Why your local language may soon be in the grave



Recently, I attended the wedding of a senior high schoolmate. Courtesy of a school tradition that had no consideration of one’s likes and dislikes, we named him ‘Okorto Red’ which literally means ‘red crab’. John hated his nickname but soon acquiesced, realizing that school nicknames follow the good old scientific rule – ‘like poles repel and unlike poles attract’ – the more you fight them, the more they stick.

After the wedding, drenched in catholic tradition, came to an end, we headed to the reception located on the compound of a school within the church to fraternise and catch up with tales of our lives, almost 20 years after school.  Some whispered to me how they were itching to hear how Okorto, one of the shiest people in school, finally found his lost rib. Of course, there was the couple’s dance too—Okorto has two left feet.

On our way to the reception, a bold inscription— ‘No vernacular’— screamed at me. I smiled.  A veteran of both public and private basic schools in my formative years, it was a familiar caveat.

At the reception, Okorto’s infamous dance moves lived up to expectation. It was as bad as anticipated. We raked memories of the past, and we had a good laugh over Okorto’s story about how he met his wife. In all, my friend’s wedding was a memorable reunion.

On my way to work two weeks ago, Okorto’s wedding and the ‘no vernacular’ sign with its consequences swamped my thoughts. Courtesy of slow traffic, a drama involving a group of junior high students unfurled before my eyes.

“Why are you speaking vernacular?” a male student, who looked like he had been spending too much time in a gym, asked a junior authoritatively.

The question was followed by a knock on the vernacular-speaking junior’s head.

“But why? Are we in school?” he shot back.

This response attracted a flurry of more knocks on the head.

“Are you not in a school uniform?” the school bully asked more enraged.

The much younger culprit wouldn’t take it. The altercation escalated into a full brawl with the victim of the assault going for the jaws of his abuser with a feeble punch.

At this point, I had to stop the melee before one of them ended up in the open drain. I found out the ‘machoman’ was a class prefect and thought it was within his responsibility to enforce the school’s anti-vernacular rule by the roadside.

The victim of those hard knocks was a JHS 1 student.

By the time I completed the mediation, the class prefect understood that the school’s rules said ‘no vernacular here’ which applied ostensibly only in school and not when in school uniform.

“As I advised him to protect his juniors and not assault them even if they broke school rules, I reflected on the politics of language in our society. Why do we claim paternity of the English language while making orphans of our mother tongues?”

Lost identity, lost heritage

In Ghana, most (to my estimation) parents take more pride in their children’s fluency in English than in vernacular. In fact, all private primary school administrations in Ghana ensure that pupils speak only English while on the school premises.

So, at home, school, and everywhere language is needed, English is widely spoken.

I’m equally guilty.

What makes this issue particularly disturbing is that the English we speak is what the Ama Ata Aidoo Centre for Creative Writing at AUCC term as ‘Ghanglish’, a bastardized version of the real thing. ‘Ghanglish’ is where the phonology, grammar, semantics, syntax, elocutions, and pragmatics employed are more akin to those of our indigenous languages than that of English. So why are we stressing our children?

According to experts, the use of native African languages is declining, particularly among middle- to upper-class African millennials and Generation Z. This means the next generation of African leaders, including our politicians and academics, will speak English as their first, and possibly only, language.

Alas, this becomes another one of our self-inflicted factors, in addition to a haunting colonial past, migration, globalization, urbanization and a counter-intuitive educational system responsible for Africa’s identity crisis.

In a BBC report titled ‘Africa’s lost language: How English can fuel an identity crisis’ the author spoke to a number of millennials whose parents forced them to speak English.

“To learn English, I immersed myself with white kids. I didn’t want to associate myself with the black kids any more. It was really difficult,” a South African teenager recalled.

She said she’s unable to hold a conversation without turning to English words – an experience she described as being “colonised by English”.

According to the story, the 17-year-old’s fluency had come with the realization of how, not only being able to speak English, but speaking it in a certain way, could open or close doors in South Africa.

In the case of her Nigerian counterpart, when she was growing up in Lagos, English was the only language she was allowed to speak. Her Igbo parents took her English language skills rather seriously, and as a young girl, she was made to attend an etiquette class where diction was a key component of the lessons.

Fortunately, these two are now focusing on correcting what they described as the errors of their past.

