Code-switching is a phenomenon present in many African countries today due to their colonial legacy. However, Ethiopia was never colonialized by the British however, English plays a large role and it is the most widely spoken foreign language in the country.  Moreover, with the development of a globalized world young urban Ethiopians speak more English in their daily lives than the previous generation. This is especially more evident in the capital Addis Ababa. This brings us to the task at hand of finding how a young man from Addis code-switches from Amharic to English in the documentary “Behailu Wase: Ethiopia´s Café Society”. The director and creator Behailu Wase takes us on a journey to the first Ethiopian political satire show called “ምን ልታዘዝ? Min Litazes?”, How can I serve you? The show deals with political issues could not be openly discussed during the 27 years of dictatorship before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The newly gained freedom of speech makes it possible for Behailu and his team to write, produce, shoot, edit and deliver a new episode for broadcast every week. Each Monday, the team brainstorms current political topics and ideas By Wednesday they go to the studio in order to shoot the episode. Thursdays and Fridays are reserved for editing. Saturday Behailu takes the episode to Fana, Ethiopia’s state-funded television network. Sundays he spends with his family.                   In order to analyze his speech, the Markedness Model by Myers-Scotten can be applied as it shows how actors are active in choosing their linguistic variation. This theory pertains that code switching enables its user with the possibility to choose elements from two languages and integrate them in order to achieve socially driven objectives (Habyarimana, Ntakirutimana and Barnes 2019, 53). These choices are dynamic, modifiable and dependent on different variables that the speaker is aware of and may find valuable. Behailu implies two tactics to code switch: namely inter-sentential switching meaning switch from one language to another occurs outside the sentence and intra-sentential switching, where change takes place within a sentence or a clause.  In his case he uses Amharic as the matrix language, lays out the basis for the communication, whilst English is used as an additional language.          

            His choice to code switch can be seen in his professional life: here, he switches when he is talking about his profession with regards to movie directing, producing and editing. He also employs it when he is in a professional setting or meetings with his friends with whom he works.

The following sentences and clips from the documentary show several examples (for the purpose of this blog the words he utters in English are written in italic and underlined, while the rest is spoken in Amharic).

  • It is a satire sitcom based on what happens there
  • This is my studio where I shoot Min Litazez
  • Now I have started on the main part of the script. Each week´s episode will air on Sunday.
  • Where is the script?
  • This is a crazy scene. This is a scene of war
  • I work on the art part of Min Litazes and he handles the hustle
  • Right now, there are more sitcoms that are political satires. Because we touched the untouchable and said the unsaid
  • Most of the TV viewers are local. And our internet viewers are the diaspora community.

Another reason for his code-switching can be seen when he emphasizes the importance of a specific word as seen in the following sentences and clips:

  • I work in television drama show called “Min Litazez” which raises political and social issues.
  • I love exchanging ideas with my brilliant friends.
  • Basically, we´ re not just trying to make people laugh but to raise awareness because we want to create a better country.
  • I hope, we will go on to do a lot more work here.
  • We criticize everything we think should be criticized
  • I enjoy the work
  • The shoot day is tight because on Saturday we have to deliver to the broadcaster, Fana

Another important reason why he code-switches using entire sentences in English is when speaking about the political situation. This is done in order to inform the English-speaking audience of Aljazeera about the situation in the country. Instead of relying on subtitles, it appears that he wants to address the viewers directly in their mother tongue, strengthening the message he intends to bring across.

  • So, in the beginning there was, “Take this out”, “Do this” from the script. We refuse. So, there was one month /two-month gaps due to disagreement but we continue.
  • For the last 40 years this country has been in dictatorship, so there were some things that you must not say on TV.
  • The Ethiopia he wants we all want that Ethiopia. We all love the country that he is trying to give us
  • We do not have a road map from where he is taking us. So, I have my doubts about the change
  • The agreement we had with FANA is like a marriage. It has its own ups and downs.

What is also very important to remark is throughout the documentary Amharic only has been used in either private settings with his colleagues, friends and family. Other situations that involved public institutions such as the school or the state funded FANA also excluded code- switching. This shows the dominant position and importance Amharic has in formal institutions.


Behailu Wase: Ethiopia´s Café Society” is a wonderful documentary that shows not only what Bahailu is doing for his community, but also how he is navigating through English and Amharic. He shows his expertise in the world of filmmaking in a globalized world by applying specific terminology for his profession. He shows through his language and code-switching the choices he makes to form his identity, which is of an educated and young Ethiopian from Addis Ababa. In his private time, he mostly speaks Amharic as he does not have the need to code-switch due to the fact that there is no socially driven gain that could come from it.


Al Jazeera English, “Behailu Wase: Ethiopia’s Cafe Society | My Ethiopia,” YouTube video, 11.09.2019,

Habyarimana, H., Ntakirutimana, E., & Barnes, L. 2017. “A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Code-Switching in Rwanda.” Language Matters, 48, no. 3 (February): 49-72.