English and Other Languages in South Sudan

* Julius Onen Okot Daniel


This article analyses the roles and status of English and other languages in South Sudan, the country which got independence in 2011. The author shows the position of English, what English did and is still doing in the daily activities of the government and other development partners, education and media sectors and what the population say about English. In the past, regional languages were not important, but is there a new policy after independence to address this issue? The article equally addresses this question.


English has become the most widespread language in the world including in South Sudan which became the youngest nation to escape from the Arab colonial master five years ago. Before independence, Arabic was the official language recognised by the government, while English was only taught as a subject in schools and other languages were never mentioned in learning institutions. After several years of failed fighting between Southern and Northern Sudan, the referendum was held which was a part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the second round of Sudan’s prolonged war fought with an issue of marginalization in 2005 and a transitional government was formed under the watch of the United Nations. It was at interim period, parliament in the temporary government passed a motion declaring English as the official language (Abdel, 2012) whereas some regional languages would be used as medium of instruction at lower primary schools. Change of language policy from Arabic to English is meant to function as a medium of instruction in learning institutions and as a medium of communication in government sectors in South Sudan.

Status and roles of English

The English language in South Sudan took over the position of Arabic and became the official language in the country. The government declared it and gave English the legal status and special roles and duties. The roles of English became enormous. First, it turned out to be a major language of communication in government organs such as Parliament, Judiciary and the Executive, (ibid). Abdel further mentions, ‘English is also used widely by the officials of the government of Southern Sudan, especially when talking to the international media’ (2012: 133). English attracted the attention of the world, especially; the English-speaking countries, to support developmental projects. In addition, English transformed the education system and changed syllabi, learning materials and curricula to be designed and written in English. Again Abdel says, ‘English is used as a medium of instruction in most of the schools and universities operating in the South’ (2012:133). International communities therefore, brought in new teaching and learning methodologies and approaches to support teaching learning of the English language in South Sudan.

Thus, publishers of English learning and teaching materials expanded the market to supply South Sudan. (Brutt, 2002) gave the view about ‘the formation of domestic market’ in different sectors to supply learning logistics. Business partners of English speaking countries found their way into South Sudan to create wealth and employ new ideas to develop the country at the time, they earn their profit because of language uniformity and easy understanding of one another. The role of English did not only expand the market, government also invited foreign teachers and trainers of English to conduct English Language Training (ELT) for adults and transform graduates of Arabic pattern to become English users. For this case, ‘clerks with a good command of English could find job opportunities in the government’ (Abdel, 2012: 131). Abdel mentions, ‘Expansion of employment increased as local South Sudanese with good mastery of English language are employed in big privately owned business companies, the United Nations’ Missions in South Sudan’, (2012: 133). Graduates who became competent English users were promoted. For example, classroom teachers were promoted to the position of head teachers, school Inspector, Supervisors and Directors. The same with other civil servants. The role of English spread all over, not only in the human resource transformation but also in media sectors like airing news on radio, broadcasting it on Television and printing newspaper, these all in English which let the international community know about South Sudan and the people of South Sudan get national and international news. However, although English has played important roles in fortifying the strength of government and non-governmental organisations, business sectors and build human resource capacity, on the other hand, particularly, in the socialisation aspect amongst the Southerners’ community members, English to some extent, has played a negative role. The minority of the population who remained literate only in Arabic got enrolled in English language training centres or school to be able to converse in English. In general, English created and shaped a better South Sudan than before in the education sector too. The government receive scholarships to send students to study in English speaking countries and gain quality education to become competent employees and employers.

Status and roles of other languages

Regarding the linguistic composition of South Sudan, Lewis (2009) mentions,

South Sudan has 71 other languages spoken all over the country. Out of 71, 68 languages are living while 3 are extinct. Of the living languages, 58 are indigenous while 10 are non-indigenous languages. Furthermore, of these languages, 12 are institutional. 24 are developing while 15 are strong. Finally, 11 languages are in trouble while 6 are dying.

At regional level, major languages are recognised as regional languages and accepted at regional level for dialogue and dissemination of information. However, no legal status is acknowledged by the government to the position of other languages. Although the same government is putting together written documentations, curriculum developing textbook, and history about languages with efforts to institutionalise them and identify regional languages, it is not clear yet which languages shall be “National” language widely spoken. Jok (2011: 5) sites, “the community try to identify and agree in principle in each of the greater regions (Greater Upper Nile, Bahr el-Ghazal and Equatoria) where majority of the people speak languages that could be elevated to the national level”. However, provisionally, the Ministry of Education agreed that the language to be used as medium of instruction in lower primary schools should be one of the dominant languages commonly spoken by many people in that region. In terms of role, other languages have coordinated development of peace and unity across the nation. Mutual coexistence and intermarriages among regions are strong due to respect and the roles of different languages and culture. My take to some extent, is where conflict may arise, peace and reconciliatory messages are/should be spoken in the local languages. Let me put forward Nelson Mandela’s quote here, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ Given that the greater roles of other languages are important, however, on the other hand, the difference in languages create regional power imbalance which causes regional conflict and struggle for national language recognition. Although other languages in the country do not have any legal status, their roles and supports of the languages have been significant in strengthening peace.


English played major roles in shaping South Sudan in the last few years. The economy of the country greatly improved because investors from most parts of the world brought up their business in the country since there was a language which unified them. Government, churches, United Nation Agencies and Non-governmental bodies had the common language “English” to work on documents for correspondence and to create bilateral relationship across the country. Moreover, education sectors used English directly as the medium of instruction in teaching learning practice to impart knowledge and skills on any subject which immediately opened opportunities for graduates from English speaking institutions for good jobs. Other individual English users also found it easy to apply for jobs, create friendship with different people  from all over the world as their language gave them prestigious title of literate, intelligent and scientist. However, although a few people viewed English in a negative way in terms of its role on socialization aspect and unemployment, these would be people who, when they are motivated and given time to learn, would change to become English speakers. Good enough, they are sending their children or dependents to English schools. Which means they are not completely against English but found challenges in learning the language. Every English-speaking person feels the sense of pride when they joined a large community of English users. And finally, English in South Sudan has come to develop, stay, and take the country towards millennium goal of unity in diversity.


Abdel Rahim, H. M. 2012. ‘Foreign Language Teaching in Sudanese Universities: Goals, Attitudes, and Reality. Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics, Vol. 2 No. 1, July 2012, pp 131-136

Brutt_Griffler, J. 2002. ‘The becoming of a world language’. Chapter 6 of Brutt-Griffler, J. World English: A Study of Its Development. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, pp. 107-125.

Jok Madut, J. 2011. ‘Diversity, Unity, and Nation Building in South Sudan’. Special Report: United States, Institute of Peace, 2301 Constitutional Ave., NW Washington, DC 20037. Pp. 2-6.

Lewis, M.P. (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com/country/SS

*julliusJulius Onen Okot Daniel is from South Sudan. He has received a scholarship to study MA in ELT in the University of Warwick provided by Windle Trust International. He has completed Diploma course in education in 2002, attended CELTA course in Juba, South Sudan in 2012 and completed Bachelor course in Education in 2015. A teacher by profession, Mr. Daniel has been in the career for 10 years. He has taught in secondary school and has been conducting English language training for primary school teachers, head teachers and lawyers of Arabic language background. 



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