Ethiopia has at least 86 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 Saba (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 Saba 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 Saba 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 Saba script. To the Aari, the Saba script is Ethiopian, the Latin script is foreign. For this reason, and because the Aari population is too small to warrant the government publishing textbooks in their language, we have published the Aari Scriptures and other books only in the Saba script.
The Banna are even smaller in number than the Aari, but Donna has published one book in diglot form (Saba 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 86 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 is 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.
SIM has recently opened an English Language Institute in Addis Ababa to help
those who want to improve their English-speaking skills. The core course
work uses books published by the Oxford University Press, but
extra-curricular activities include Bible study in English. Ask God to bless
this ministry with much lasting fruit.
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