Why are the Fruits Bitter? Looking into Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education in Ethiopia

Author: Mulusew Asratie Wondem (Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia)
Speaker: Mulusew Asratie Wondem
Topic: Applied Sociolinguistics
The GLOCAL AFALA 2023 General Session


In this presentation, I discuss the success and failures in the implementation of mother tongue based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) in Ethiopian in the last thirty years.  Since UNESCO’s 1950’s recommendation, MTB-MLE has been the concern of a number of multilingual countries like Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, MTB-MLE has been implemented since the beginning of the 1990’s. A number of languages have been introduced to the education system year after year. About 53 languages are either being taught as a subject or are used as a medium of instruction at least in the early primary grades.

Among the advantages of mother tongue education are: (a) bringing quality of education and (b) narrowing the achievement gap between students from various linguistics backgrounds. Paradoxically, in Ethiopian,   the quality of education has been decreasing from time to time since the introduction of MTB-MLE, as can be seen from the  national learning assessment (NLA) results of the years 2000 – 2015 (see table below) and the result of the 2022 national secondary school leaving examinations,  which is  also below 4% pass only.

Subjects 2000 2004 2007 2011 2015
Reading in MT 64.25  64.49 43.9 42.96 44
English 40.46 38.68 36.5 38.87 53
Maths 39.31 39.7 40.3 37.06 37
Env. science 48.1 51.74 42.6 41.21 32
Composite 47.54 48.5 40.9 40.06 41.5

Moreover, the performance gap between students from various regions is also so wide both in the NLA (only 8% of students scored  below expected result for best performing regions and 70% for worst performing region ) and the 2022 national secondary school leaving examination (19% for the highest coring region and vs. 2% for the lowest scoring region).

My discussion will focus on assessing the Ethiopian experience based on the Essential Components of Successful Mother Tongue Educational  by SIL which are adopted by UNESCO ( Melone 2018). The components included: (1) Supportive MTE policy, (2) Preliminary research, (3(Realistic implementation plan, (4) awareness raising and mobilization, (5) acceptable alphabets, (6) curriculum and instructional materials, (7) reading and learning materials, (8) (9) Teacher recruitment and training, (10) Monitoring and evaluation

In will discuss the Ethiopian experience of introducing new languages to the educational system in terms of each of these components starting from the MTE policy. I particularly argue that the policy’s main focus was promoting multilingualism rather than linguistic pluralism, and this impacted all the other components resulting in serious practical problems at each level.

Keywords: Mother tongue based multilingual education, language policy, language and education