derib, 2006).
While providing education in as many as 56 languages per
state/region is potentially allowed by the policy, its feasibility
has been unjustifiably overlooked.
In Ethiopia’s case, it can be deduced that the instructional
language policy has been more effective in cultural mainte-
nance rather than addressing the academic needs of specific
minority ethnic groups/students. This is in conformity with the
“success story” told by Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education (1999)
that the instructional language policy has promoted a sense of
realizing ethnic identity and community culture and public
participation in educational matters.
Also, the implementation is more of a complete immersion
model than bilingual/multilingual education. In an ideal bilin-
gual model, the total number of language spoken in the com-
munity, the number of students speaking each language, and
their distribution across grade levels is taken into account
(McKeon, 1987). Bilingual models use the students’ home lan-
guage in addition to the instructional language. This is followed
by marshalling the resources needed to support the program
which includes teachers that are proficient in both the students’
language and the instructional language (McKeon, 1987). Ethio-
pia’s language policy lacks such important considerations and
commitment. Thus, to get the pedagogical advantage of bilin-
gualism/multilingualism, the country should refocus on the
practical implications of the instructional language policy in a
lens different from political advantage that only contributes to
cultural maintenance.
Bilingual/multilingual students are generally more likely to
be successfully function in the global marketplace than their
monolingual counterparts. However, not all languages are cre-
ated equal when it comes to the doors they open in the global
market. For example, everything else equal, a bilingual person
proficient in English and Spanish is more likely to successfully
function in the United States than a multilingual person profi-
cient in Amharic, Oromiffa, Tigray and Affar languages (Ethio-
pia’s local languages). While maintaining culture is an impor-
tant aspect, equipping citizens with skills to function in the
global marketplace is crucial. Thus, it will be more than wise to
craft language policies in view of this greater good.
We would like to thank the editor and the anonymous re-
viewers for taking their time in providing invaluable comments
that made this article better.
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