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03.08.2002 Feature Article

Do not use only English....

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...to instruct young Ghanaian school children

I hope the recent decision by Hon. Professor Christopher Ameyaw-Akumfi, the Minister of Education, on the exclusive use of English as the instructional language from primary to tertiary level in public education in Ghana is not a final one. It needs serious discussion and reconsideration.

I believe the intention of the Minister and his staff to do what they can to improve the declining quality of education in Ghana is genuine but I am afraid that they have chosen the wrong solution to a tough problem. A mother tongue has deep developmental, emotional, cultural, and political significance. Wars have been fought over the forced subjugation of a mother tongue by a “foreign” language. The events that led to eventual death of apartheid in South Africa were ignited by the decision in 1976 to force students to use Afrikaans, the predominant language of the (then) ruling white minority, as the sole instructional language in school. Ghanaians should not voluntarily surrender their cultural and historical identity without a “fight”. Moreover, I do not think the eminent Professor wants to be remembered as the one who buried our mother tongues together with our traditions and culture in favor of that of our former European colonizer.

First, let us establish clearly one fact: the ability to speak and write good English IS NOT TANTAMOUNT to GOOD EDUCATION. For years, Ghanaians and other British-colonized people have equated the ability to emulate the language and culture of the colonial empire as a sign of progress. Nowhere is this misguided concept more pervasive than in the educational system. The mere ability to speak English well, even in a parrot-like fashion, commands tremendous respect. On the other hand, a student could have the greatest aptitude for mathematics, but if her English diction is flawed, she is ridiculed and made to feel inadequate. English is a language, plain and simple. It is merely another medium of expression and human communication. The fact that English has grown to become the language of science and of most business and commercial activity in the world has given the language more leverage than it deserves based on the proportion of the world's population for whom it is the mother tongue. English is a useful language to know but its acquisition must be placed in the right perspective.

Why should English NOT be the first language of instruction for young Ghanaian children? For children, language is not merely a medium of communicating words but also for learning traditions, culture, and attitudes, and acquiring a deep sense of identity. English is not the mother tongue of any sizable group of Ghanaians living in Ghana. The English language is not a medium through which Ghanaians have interpreted our culture, traditions, and identity. Akan, Ga, Ewe, Dagbamba and Mamprusi peoples of Ghana do not learn how to respect elders, greet people, address a queen or chief, say traditional prayers, name a child, perform puberty rites, propose to a woman, perform traditional marriage, or perform a traditional funeral through the English language. At a time when we are struggling to stay afloat in a sea of cultural miscegenation, we should not simply gulp down a fate of cultural caricature in which we not really African and certainly not European. Young children need to grow up learning FIRST their mother tongue so that they can be raised with a solid foundation in the image, identity, culture and tradition of their people. Their growth into stable, interesting adults depends on this foundation.

If schools mandate the exclusive use of English from primary school onwards, parents will be forced to teach English to their children BEFORE they start school. Many parents will not be able to do this and their children will become disadvantaged. In many middle and upper class Ghanaian homes, it has become the fashion to speak English to young children from a very early age, even when both parents speak the same Ghanaian language. I speak Twi to 4-yeard old children in their homes in Ghana and they respond to me in English; English that sounds so unnatural coming from the lips of a Ghanaian child, so young. Their parents speak “written” English to them, and these children sound like little parrots regurgitating words whose nuances they cannot fathom. The endearments and sweet nothings that their parents speak to them are limited, lack any Ghanaian sentiment, and sound artificial. Even the words and expressions to use to discipline and advise such children sometimes escape the parents. Rearing children that way amounts to denial of the parents' own identities as valid models for the children. It is a sad situation but we Ghanaians are great copycats and a trend can catch on very quickly. So I get the impression that even without any fanfare, ministerial edict, or presidential order, many pre-school children are already forced by their teachers to speak only English at school and parents are encouraged to speak only English to these children at home.

What are the short-term and long-term outcomes of this shift in mother tongue? I have been involved in the higher education system of the United States for many years and I have witnessed many young Ghanaians come through for studies. First, I can say without reservation that graduates of Ghanaian institutions in the 1960's and early 1970s came to the US speaking and writing (grammatically) better English than most of their American counterparts. That did not make them communicate any better with Americans; they just sounded “different” to ordinary Americans and impressed their teachers with how much English they had studied. The Ghanaians spoke written English while most Americans (for whom English is the first language) spoke colloquial English. The situation began to take a dramatic turn with graduates from the mid-1980s through the 1990s. I began to hear and read the English of this recent generation of Ghanaians, many of them products the all-English home and educational institutions. They spoke English fluently but they spoke less correct English. English had become their vernacular and the inevitable colloquialisms of any vernacular had become embedded in their English. These children who had grown up in Ghana speaking and writing English from a young age wrote very bad English. This is not because they started learning the language at too young an age. No, it is simply because they were taught badly. They learned English as if it was their first language but it was taught to them as a second language. In the long run, these children ended up not being better educated. I am sure the learned Professor Ameyaw-Akumfi did not feel inadequate in his use of the English language by the time he was in secondary school and certainly not when he was at the university. Moreover, I am willing to submit that his sense of self-esteem, identity, and confidence come more from his traditional upbringing than from the timing of his knowledge of English.