Which Ghanaian languages are in trouble?

In a research paper titled Some Endangered Languages of Ghana’, Jonas and Rebecca Akpanglo-Nartey found that Ghanaian languages are currently under threat as grandparents speak only local languages, parents speak both the native language and the language of assimilation (in our case English), and their children become monolingual in the assimilated language. This means, in certain cases, your parents, who live in the same country as you, cannot communicate with your children.

Are we getting to a point where grandparents can’t converse with their grandchildren?      Credit: Getty Images

Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, described the situation as a linguistic famine in African societies, which he observed was the result of prizing foreign languages over native languages.

True, it hasn’t been all rosy among the native speakers of the various ethnic languages. The inability of some natives to speak other ethnic languages has created social and economic barriers. This has contributed to the dominance of certain languages at the expense of others that are threatened with extinction.

For instance, Ghana is a multilingual country with over 80 ethnic languages, a reflection of the rich cultural diversity of its people, some will say. However, this number of languages can be a curse rather than a blessing. Language barriers can be a source of tension and unwarranted conflicts. There have been several situations where people have complained about the treatment meted out to them due to their inability to speak a particular local language.

In 2021, I was returning from a funeral in Aflao in the Volta Region when the public vehicle I rode in got stopped at an immigration barrier a few kilometres after Agbozume. I had no identification card on me and so I explained to the officer my mission and volunteered the information that I was actually from the Volta Region.  Oddly enough, a fellow passenger, in a bid to ascertain my ‘Ghanaianness’, suggested I speak Twi, not my ethnic Ewe, to validate my claim.

That incident confirmed Akpanglo-Nartey’s research mentioned above. She discovered that Ahanta and Nzema are both losing grounds to Fante. Larteh and Kyerepong seem to be losing grounds to Twi. Ga and Dangme are both losing to Twi, while the Togo-Mountain languages, namely Avatime, Logba, Santrokofi, Siwu and others, face threats from Ewe and Twi, which are widely spoken.

The conflicts and tensions language barrier creates feed into the beliefs of those who are happy to dispatch our local languages to the graveyard of dead languages. These critics argue that there is virtually no evidence backing the idea that a country can create and sustain economic growth while at the same time maintaining the same level of language diversity currently prevailing in most African countries.

This assertion of opponents of linguistic diversity however cannot be true because some of the world’s most advanced countries, including China and Australia are equally diverse in languages with more than 200 tongues.  Even highly industrialized Singapore (which played in the league of underdeveloped countries in the early 1950s) speaks at least four languages.

 Saving the fallen

Though the state has failed at its primary responsibility to promote the use of our local languages, it is good to know that others are concerned and working on it.

While the language roots are still intact, more or less, institutions like the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT) are doing their bit to ensure that they thrive. Thanks to them, you can now read the bible in 37 local Ghanaian languages.

That is not all.

GILLBT has also employed volunteers in various communities and equipped them with the necessary resources to train and educate indigenes on how to read and write their local languages.

Ghana introduced a bilingual policy dubbed the ‘National Literacy Acceleration Programme’ which specifies that the most common local language in a school’s community must be used for academic instruction from kindergarten to primary 3.

As part of its implementation, eleven local languages, namely Akuapem Twi, Asante Twi, Fante, Ga, Nzema, Ewe, Kasem, Dagaare, Dagbani, Gonja, and Dangbe are to be used as a medium of instruction. This was after research revealed that only 18% of pupils in lower primary could read and write in their local language.  Although Ghana’s language policy makes a case for the use of our mother tongue as a medium of instruction in our schools from kindergarten to lower primary, even the public schools have not given it a thought. As for the private ones such an idea is unthinkable.

In most public schools in Ghana, speaking a local language comes with a cost

The elite in society, as well as government, must pay more attention not to promote the use of foreign languages at the expense of indigenous languages. This is not wrong per se, but it is important that as we pride ourselves in our ability to rattle a foreign language, we do not forget our roots.

We have borrowed enough; there are signs on the walls pointing towards Ngugi’s ‘linguistic famine’ if we don’t act now. Our elders urge: “A wise person must know the language, sayings, and tales of his society.”

Do you know yours?


