The Language Question Revisited


This is a follow up and a refinement to “A Modest Proposal for a Away Out,” to the working languages of Eritrea.***

Native Languages of Eritrea and their Percentage Shares:

Primarily, in order to have a firm grounding on this issue, we have to start from the same base as to what the native languages of Eritrea are. In addition, what their percentage breakdowns are?

Table of Eritrean Native Languages

Language Percentage
Tigrinya 50%
Tigre 31%
Saho 5%
Afar 5%
Beja (spoken by Hedareb) 2.5%
Arabic (spoken by Rashaida) 2.4%
Bilen 2%
Kunama 2%
Nara 1.5%


(Note: The total percentage above comes to 101.4%. I surmise that the discrepancy appears to be of the percentage that Wikipedia displays for the Saho as 5%. The CIA Worldfact book generally matches with Wikipedia, except for the Saho where the CIA shows 3%. If one makes that adjustment of the Saho to 3% the total percentage is pretty close to 100 %.)

This table highlights some very significant points. First, Tigrinya and Tigre as native languages cover eighty one percent (81%) of the Eritrean population. From this, one can reasonably deduce that Tigrinya and Tigre qualify to be the working languages of Eritrea. No reasonable person will raise any eyebrow to such a proposal. Second, Arabic as a “native language” covers only 2.4%; a share that is less than that covered separately by Saho, Afar and Beja as native languages. If one were to go strictly by a “native language” criterion then declaring Arabic as a working language of Eritrea will be an aberration.

Cultural and Heritage Issues:

I perfectly understand cultural and heritage norms and values flourish and advance through native languages, since they are expressions of a national identity. Hence, it is important that native languages be preserved and enriched. In addition, through the studying of the words that native languages use for animals and plants it helps anthropologist and geneticists to trace the genetic makeup of animals and plants, their original source, how they were domesticated, their dispersion through out the world and the routes they took in populating the wide world. (See: “Guns, Germs and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond.) This gives an added importance to the preservation of native languages. A liberal democratic government should enforce that the native languages be taught in schools and universities as regular language classes. In addition, all necessary materials should be provided so that experts in departments of history, anthropology, linguistics, sociology etc can study the native languages. The locals are also free to use their native languages in however they desire in their markets, day-to-day lives, religious institutions, and private associations. This should include dealings with government entities. One cannot conclude from this though that all native languages become the working languages of a nation. It is not practical or workable. Otherwise, either by deliberate design or by default one language (or two languages) becomes the de facto working language/s - such as Tigrinya in current Eritrea.

In my first post, I received some constructive criticisms by wise and astute compatriots. I went back to the drawing board and did further research. Now, I admit that one cannot conduct affairs that are of cultural and national nature in a foreign language, though this is usually of a symbolic nature, for example the conducting of as simple as a national anthem. This involves matter of national identity, dignity and pride. That is also how Singapore addresses its working language issues; that is English is the working language of all matters; however, when it comes to issues of identity then affairs are conducted in Malay, one of the three official languages along with English. I reconsider my original position of sticking only to English as the working language of Eritrea. Instead, I recommend that English to be one the working languages of Eritrea, along with Eritrean native languages. As to the native languages, my personal desire is to designate Tigrinya and Tigre as the official languages of Eritrea because of their wide coverage of the Eritrean population.

Why English?

I have no intention to rehash points already covered in “A Modest Proposal for a Way Out.” (Sep. 5, 2009, (Also, See: “English as a Global Language” by David Crystal.)

In this post, I want to add three very important points. (It so happens that some were admirably covered in “Cabbages and Kings and Why the Sea is Boiling Hot - VII, by Mengs TM - Oct 20, 2009, at”)

First, over the last forty years a big portion of the Eritrean people has been dispersed all over the world. Some estimates conducted during the armed struggle era put the number as high as one third of the Eritrean total population. Heaven only knows how high that number is now, there is no doubt that it is a huge number.

A big share of that number includes Eritreans born and raised in foreign lands; this includes not only children but also grand children of Eritrean immigrants. The majority has no ability to speak the native Eritrean languages, but it has a good command of the English language, and relatively speaking is highly educated and talented. The only medium of communication among itself across the world and with the rest of the population in Eritrea is English. How does such a group get integrated with Mother Eritrea? Let it speak Tigrinya or Tigre or any other Eritrean native language is not an answer. Here is where English becomes handy. By any measure, this is a big asset to Eritrea. Including English as one of the working languages of Eritrea will facilitate such an accommodation of a very talented group.