Ghanaian teachers rightfully teach English as a second language. That is the correct framework because linguistically and culturally, these teachers use English as a second language. They can only teach English as a first language to primary school children if they (the teachers) conceptually regarded English as their first language. Their instincts have already been laid down in their formative years in their mother tongue; no amount of later language instruction will change that. To teach English as a first language, the teachers (and parents) must think, act, and ultimately live English. To be successful as teachers of arithmetic, social sciences, history, and geography to Ghanaian primary school pupils living in Ghana, these teachers and the parents must transform themselves into “Englishmen”. The young children learning in this confused environment are likely to grow with no strong cultural and moral foundation. Is that what we want our educational system to produce? What if these children were to gain English proficiency and lose their Ghanaian identity and personality in the process? Would that be considered as a successful outcome?

The products of these early English schools are not always as good as one might think. Some of the graduates of our prestigious secondary level institutions in Ghana have experienced cultural shock in America. One brilliant Ghanaian student, when asked by colleagues in America, could not provide the seven male and seven female day names in Fante (or any other Ghanaian language) even though his father is Fante. One student, not long after his arrival in the US, proudly proclaimed to his American friends that even though he grew up in Ghana, he did not speak any Ghanaian language. The Americans were disgusted with his comment even though he had expected that they would regard him as a “civilized” upper class EurAfrican. Americans and Europeans expect to meet real Ghanaians when they encounter students from Ghana, not counterfeit Europeans merely living on African soil. Top American universities are looking for bright foreign students from all over the world to enrich their campuses with their culture and unique points of view; they are not looking for American mirror images. Many of our recent graduates from schools in Ghana are simply colorless, culturally bland and often a disgrace to their Ghanaian heritage. If we want our schools to produce all-round better students, we have to improve our schools, the quality of teaching, and the level of discipline. Using English as the medium of instruction from birth will not guarantee better education in Ghana.

Children can learn and master several languages. There are many Ga children growing up in Accra who speak perfect Twi, Ewe, or Hausa in addition to Ga because they grew up in a neighborhood in Accra that gave them the opportunity to be multi-lingual. I find such children more interesting than those who speak English to me when I speak to them in their mother tongue. We should encourage every Ghanaian child to be fluent and literate in at least one Ghanaian language and possibly more. Multi-lingual people are extremely useful to humanity; a person who speaks two languages is worth two people in the right situation. Many countries, large and small, have managed to maintain their languages, modernize, and produce multi-lingual students without losing their identity. Study the Scandinavian countries: Sweden has 9 million people and their main language is Swedish; Denmark, 5.4 million people, main language, Danish; Norway, 4.4 million people, main language, Norwegian; and, Finland, 5.1 million people, main languages, Finnish AND Swedish (both official). If you have met many people from these countries you notice also that they (like many Germans) speak English. The superior educational systems in these relatively small but well-developed countries are able to accommodate all these languages, maintain their national identities without giving up in the face of English. Maybe theirs are the examples from which we should learn. Our challenge in Africa is not which European language we should adopt but which of our many languages we should develop into national languages. It is the political courage to embark on such decisions that escapes us.

Look around at our leaders and judge for yourselves the meaning of a Ghanaian upbringing. Kofi Annan carries himself and speaks with a certain dignity that is not hard for those who have observed Ghanaians to label as Ghanaian. I cannot imagine him appearing at a funeral in the Volta Region dressed in a western suit and wearing sunglasses indoors. President Kufuor acts like a Ghanaian leader and I don't need to define what that means. The contrast with others is obvious. I am concerned that all that we call Ghanaian will be gradually lost as we grow little English “parrots” from our primary schools.

The struggle to maintain one's mother tongue in the face of modernization and the shrinking of the global village is a very difficult one. The evolution of language and identity will continue for people on earth. A few hundred years from now, the world may in fact speak one language. We hope that when that day arrives, Ghanaian and African cultures will be equally represented in that language. Professor Ameyaw-Akumfi, please reconsider your decision to instruct our young school children only in English.

Kwaku Ohene-Frempong, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics, University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, USA

Kwaku Professor M.D. Ohene-Frempong
Kwaku Professor M.D. Ohene-Frempong, © 2002

The author has 4 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KwakuProfessorMDOheneFrempong

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