Words of Wisdom

 The Eritrean Diaspora is very divided in a wide spectrum of issues. And most of the time, discussion forums are very polarized and full of inappropriate language. While I was going through the responses of readers on Part I of my writing, I came across a comment that really touched my heart. And I want to start my essay with that.

A respondent by the name of Mohamed wrote,

"The beginning of any serious conflict is seen when a gradual and steady deterioration of trust between the two parties is under way. That is why in every post-conflict phase confidence building measures take years to reassure the parties involved that each side has good intention and is willing to compromise not buying time at the expense of the other.''

Mohamed raises two important points. One is that it is very important to establish trust and confidence among people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds in order to resolve common problems. Any purported mistrust, animosity and suspicion if not addressed and resolved in due time will be very difficult to repair or reverse in the future. Mohamed cites the long standing political conflict between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots and showed how the Greek Cypriots tried to impose their culture and language on the Turkish Cypriots and how they wanted to be part of Greece and want to the Turkish Cypriots to assimilate. No one should wish anything of that sort to happen in Eritrea. And the good news is, there is no reason to fear that a conflict of such a dimension, as that of Cyprus, will occur in Eritrea. The love and compassion that exists among the Eritrean people for centuries is a mitigating factor for any potential conflicts that may arise in this regard. My observation is that good-intentioned Eritreans are fully aware of the fact that whether it is the land tenure or the language issue, political bickering, finger pointing and unproductive exchange of bitter and non-constructive ideas are not going to provide any solutions. People need to thread the path of history in unity, mutual respect and understanding. Due care should be exercised not to put a wedge among people along partisan, ethnic and religious lines in order not to waste light years of missed opportunities. So Mohammed's call for the need for confidence building among people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds has been very well taken.

Why is a discussion on language important?

What has language to do with nation building? To answer these questions it is essential to understand the true meaning of a nation. According to political scientists, the primordial or perennial definition of a nation requires that there must be some characteristics that are shared by people. A group of people with nothing in common cannot be a nation. Primordial-ism argues that those shared characteristics have an ancient root, and nations are natural phenomena over different historical eras. The common characteristics of a nation, according to the primordial definition of a nation, are mainly, common: descent, culture, religion and history. However, primordial-ism has been challenged by other theories. Social Construction-ism emphasizes not shared characteristics, but rather the way a nation is constructed through nationalism, industry and technology. The voluntary theory defines a nation as comprising of people with the shared choice for membership. That is, people should be willing to be part of a nation. This reminds me of the 1993 Eritrean referendum for Independence where it was reported that 99% of those who voted favored independence. The people’s reaction to the Referendum manifested the prevalence of a robust nationalism and an overwhelming "shared choice" for wanting to be a nation of people in Eritrea. Another theory describes a nation as something that is imagined or invented in the minds of people.

These definitions help greatly to put the language issue in its proper perspective. It can be said that the significance of language varies depending on how people understand what a nation means to them. In the Eritrean context, what does the nation mean to the Highlander, Lowlander, Christian, Muslim? There are some who say that the Eritrean nation belongs to the Highlanders and other tribes are marginalized. This is renegade thinking. Do we perceive Eritrea as a nation because we have commonly shared values? Or do we perceive Eritrea as an entity that binds everybody in the territory by nationalistic constructs and common goals? Or is Eritrea something that we imagine and or create in our minds?

One thing is for sure and that is not everybody has the same perception of what Eritrea as a nation really is. However, the reality is that the Eritrean people are very diverse in their culture, language, religion and history and, therefore, the primordial definition of a nation is not going to apply fully. I am inclined to believe that what binds us as people of one nation is the nationalistic feelings we have and the visions and aspirations we share on how to build the nation.

Cosmopolitanism is the order of the day

If we look around us, we can see that the world is becoming a smaller place. And parochial loyalty to local traditions, religion, and narrowly defined ethnic identities are giving way to cosmopolitanism. Life styles are finding more expression on taste, purchasing power and economic prosperity than on culture and religion. More and more people around the world are bonding with people from outside their culture and religion and a sort of a "universal" economic-class centric identity is emerging. You have to visit face-book and or Twitters to believe this. A middle class kid in the United States may bond more with a middle class Russian or Chinese than with a poor American.

