By Gezahegn Lemma Fituma*
There have been times in history when a few languages had been considered culturally superior; and some other languages had been banned or discouraged. This is happening everywhere today as well; take Ethiopia as an example. The Oromo people constitute the single largest ethno-national group in Ethiopia, where the Oromia Region contains a half of Ethiopia’s land area and population. The Oromo language, also known as Afan Oromo, is spoken by some 40 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and it is the 3rd most spoken African language (about 40 million in Ethiopia; and another half a million in Kenya and Somalia combined). Many others (as yet not quantified) speak Afan Oromo as a second language. It is the most spoken language in the Cushitic family, which also includes Somali, Sidama and Afar languages. Cushitic peoples were present on the central Ethiopian plateau of today as early as 5000 B.C.
In recent history, between 1974 and 1991, under the Mengistu regime (also called the Derg), the writing of Afan Oromo in any script was forbidden. Upon the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, the Latin alphabet based Qubee was adopted as the script for Afan Oromo. However, the TPLF regime (the regime which took power in Ethiopia in 1991) has continued to advocate for the superiority of one language over the other languages in Ethiopia. Today, under the TPLF regime, the uses of Afan Oromo and Qubee are completely banned in federal offices. For instance, Finfinne, which is the capital of Oromia, uses the government-sponsored single language as an official language.
The choice of only one language to dominate the most spoken language in Ethiopia, i.e. Afan Oromo, has brought about direct impacts on the socio-linguistic, psycho-linguistic, econo-linguistic aspects of the Oromo people, especially Oromo students who attend higher-education institutions and Oromo workers who work at federal institutions, where a language, that is a second-language of the majority, is spoken as a primary language; in short, the government’s language policy promotes institutional marginalization of Oromo students and workers. It is strongly argued that using the native language of students as a medium of instruction is a decisive factor for effective learning. However, in this situation, failing to give the primary role to the native language, and largely depending on a secondary language as the official working language in Ethiopia, bring about various difficulties to Oromo students and workers. The students and workers are expected to disentangle, not only the subject matters and work projects, but also the working-language itself. It also creates difficulty to students and workers in expressing themselves, and as a result, it limits their classroom and work participation as there is fear of making mistakes and shortages of vocabulary of the secondary language. In addition, it is a barrier to smooth classroom and workplace communication. It is also argued that use of a secondary language in education and workplace negatively affects the ability and the ease with which knowledge is acquired by students, and projects are completed by workers. It also affects the performance of students and workers, and creates difficulties in developing their cognitive skills and careers, respectively. Moreover, giving low status to native languages of students in educational and workplace settings leads to the marginalization of the majority of citizens from active engagements in the development arena.
Nowadays, there are many voices advocating for the government to adopt bilingualism so as to add Afan Oromo as the federal working language. Such voices should be encouraged to relentlessly continue their advocacy for bilingualism to get rid of the institutional marginalization of the majority in Ethiopia.
* Gezahegn Lemma Fituma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org