Second, some sort of economic integration will come about in the Horn of Africa or in the whole continent of Africa. This may be akin to the European Union. This is a realistic wish list. It is a question of survival and a necessity. When that time comes, I believe that the official working language of such an African entity will be English. Adopting English as one of the working languages of Eritrea may not give us a competitive edge over other Africans, since English is an official language of many important African nations, but at least it will enable us to be in the game. For sure, we will not put ourselves in a disadvantageous position.

Third, English is one of the official languages of many Asian and African nations, despite the fact it is not a native language of such nations. Hence, we have to get rid of any inhibitions we may have of adopting a foreign language as one of the working languages of Eritrea.


In Asia, English is one of the official languages of the following nations: Fiji; India; Pakistan; Philippines and; Singapore.

India is a very proud ancient nation with a very highly developed civilization. No one in his right mind would accuse the Indians of having a colonized mind. Yet, with the advent of the Internet, their good command of the English language has given them a tremendous advantage in the global economy on top of their scientific and mathematical prowess.

Singapore though a city-state has some similarities with Eritrea. It is a multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic nation. At one time, its bigger neighbors wanted to swallow it. It pushed peaceful good neighborly relations with all its neighbors and consequently greatly benefited from free trade. At one time, the EPLF wished of replicating Singapore in the Horn of Africa. That is a very good wish to keep. We can learn a lot from Singapore. In Singapore, the English language became a unifying factor on top of its economic advantages. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, if we can learn something positive from a nation similarly situated like ours. (See: “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965 - 2000” by Lee Kuan Yew.)

In Africa, English is one of the official languages of the following nations: Botswana; Cameron; The Gambia; Ghana; Kenya; Lesotho; Liberia; Madagascar; Malawi; Mauritius; Namibia; Nigeria; Rwanda; Seychelles; Sierra Leone; South Africa; Sudan; Swaziland; Tanzania; Uganda; Zambia and; Zimbabwe.


Regarding this matter, there are two nations of a special note in Africa. These are Madagascar and Rwanda. They were not colonies of an English-speaking nation. Up until recently, English was not recognized as one of their official languages, since they did not interact with the language. However, they realize that with the growing importance of the Internet and hence English, they did not want to be left out of the economic prosperity that the Internet provides and as such, they decided to include English as one of their official languages.


In sum, Eritrea uses English in all matters of importance. Going one-step forward and declaring English as one of the working languages of Eritrea will only enhance and help advance what is already a reality on the ground. It could unify our ethnic groups without Eritreans losing indigenous heritage and culture. We will be in good company with five Asian and twenty-two African nations.

As aside, Negarit of in an article (“Like an Aged Wine”) posted it its site of October 2009 opposing English to be the working language of Eritrea. invariably carries sixteen articles in its front page. On average, English articles are about 14, which is 88%; sometimes all sixteen articles are in English, which is 100%. Considering this real practice of, opposing English as a working language of Eritrea does not make sense. in its daily practice implicitly admits that in Eritrea, English has more value than Arabic.


The Case of Arabic:

It is important to clear out of the way, in my belief, two wrong-headed ideas.

First, some are advising the Tewhado and Tigrinya that we should leave it to our Muslim compatriots as to the decision of considering Arabic to be one of the working languages of Eritrea. According to them, Tigrinya is allowed to be the working language and Arabic should be the working language without any opposition. I believe this is a wrongheaded proposal. A working or official language is a national matter that should involve all and not one segment of the people. I strongly believe in the rule of law. In a nation where there is the rule of law, the minority rights are respected. The majority cannot use the cover of democracy to enforce the tyranny of the majority. So far, in this debate I do not see such a danger. To be sure, no one is opposed to the use of Arabic in whatever way one wants to use it. The debate is about the working languages of Eritrea. There is a lot of difference between the two.

Second, I do not accept as a gospel truth and as a sacrosanct what our fathers might have decided during the Federation era in Eritrea. What I know for sure is that the Eritrean people did not vote for Federation. In my view, all that took place during that time including the acceptance of Tigrinya and Arabic as official languages of Eritrea are open for reexamination and scrutiny.

Now back to the beef of why I believe that Arabic does not qualify to be one of the working languages Eritrea. The issues revolve around two significant points.

