Eritrea is one of the countries in Africa that use vernacular languages as medium of instruction at schools. The government’s language policy focuses on the development of the nine indigenous Eritrean languages as the medium of instruction at preschool and primary school levels to give equal opportunity to all citizens.
The national education policy of Eritrea affirms that mother tongue shall be used as the medium of instruction up to elementary school level and is to be taught as a subject up to grade 12. The use of mother tongue as a medium of instruction helps promote universal access to knowledge and contributes to the creation of inclusive, equitable, open, and participatory education.
Experts have long identified the relationship between the right to education and the right to language. One of the benefits of using a mother tongue in education is that children learn more quickly and easily when they are taught through their mother tongue than when taught through another (unfamiliar or foreign) language. Besides, the use of indigenous languages in education is vital for the preservation and development of the languages. Failure to incorporate vernacular languages in education can cause some languages to disappear over time. Many spoken languages of the formerly colonized African countries have vanished or are on the verge of extinction.
UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education encourages members of the community to better understand the culture and language of their own. UN Resolution A/RES/61/266 also calls upon member States ‘‘to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world’’ (UN, 2007: 4). This resolution has relevance for many language groups that were ascribed low status previously.
The use of vernacular language in education was given special attention in the 1970s during the struggle for independence as part of the struggle to reclaim the Eritrean identity. It started with few vernacular languages as medium of instruction in the newly opened revolutionary schools in the liberated areas. Today, primary school education is available in all Eritrean languages for children that come from the nine ethnic groups. Textbooks are published in all the languages and teachers are recruited from all ethnic groups and trained to teach in their respective mother tongues. Of course, challenges in delivering education through mother tongue such as lack of sufficient supportive reference materials and qualified mother tongue teachers still persist.
Historically, Eritrean languages were deliberately undermined by colonial forces that ruled the country. During its colonial rule in Eritrea, 1890-1941, Italy implemented a harsh colonial education policy that emphasised on indoctrination and subordination. Andrea Festa, then Director of Education in Eritrea, put the scope and goal of the colonial education as follows: “By the end of his fourth year, the Eritrean student should be able to speak our language moderately well; he should know the four arithmetical operations within normal limits; he should be a convinced propagandist of the principles of hygiene; and in history he should know only the names of those who have made Italy great” (Zemhret Y. 2010:333). This statement clearly shows that the overall objective of colonial education was neither to empower the learner nor to nurture his culture but to create loyal subjects to the colonial power.
Under Italian colonization, Eritreans were not allowed to learn beyond grade four. Before Eritrea was occupied by the British military in 1941, there had only been twenty-four primary schools established throughout the more than fifty years of Italian occupation (Trevaskis, 1960: 33). Ironically, colonizers viewed this absurdity as a “civilization mission.”
During the federation period, Arabic and Tigrigna were initially designated official languages of Eritrea and endorsed in the constitution of Eritrea. But later emperor Haileselassie banned the two widely used Eritrean languages in favour of Amharic. Amharic became the official language in violation of the Eritrea Constitution which declared Tigrinya and Arabic to be used as the medium for primary education. Ethiopia undermined the Eritrean education, languages and culture by proclaiming Amharic as the only language for public offices, schools, courts, and other businesses. The introduction of Amharic as a medium of instruction in the 120 elementary, 17 junior and one secondary schools run by the government was the source of great disappointment among the students (Alemseged T. 2016: 288). This violation had produced a student strike through out the country in 1958 that would later produce a generation of revolutionaries who played a significant role in the liberation of the country.
During the struggle for independence, the EPLF established a revolutionary school in the mid-1970s. It started with about 150 students and not more than ten teachers by sketching a curriculum for elementary school in two Eritrean languages, Tigre and Tigrigna.
The education policy of the EPLF was to promote the national unity of the Eritrean people. EPLF’s National Democratic Program, issued in its Second and Unity Congress (1987), provides a general objective of the organization, which includes “to provide universal compulsory education up to the middle school; each nationality [ethnic group] may give elementary education in its language or any other language of its choice,” and “to safeguard the right of all nationalities to preserve and develop their spoken or written language.”
The National Education Policy of Eritrea gives importance to the commitment of the government to provide quality education to all children and at all levels, the provision of free and compulsory basic education and the use of mother tongue at the elementary level. The government views language as more than a tool for communication. The development of vernacular languages is seen as a contribution towards the consolidation of nationhood in the realm of unity in diversity. Meaningful development cannot take place where linguistic barriers exist.
Eritrean community schools in diaspora, established and run by the communities there, offer Eritrean children in diaspora the same education their compatriots are offered here, at home. They use the same curriculum and encourage students to learn the culture and languages of Eritrea.
The government recognizes that multilingualism, besides its educational benefits, is instrumental in promoting, protecting, and preserving the diversity of languages and cultures in the country. In this case, Eritrea has travelled a long way, and the government is taking important steps for the development of all Eritrean languages into full-fledged standard languages of education.