At national levels integration into broader world bodies is intensifying. Western European countries are trying to unify all European countries as far as the Balkans and Asia Minor. In a sense this cosmopolitan or global drive is promoted by multi-national corporations. These economic giants are behind the formation of regional economic groupings and regional tax regimes in order to avoid dealing with smaller nation states individually. Gradually, the nation state structure will be overshadowed by regional bodies of nations. A new phenomenon is coming to life in the world.

The Eritrean people can draw a lot of lessons from global social and political developments. Social partitioning and infighting among ethnic groups is a no starter in Eritrea's efforts to keep itself abreast of a fast changing world. Eritreans should try to establish a unified state and also try to reach out to the outer world in order to participate and compete in the global market place. We need to become a responsible member of a community of nations instead of the Pariah and isolated state that Eritrea has become. So, with all the above in mind, let's first try to understand the role of language in the achievement of our national and global goals and aspirations.

The role of language

Many respondents in this thread seem to confuse the use of a language for official purposes with the use of a language as a medium of instruction. To begin with a country does not necessarily have to have an official language. There are many countries like the United States who do not have an official language. Also, a country does not necessarily need to have only one language [such as English] as its official language and a medium of instruction. An official language is something that is used to identify a country by its linguistic and cultural characteristics. An official language is defined as follows;

"It is a language that is given a unique status in the constitutions of countries, states, and other territories. It is typically the language used in a nation's legislative bodies, though the law in many nations requires that government documents be produced in other languages as well. However, a language officially recognized by a state, taught in schools, and used in official communication is not necessarily an official language." http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Official_language

In contrast a medium of instruction is the language that is used in teaching. It may or may not be the official language of the territory. From the above we can deduce that a country like Eritrea, where 90% of the population lives in rural areas, and rate of illiteracy is high, it may not be practical to use English or Arabic as the main language of communication. So a certain degree of flexibility is used in the adaptation of languages to serve the best interests of the people.

A medium of instruction may be chosen for pragmatic and academic reasons. For example, a country may set its own educational goals to improve learning achievements for children, youth and adults. To achieve these goals it can start off by educating its people in their respective mother tongues in primary and middle schools and adult literacy centers and then switch to another more globally spoken language such as English, Arabic or French at the high school or university levels. This has been the practice in Eritrea since the days of the Federation. Availability of instructors, textbooks, span of technical, scientific and social science and liberal art vocabulary and the ease with which a language could be used to communicate with the outside world may be important factors to determine what language a country uses in its institutes of higher learning and business and industry. This does not mean, however, that foreign languages used as medium of instruction should necessarily be recognized as official languages.

An official language is mainly a language that main stream society speaks, and one people use when they go to court, police stations, community centers, municipal offices, weddings, shopping, churches or mosques and to carry out their day to day business. It is the language of the masses and is pretty much country-specific.

The ratified Constitution is very mute on the issue of official language and Eritrea is actually listed among those countries that do not have an official language. The drafters of the constitution left this issue open-ended by writing "all languages are equal under the law". And the government of Eritrea's policy is in line with the ratified constitution although the Constitution has not been implemented to date. We don't know for sure what was in the mind of the drafters of the constitution with respect to languages. But I think it was a wise decision they made. If they had recommended one language or another to be the official language, it may not have been well received by one section of the population or the other depending on what language is chosen.


In my opinion, I think the best case scenario for Eritrea as far as the language issue goes, is as follows:

1. No official language is required.

2. People should be free to use the language spoken in their localities in carrying out their day to business.

3. The country's laws and ordinances should be written in all languages including in English and Arabic in order to facilitate the diversity.

4. As far as Education is concerned, primary and middle school education should be given in mother languages with English and Arabic being taught as second languages. In secondary schools and universities, English should be the medium of instruction while Arabic continues to be taught as an elective.

I believe, this would provide a win-win situation for every body.