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  1. For the few weeks that I have been in Tamale, I have realized most of them interact for long without the use of an English word, I went to two different mosques and all the imams delivered their sermons in Dagbanli for so many minutes with pronouncing a word in English.
    I couldn’t hide my excitement because I have been one person that has complained bitterly about the extinction of our local languages, especially in my area Wa, where most of our local programs end up as English shows because most panelists can not express themselves well in the local languages, the municipal education office is also struggling with the low number of Waale and Dagaare teachers in the municipality.
    Stakeholders have not shown much interest in this regard and most times it’s almost like a criminal office to speak your native language in school, while parents also pride themselves in public when they see their children perform well in English language.
    We have to sit up and change a lot of things in our homes and schools.

  2. Can you tell me which article in the constitution mentions the word “Asantehene” and where it says that because Asantehene is leading Paramount chiefs in the Asanteman union, he attains the title of a king? Do you think the word “king” is a Twi word that you can create your own meaning for it?
    #Only the “educated illiterate” thinks that there is a king in a country whose official name is the Republic of Ghana. Asantehene is a chief, according to Section 58 of the Chieftaincy Act, 2008 (Act 759). Section 76 defines Asantehene as used in the act. There is no such word as king, or Kingdom, or Ashanti kingdom in our laws. Read so you can educate factually. ?
    It’s because the arrangement in the Asanteman union has to be reflected in the Chieftaincy Act, and the way it has been captured makes some people erroneously think Asantehene has been separated from Paramount chiefs and that Asantehene outranks any Paramount chief in the country. The fact is that such an arrangement affects only the paramount chiefs in Ashanti Region. It has no bearing or effect on the ODIKRO of a cottage in the Central Region. Apart from Kumasihene, who doubles as the Asantehene in their union, no other paramount chief in Ashanti Region qualifies to become president of the Ashanti regional house of chiefs. And apart from Mamponghene, who is the permanent deputy Asantehene, no other paramount chief in the Ashanti region is allowed to hold the position of vice president in the Ashanti regional house. Only Mamponghene can step in and act as Ashanti regional house president for Asantehene in some situations. So, it is only proper that the chieftaincy act, which guides the activities of the house of chiefs, clarifies the roles of the Asantehene to avoid confusion and competition for the said positions in the region. However, in the other regions, every Paramount chief qualifies to contest for the position of regional house president in their respective regions.This even makes Dormaahene higher than Offinsohene at the regional house of chiefs level because Offinsohene can never become president or vice president of a regional house of chiefs, but Dormaahene is the current president of the Bono Regional House of Chiefs.This is what happens when you sell your glory to Kumasihene.
    The Asantehene is the most powerful of all the Asante chiefs. But he has no authority over Odikto in Ayigbe Krom.


    Asantehene is not mentioned in any list of Kings. Why? ??? https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_current_monarchs_of_sovereign_states





    #No king in Ghana. There are only three kingdoms in Africa today: Lesotho, Morocco, and Eswatini.Otumfour’s traditional jurisdiction is Kumasi Traditional Council alone. Asanteman is just a union like the African Union. President Azali of Comoros is the AU chairman. Is he bigger than the South African president? #Otumfour is just the Asanteman union leader. He doesn’t control or rule Mampong. Mampong is for Mamponghene. #Therefore, Otumfour is not a king. He is a chief (according to Section 58 of the Chieftaincy Act 2008). There is no word like “king” in our laws. So, Otumfour is a Paramount Chief.?
    #Ashanti Region has only 30 traditional councils, including KUMASI TRADITIONAL COUNCIL, whose president is Asantehene, and Mampong Traditional Council for Mamponghene, but they say they have 65 paramount chiefs, meaning 35 of them have no traditional councils to man or are actually sub-chiefs. They are just hyping them, like when they say Otumfour is a king when he is actually a chief.?
    Asantehene is a chief, so he became president of the National House of Chiefs, like Dormaahene and Togbe Afede.
    Presently, Otumfour Osei Tutu II is the president of the Ashanti Regional House of Chiefs, and Mamponghene is the vice president.
    The Pope is king in Vatican City, unlike Otumfour, who is the paramount chief of Kumasi (Kumasehene).
    When Kumasehene becomes the occupant of the Golden Stool of Ashanti, we call him Asantehene. But this doesn’t mean he has been elevated to the title of king.
    #Asantehene is not mentioned in any list of Kings. Why? ??? https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_current_monarchs_of_sovereign_states





