This study addresses the impacts of the Ethiopian policy on educational language of instruction on social identity processes of two ethnic groups in Ethiopia. The aim of the study is to identify the interplay between socio-political changes in a diverse society, language planning and group identity formation.
The study is placed within the conflict perspective of society and uses Bourdieu’s concepts of power relations and social reproduction in education. Furthermore, language planning is not only seen as a communicative and pedagogical matter but also as a political affair, which is apparent in the concept of ‘identity planning’. As a basis for the operationalisation of group identity, Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory and researchers using his initial theory have been employed.
The design used is a comparative case study. Within one national language policy two ethnic groups have been studied and compared. The two groups are the Gumuz and the Shinasha from Benishangul Gumuz Regional State. These two groups were chosen because they, on the one hand, live in the same area and share certain historical similarities, but on the other hand, their social conditions differ. The Shinasha, although having experienced displacement and assimilation by other ethnic groups, have a quite strong position in society, whereas the Gumuz, despite being much more numerous, remain marginalised after centuries of domination by other ethnic groups.
The results from the study shows the differences in impact of the policy on the social identity of these two groups, although both report an increased value and pride in their language and see the policy as a means to achieve more desirable characteristics of their own group. The Shinasha want to use the policy to bring back their traditional culture and language which is on the brink of being lost. They therefore aim at becoming more distinct from other groups. The Gumuz see the policy as a means to become more similar and thus more equal to other groups by changing some of the group characteristics that are perceived as negative or inferior.
These micro-level processes are linked to the emergence of the language policy and the strong political drive behind its rationales, aims and also its implementation. The study finally concludes that it is not only the changed socio-political environment in Ethiopia that has led to this specific language policy which has influenced social identity, but the changes in different ethnic group’s identity are likely to have an impact on the socio-political environment, which again might lead to changes in language planning. Thus, the relationship between these factors is assumed to be circular.