Multilingual Ethiopia

Ethiopia has at least 82 distinct people groups, with at least that many languages. When I first went there in 1973, books could only be printed in the national languages Amharic and English. During the Communist era (1974-1991), there was freedom to print Christian materials only by mimeograph in the smaller languages. Since the overthrow of Communist rule in May 1991, each language group is free to publish books in its own language, using either Saaba (Ethiopic) or Latin (English) script.

This makes for some interesting challenges. My colleagues Bruce and Betty Adams and Donna Clawson worked for years among the people of Wolaitta and its related dialects in southern Ethiopia, who number three to four million. The older people learned the national language Amharic in school, and those who can read and write do so using the Saaba script. The younger ones are taught in the Wolaitta language and learn to read and write using the Latin script. They study English in school and speak little if any Amharic. So how do the younger people and older people communicate with each other? Face to face they can still speak to each other in the Wolaitta language, but written communication is difficult. So the Wolaitta Bible has been published in both the Saaba and the Latin script.

When I first went into the Aari area, I taught translators Duba and Fikadu to write in phonetic script, which is similar to the Latin script. They learned it well, but they still preferred the Saaba script. To the Aari, the Saaba script was Ethiopian, the Latin script was foreign. For this reason, and because the Aari population was too small to warrant the government publishing textbooks in their language, we published the Aari Scriptures and other books only in the Saaba script. Now, 18 years after the Aari New Testament was published, things have changed. Many languages are using Latin script, and it is being taught in the schools. The Aari Bible will probably be published in Latin script.

The Banna are even smaller in number than the Aari, but some books have been published in diglot form (Saaba script in one column, Latin script in one column) to see how the people respond. If they learn to read in both scripts, it will help them with their study of English.

Ethiopia is about the size of Texas. Try to imagine 82 different language groups in the state of Texas. When you move from one county to the next, you might have trouble finding anyone who speaks your language. This is why a national language, or trade language, is important. In the past, Amharic was the national language most commonly used for government and other cross-cultural communication. English was the language of instruction from seventh grade through university. It is also used in commerce, and many Ethiopian young people are eager to become fluent in English.

Bridge School of English is opening soon in Addis Ababa – an EFL (English as a Foreign Language)  school reaching out to the urban elite.  It is a partnership between SIM and a local Christian businessman.  English classes will be a ‘bridge’ to Bible studies.  Please pray for fruit amongst the many Orthodox, Muslims and evangelicals we expect to come.