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.
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.
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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