When languages die, cultures die and the collective identity of countless people who spoke the language throughout history is lost, their aspirations buried and what makes them unique is wiped away forever.
This is because language and culture are strongly connected such that one cannot separate them without harm. Dr Felicia Kafui Etsey is a senior lecturer at the faculty of Education University of Cape Coast. She is a strong advocate of the development and use of Ghanaian languages. She said many parents are helping their children to attempt choosing identities they can never have.
“Children choose a particular language that the family chooses. What happens is that they’re trying to copy the identity of the group of people whose language they’re speaking. So gradually you realize that our children are picking a kind of identity that they’ll never become,” she said.
In the last of a two-part series dubbed “Fading Mother Tongues”, I examine the role the country’s educational sector and the media play in the development or endangerment of Ghanaian languages. I joined a Ghanaian language class at the Bishop Amissah Junior High School Takoradi.
The rest of the class read along as the pupils took turns to read a Fante text book. Teacher Jemima Arthur guided them on – she helped the pupils to read out the difficult words and sometimes explained what they meant. Teacher Jemina, as she’s often called in school, boast of her fluency in both Fante and English languages.
“It’s not good enough to speak the English language and not know a word of your local language,” she said. The headmistress of this school who sat right by my side while I spoke with Madam Jemima after her class, whispered to me that there is a true but interesting story she wants to share with us on the subject.
Today in many Ghanaian public and privately run schools, children are forced to speak English. It’s a huge offense to speak any local language. In most instances they are punished when they speak a Ghanaian language. In some cases the type of English spoken by some of these school children is very poor in pronunciation and grammar.
A trend is emerging where some school children neither speak good English nor any useful Ghanaian language. And some language experts see this practice of punishing school children for speaking their own languages as a complete violation of the children’s human rights – their linguistic human rights.
What is happening in Ghanaian schools today took place in Wales in the United Kingdom in 1864 when the English forced Welsh people to speak only English. At that time a stick or plaque was given to any child heard speaking Welsh during school, to be handed on to whoever next spoke the language.
At the end of lessons, the child left with the Welsh Not was punished. During my brief visit to the Wales city of Cardiff last summer, I realized that many young Welsh men and women cannot speak their language. Today, the people of Wales are making efforts to encourage the use of their language in all schools there. The Ghanaian media has also been fingered as supporting the fading of many smaller indigenous languages.
For now, it seems there is a conscious effort to promote Akan over the other languages. For instance, 90% of all non-English medium programs on TV are in Akan, especially Twi. These include game shows that have people glued to their sets. The languages that are most affected are those with less than 20,000 speakers. English is the only language used by the national news agency, until recently films were produced in English.
Dr Messan Mawugbe is a media researcher and analyst. He has studied the new development. For him, the extent of mixing the English with the Akan language on radio stations deepens the threat of language loss. “It’s what I call lingua hybridity. The language is now no longer wholesome, it’s become a hybrid.
For example on the Akan radio stations there are expressions like ‘exoneration no eye via propaganda anaase sen?’ or ‘chairman megyedi se with time no yebenya proof’. What language is this? It’s neighter English no Twi. But media is supposed to decimate information to absolute and comprehensive recipients.”
In the post colonial era, the government sought to lessen the pressure English put on the indigenous languages by selecting six regional languages to be used on radio and television. These languages of the media are Akan, Ewe, Ga, Dagbani, Nzema, and Hausa. The six languages promoted in the news media included the three geographically dominant Akan, Ewe and Hausa. Incidentally, Hausa is not indigenous to Ghana.
This aside, nobody can be certain what criteria were used for the selection of these languages. Regardless of the circumstances, these media languages became quite prestigious, after English. Now there are attempts to strengthen and encourage the use of local languages in Ghanaian schools. Dr Felicia Kafui Etsey of the Cape Coast University Faculty of Education believes the program is a good initiative which can save the country’s endangered languages.
The programme dubbed NALAB is a collaboration between the US government and the Ghana government. “This is the beginning of what other people are doing to help us to learn our first languages first,” she said. The Bureau of Languages established in 1951 to be the focal point in the writing and development and promotion of 11 selected Ghanaian languages.
The Bureau has been responsible for text book production for schools in the country. It is also in charge of translation of official government documents into Ghanaian Languages for those who are literates. In performing these functions, the Ghana Bureau of Languages set up languages committees to influence official as well as individual attitudes regarding the protection and promotion of local Languages. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints the BGL for over a decade now has not been able to perform its functions effectively as expected and the skeletal specialized staffs are underutilized.