Preventing Cultural Genocide With the Mother Tongue Policy In Eritrea

Mother Tongue policy Eritrea
Eritrea has implemented the mother tongue policy nationwide to prevent cultural genocide within its nine different ethnic groups. But what are the impact of such language policies and practices on children’s learning? (Photo: UNICEF)

By Thomas C Mountain,

The small East African nation of Eritrea has implemented the Mother Tongue policy nationwide to prevent cultural genocide within its nine different ethnic groups.

This is done by educating all children in tribal environments in their mother tongue until literacy at grade 5. By making sure that the ethnic minorities learn to read and write in their mother tongue the Eritrean Government is making sure that their culture survives as well for without ones language one cannot practice your culture.

Historically destroying peoples mother tongue is the means used to carry out a policy of cultural genocide with many thousands of dialects having disappeared during the western colonial and neo colonial era. Today, many of the languages that remain are threatened by the children of these ethnic groups not being literate in their mother tongue which will almost inevitably lead to the loss of their identity, their language and their culture.

It hasn’t been easy for Eritrea, hammered by global warming droughts and economically disadvantaged due to western inflicted sanctions and embargoes and with nine tribes and nine languages, some of which have never had a written language, the challenge of implementing the Mother Tongue policy for all the tribes has been hard work.

It has been well over a decade now that the policy has become the practice nationwide and the next generation of Eritrean youth from all our nine tribes are literate in their mother tongue, a policy the whole world needs to adopt.


Mother Tongue Education vs. Democratic Rights Argument

This section discusses the increasingly growing influential argument that postulates educating children in their mother tongue not only is necessary for their development but also is a fundamental aspect of democratic rights. It is often argued by the ‘rights orientation’ strand, “the language as right ‘orientation’ considers language as basic human rights, and that every human being has the right to choose a language” (Agbedor 2009: 141).

The politics of language in Eritrea is also geared along the democratic rights argument. The democratic rights argument, particularly of the child, seems to be pursued, primarily, by the government. The credibility of the argument is, however, contestable.

The Eritrean Government’s education policy has its roots in the EPLF’s vision of education during the time of the liberation struggle (cf. Gottesman 1998, Negash 1999). That vision was incorporated in the ratified Eritrean constitution. Article 4: 3 of the Eritrean constitution states, ‘The equality of all Eritrean languages is guaranteed’. Unlike rival organizations that focused on official languages – Arabic and Tigrinya – the EPLF from very early advocated the equality of languages and the use of mother tongue as a medium of instruction in education.

The argument of the right to develop ones mother tongue was intimately connected with democratic rights. The current education system, at the basic level, is divided into three levels, namely elementary (1-5), middle (6-7), and secondary (8-11) (MOE 1998). Whereas at the elementary level, the medium of instruction is the mother tongue, at the middle and secondary levels it is English (MOE 1999). While Tigrinya is taught as a subject at the elementary level, Arabic is taught at both elementary and secondary levels. The medium of instruction for tertiary education is English. According to the government instruction of children in mother tongue has given a positive outcome in the overall performance of school children. International studies also uphold such assertion.

Yet the introduction of mother tongue as a medium of instruction has generated considerable controversy (Hailemariam 1999: 488, Bereketeab 2004: 219-20). The controversy include claims such as teaching mother tongue weakens the position of the Arabic language, and that mother tongue education in nine languages is impractical, since this would mean mobilizing huge material and human resources (Negash 1999, AbaArre 2001).

The concern of communities may focus on the democratic rights of any community to promote and develop its identity and culture in which mother tongue is embedded. As Reaume (2000:271) argues, ‘People find in their mother tongue a marker of identity, an expression of their belonging to a community, a unique and valuable form of human creativity’. As such not only from an instrumental but also from an intrinsic value point of view, they seek its preservation.

Yet no uniformity could be claimed, as was discussed earlier; communities may prefer a medium of instruction other than their own mother tongue. Les Gottesman’s studies in Eritrea show some communities expressed preference of different medium of instruction than their own mother tongue.

Sometimes instead of using their mother tongue, in some areas they prefer some other language, they prefer Tigrinya, or they prefer Arabic because they think that since these two languages are more widely used in many parts of Eritrea and everybody knows this language so our children could benefit more from this, and so on (Gottesman 1998: 226)

Here, parents are aiming, by choosing a language they perceived is more marketable than their own, at the linguistic market where competitive and profitable legitimate linguistic competence is earned. What becomes appealing is that adopting the language of formality or office in which mastering it may lead to a prestigious and profitable job in the public sphere.

If it is another language than one’s own then let it be….

– Dr. Redie Bereketeab, The Politics of Language in Eritrea: Equality of Languages Vs. Bilingual Official Language Policy

Thomas C. Mountain is an independent journalist living and reporting from Eritrea since 2006. His speeches, interviews and articles can be seen on Facebook at thomascmountain and he can best be reached at thomascmountain at g mail dot com