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02.01.2005 Feature Article

Continuing the language dialogue

Continuing the language dialogue

Anyone who has a shred of doubt that a foreign language is not a powerful tool for alienation of a person from his surroundings must be reminded of some facts on the ground. The way for Africa to throw off its colonial burden is to begin to realize that all such alienating influences ought to be done away with. There is not a more powerful medium than language for framing the psychological setup of a progressive society, and the reader may refer the excellent arguments of Fanon, Ngugi and other on this.

Below I outline some pragmatic steps towards defining a sensible language policy. The primary aim of any such policy is to allow for good communication of complex ideas in either the nationalized colonial language or the indigenous language after a finite length of the schooling process.

In particular, as mentioned by Edward Benni, we should frame our opinion of our diversity in a positive light: it is a good thing to have many languages. That groups which live no more than a few kilometers from each other can develop many rich and varied forms of communication, hints at the incredible levels of resourcefulness and innovation inherent in our societies.

What we have so far failed to do is to harness the power of this diversity. Our reasons for not trying to realize our collective abilities are varied and well-documented, albeit couched in reactionary terms against the agents of colonization. The time is ripe for now turning our attention to harnessing the power of our diversity and taming the challenges that consequently arise.

The diversity advantage: languages The fact that language concepts are grounded in the physical environment makes for a good starting point for rallying the advantages. Most Ghanaian languages are based strongly on natural imagery, hence the abundance of proverbs in communication. Therefore, an immediate advantage in our diversity is the many ways in which the same idea can be communicated. This means that new concepts can be transplanted from one place to another simply by invoking parallel imagery, rather than trying to literally translate. In our West African example of Ghana, this is a rather easy thing to do given our rather similar cultural expressions. However, we cannot complete such a task immediately. We need to boldly proceed nonetheless, if even by trial and error, towards the attainment of the full potential of our diversity.

Indeed, I agree with Mr Kwaku Prempeh's opinion to the extent that we will play second fiddle for a long time to the most progressive nations if we neglect to employ our own languages in our education and development. However, rather than fear an Akan hegemony, the Akan example may be reproduced and improved by all the language groups in Ghana, and beyond. Positive developments in this direction include most notably the diversification of hiplife lyrics to most other Ghanaian languages. Akans should not hesitate to lead the way because they fear recriminations from other language groups. This is a short-sighted strategy for Ghana as a whole. It is like saying that Gas should not celebrate Homowo because they will offend the non-Ga population of Accra, when the presence of the non-Ga population serves to promote understanding between peoples and cultural cross-fertilization.

Moving on

In the short term, the most pragmatic thing to do is to work with what we have. Firstly, we must standardize the written expression of the various languages, and secondly modernize their vocabulary. Though this is a tedious proposition, fraught with many obstacles, we now have the means to make it as painless as possible—modern information technology.

The standardization process of the Ghanaian languages is underway. First was the release of Akan fonts by two engineers at Nokia in early 2004. Several months later, the same group released specially made keyboards for use with the various Ghanaian languages . And then another individual released software to enable better ease of use of technology with Ghanaian languages . This software maps certain keys of regular keyboards to the special characters needed for writing several Ghanaian languages. This is an improvement over the font system by the Nokia group since you can now use any font at all and still be able to use the special characters required in transcribing Ghanaian languages.

Work is also underway by another group to provide a comparative dictionary of Ghanaian languages . The idea behind the dictionary is to provide an increasingly accessible reference for written Ghanaian language forms that can be continually revised with the widest possible participation. This is important since our cultures are primarily oral so that any attempt to standardize a written form will founder and become irrelevant if it does not allow for a natural evolution of this written form. Thus the statement by Mr Edward Benni that our languages are rudimentary can only remain true if we see the introduction of new non-local influences as being pro-foreign.

It is important to note that all these developments are being pushed by private individuals and not official government agencies. The Bureau of Ghana Languages has always done a fine job of working to promote the use of Ghanaian languages. However, fiscal constraints as well as unsupportive government policies have very much reduced their clout. It is a good thing Reggie Rockstone did not wait for a standard Twi lexicography before penning his pioneering hiplife lyrics. Much can be done by private initiative without government intervention. Of course, government agency can propel private initiative very quickly forward, but it seems that Ghanaians are realizing that much depends on their own initiative rather than on the delegated authorities.

Therefore, by conducting public dialogue on these ideas and helping to promote these existing initiatives as well as new ones that come along, we can be the change we want to see. No one will take us seriously if we do not take ourselves seriously. You only ask for a sleeping place when you have a mat. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Paa Kwesi Imbeah
Paa Kwesi Imbeah, © 2005

This author has authored 4 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: PaaKwesiImbeah

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