    #Otumfour is like a school prefect who is trying to mingle with headmasters. ?Asantehene is not a king.
    If the headmaster has invited the school prefect to an event, it doesn’t mean the school prefect has been elevated to the status of a teacher. He is still a student. Similar to Asantehene, Asantehene is still a chief in Ghana. ??King Charles is his friend, so he is going as a friend.He will return to Ghana and still be the president of the Kumasi Traditional Council. There is no king in the Republic of Ghana.
    Read the Chieftaincy Act, 2008 (Act 759). Mamponghene is mentioned as the vice president of the Ashanti Regional House of Chiefs.
    #You don’t care as an ordinary Asanteni, but the Paramount Chiefs, who formed the Asanteman Union, cared to the extent that they ensured that their agreement to make the Kumasihene and Mamponghene permanent leaders of the union was put in the Chieftaincy Act to make Asantehene (Kumasihene) the permanent president of the Ashanti Regional House of Chiefs and Mamponghene the permanent vice president. This gives them legal backing to run their Asanteman union through the Ashanti regional house of chiefs. They cannot do anything without conforming to the laws of Ghana. Remember that the president of the Republic of Ghana is the one who appoints the KMA boss and Ashanti regional ministers.

  3. I keep saying that we claim we are decentralized but even when we attempt to include our major local languages when running ads etc to even capture audiences from the North we replace the numerous languages with Hausa which is originally from Nigeria cutting out 1000s of Ghanaians, it’s not rocket science to know that Hausa indigenes are found everywhere in in the Zongos due to trade and wide travel but how does two Zongos in Northern region with dominant Hausa speakers which some are even Dagombas represent the entire region so much that ads for national development are run in Hausa and played on Tv and radio for the entire Northern Ghana to understand?? Sooo unfair!

  4. There are two reasons why many Ghanaian (and probably other ex-colonial Africa’s) languages except what most erroneously call Twi are accelerating into extinction.

    1. When colonialism arrived on the shores of what is now Ghana, the so-called Twi language has been already absorbed completely by a more advanced AKAN language. Yes, the Twi language was the first to be assimilated by the Akan language (whose origin I dare not say) – and that is why for every so-called Twi word, there exists another with almost the same meaning, ie. the remnants of the Twi language is sitting under the AKAN!

    2. One’s opinion is that Ghana had almost attained a developed language status with a common language (ie. Akan) with it’s own cpmplex contracts and denotions – and it appears to me that the entire population used the Akan,

    The Akan could be upgraded by infusing it with science and engineering vocabulary towards the creation of an ADVANCED AND UNIFIED NATION. Ones personal opinion was that colonialism, a process by nations which have crossed this path was well aware of that advantage for the locals (and disadvantageous for European colonialists).

    Therefore the decision by colonialists to define the Akan as a people and then lump all the nationalities which had adopted the Akan for the purposes of common Social, Commercial/Trade and Judicial (or contract management) services using a common language looked devious – please note that a Scotsman is not defined as an Englishman even though they both use English as the framework for existence.

    Summary –

    1. The Akan language arrived several hundred years before the English language and had been used to run the contractual relationships of at least 3 empires before the British (and English) arrived. It’s wiped out the Twi langauge and a few others which existed at the centre of the empires.

    2. Unless Ghana accepts the reality on the ground and adopts the Akan language as it’s default common language of the Nation, it’s spread throughout Ghana/Ivory Coast and most probably much of West Africa could wipe out many smaller languages. This is the only way to give legitimacy to allocating state resources to protect all the languages in Ghana and the sub region.

    (Contributed by Samuel Ofori-Sey)

    PS: All the developed nation’s of the world crossed this exact path and used this one single formula to protect their minority languages,

  5. The fear of the Akan language is a threat to the advancement of the nation – and that decisive trigger from colonialism is the reason why we haven’t protected any language in the Country – protecting the Akan language, elevating it to the default state language (can co-exist with the English in that capacity as with a few other countries) and recognising it’s potential as the unifier common language of commerce etc. (in that capacity until colonialism) to bind the people remains the only logical path to create a One-Nation society where all languages are protected by law.

    Ignore the Akan (different from Twi) language on the basis that it is the same as the Twi language is rather dangerous view of the world which leaves all the languages in the land prey to foreign invasion because of their superior financial and institutional advantages today..

    And good luck.


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