First, Arabic is a native language of only the Rashaida in Eritrea. As the table above shows as a native language, Arabic covers only 2.4% of the Eritrean people. If that is not the case, the onus is on those who advocate for Arabic to be the working language of Eritrea to substantiate it with figures and numbers. In all fairness, how can one with a straight face choose Arabic to be the working language of Eritrea and not Tigre - which has coverage as a native language of 31% of the Eritrean people?

Second, some claim that they use Arabic in their religious schools and religious institution thus Arabic should qualify as one of the working languages of Eritrea. Similarly, the Tewahdos use Geez in their religious schools and churches. They use Geez in such important occasions as religious holidays, prayers, baptism, marriage ceremonies, funereal services and all the attendant ceremonies that follow. Here, I do not see that much difference in the way the Tewahdos use Geez from that our Muslim compatriots use Arabic during comparable occasions. I can attest to the fact that the Tewahdo masses have no clue of the Geez language. I conjecture that may be the case with the Eritrean Muslim masses regarding Arabic. Still no matter how one cuts it, a language does not become a working language of a nation just because a religious institution uses it. To examine this issue in more detail, it becomes important to examine how non Arab Muslims handle the Arabic language. The question is do Muslim nations who are not Arabs accept Arabic as one of their official languages?

The most important almost exclusive Muslim nations in Asia are Indonesia; Pakistan; and Afghanistan. In none of these nations is Arabic one of the official languages.

India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Singapore have significant percentages of their populations of Muslim faith. Yet, in none of these nations is Arabic one of the official languages.

In the Middle East, Turkey and Iran are two non-Arab nations with almost hundred percent Muslim populations. Yet in none of these nations is Arabic one of the official languages.

In Black Africa, some of the major nations with significant Muslim populations are Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Ethiopia, The Gambia, and Sierra Leone. Yet in none of these nations is Arabic one of the official languages.

The story above cannot be an anomaly and just a simple fluke. The real anomaly exists with those who are advocating for Arabic to be an official language despite the fact that the coverage of Arabic as a native language in Eritrea is only 2.4%. We are now reaping the fruit of the deadly seeds sowed by the Federation by imposing Tigrinya and Arabic to be the official languages of Eritrea. What is that poisonous fruit?

Polarization of the Eritrean Society:

What are the ramifications to the Eritrean society if we mandate that Tigrinya and Arabic to be the two official languages of Eritrea? I believe such a mandate will be nothing but tantamount to creating two different societies in Eritrea. One a Christian anchored around Tigrinya, and one a Muslim anchored around Arabic. Eritrea will be a house divided, two mindsets that will be unable to reconcile with each other. This will be the worst polarization of a society. This kind of social engineering is not in tune with the sociological factors of the Eritrean society. How does one assume such will be the result? One can see the result of this in our very debates. Then find its roots by going back to the way the public educational system was during the Federation era.

During the Federation era, we had two parallel educational tracking systems, at least in the elementary school. One that employed exclusively Tigrinya as a medium of instruction (up to fourth grade) that almost solely catered to the Christians, such a school never provided Arabic even as a language class. Its opposite one exclusively employed Arabic as a medium of instruction that almost solely catered to the Muslims. In keeping with its opposite, such a school, I surmise, never provided Tigrinya even as a language class.

This misguided language based, and in real practice religion based, parallel educational tracking system right from the start created two different societies within one nation. This division was ingrained in the minds of children who were not sophisticated enough to understand what was going on. The only impression such a system left in their minds was that they had to avoid the children who did not go to the Tigrinya based schools; implicitly and subtly, they were told that the other children were not like them. The same went on with those who went to the Arabic based schools. The result is gross and complete miscommunication, and we had two artificially created “incoherent camps” of schoolchildren. I believe this was one of the fertile and divisive grounds that contributed to the bickering and misunderstanding of the EPLF and the ELF.

Those who are advocating for Arabic and Tigrinya to be the working languages of Eritrea have to tell us clearly how they will overcome such a hurdle; some of us who are in opposite camps of such a debate are products of that educational system in Eritrea. Sadly, the minds of some are stuck in the 1950s and 1960s. Their minds are so clouded and cluttered with some of the undesirable baggage of the Federation era that they are unable to look forward. We have to look ahead and appreciate the value of the English language as a unifying factor on top of the economic advantages it provides. Peace.

Mogos Tekeste

October 30, 2009

*** I am compiling all my posts in an evolving blog.


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