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25.01.2005 Feature Article

More on a national language

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After following the ongoing pros and cons of a national language and reading some of the contributions, both interesting and reactionary, I have also decided to enter the arena to bring in my ideas before other elements (who do not seem to have a clue about the real issues at stake) begin all over to poison the wells.

If there is a strong argument in favour of a national language, it is given by reading some of the contributions presented in bad English, which go to show that we as a nation do really have a language problem. Despite the glowing pleas for keeping English, the sad fact is that Ghana's population in its majority still does not command English. This can be tested on our streets and in our newspapers everyday. Fact is that very few Ghanaians do really master English, including the educated ones. And this, after more than 150 years of unbroken British influence. Listen to people speak in Ghana and you will realize how very few of us really do have a command of any language. And I ask: what is so nice about expressing good ideas in bad grammar?

What has become apparent in the discussion to date is the fact that those who oppose the introduction of a national language do it with arguments that are simply absurd or dishonest: too difficult to do, national unity is at stake, Twi is not modern or scientific, etc, etc., they claim. But do you think the other languages that we uphold just fell from the Heavens and became modern? No, it demands a determination and a capacity to move in a certain way. With such defeatist arguments Hebrew, Afrikaans, Albanian, Icelandish and a few more languages would never have seen the light of day. It may sound as if Ghana could aim at something outrageous by introducing a national language but it is not. Though most Asian countries too were colonised, they were not foolish enough to abandon their own tongues. The only people who fell back on colonial languages are those of us in Africa. And curiously, we are the most underdeveloped. Is there really no correlation? There are not a few among the very Europeans who brought us their languages who wonder at the anomaly still reigning in Africa, because it would be unthinkable in Europe. Even the poorest or smallest nations among them use their vernaculars for everything. Because development has never been something exclusive for those who speak English, French or whatever. The so-called Asian Tigers have shown that it is possible without it. Go to Thailand, Korea, Vietnam and look at what is happening there. In the case of the former two, they even write differently. And yet investors voluntarily cart their money there to invest. Are they all crazy?

If the Ghana census figures are anything to go by, Twi – the language of all Akans - is spoken by about 15 million people in Ghana, plus a few more millions in the Ivory Coast. More people speak it than Norwegian, Icelandic, Danish, Flemish, Croatian, Swedish, Czech, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Finnish, Estonian, Maltese, Georgian, Slovakian, Greek etc. which are all official languages that take precedence over English in their various countries of origin. Think about these facts.

It is no insult to our fellow non-Akan countrymen to state that the overall majority of Ghanaians speak a variation of Twi. And it is not the 44% of twenty years ago, as some of our contributors purport. Today, about 60% of our population is Akan, with another 20% of all other Ghanaians understanding Twi in some form. Many countries with a national language do not even have such a positive constellation. So where is the big problem? As somebody who believes fully in democrarc, I find nothing wrong with somebody being against such a project politically or socially but those who oppose it should do it sincerely, instead of hiding behind threadbare arguments and indirectly threatening Ghana's unity with the issue. If you are Ga, Ewe, Dagwamba etc. and unwilling to learn Twi because that will make you personally feel degraded, say so plainly and explain why you find nothing wrong with letting yourself or your offspring learn French, Spanish, German or Russian in our schools but think Twi is dangerous. Many Ghanaians radically opposed to Twi, some have even contributed to this debate right here, willingly go through the pain of learning such obscure tongues (pardon me) like Swedish, Bulgarian, Romanian or Finnish (among many) without a whimper and are even proud of it. Why? It is a colonial reflex to sing the praises of everything foreign and if you are afflicted with this type of inferiority complex, admit it and live in peace with it but don't think it is worth propagating the disease. We have met them all, the thousands of Ghanaians overseas, whose children do not even speak their own mother tongues. What is considered in various circles as chic, is in actual fact a disgrace. Language is not just a means of communication but a carrier of culture, philosophy and a distinctive way of looking at creation. Therefore, the issue at stake is not about just adopting a “native” language. It is about giving the people back their heritage, freedom and self-determination. And believe me, no matter what you may think personally, Twi gives all of us Ghanaians a more national feeling than the artificial English we so dismally speak in its absence. Just walk around any market in Ghana and you will understand what I am driving at.

Those who are against the idea are quick to point out the obvious difficulties involved in developing a national language, forgetting that development was never an easy game. Yes, adopting Twi would be costly, difficult, take a long gestation period, could divide the nation, and currently does not stand up to English. Like the defeatists that they are, opposers quickly point to the fact that Ghana is full of languages and name about fifty to show how serious the situation is. And yet, on our national radio we have Akan, Mole-Dagbani, Ewe, Ga to cover entire the nation. How come that there have been no protests till now?

A national language does not mean that no other languages are spoken in a given country. What many readers do not seem to know, most countries we consider to be single entities are in actual fact not. How many people know that in France for example, other dialects (?) are spoken in addition to French? Go to the Catalonia, the Basque region, Alsace, Brittany, Corsica and open your ears while there. How many know that Welsh, Gaelic, Manx are still spoken in Great Britain besides English? Or that the Russian Federation has more than a hundred languages? Iran is made up of Beluchis, Parthans, Uzbeks, Arabs, Asseris, Kurds and Persians. And yet they have a unifying language that gives them that Iranian identity. It works and there are many other examples. China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and a few more are all multi-ethnic countries with single or multiple national languages. What this shows is that it is feasible, if done in the proper fashion and not imposed on helpless groups. Plus, who has said that there must always be a single national language? Switzerland (bigger than Ashanti?) has got four: German, French, Italian and Rhetoroman. Where is the problem? What we need is a quiet, cool but intensive debate as to the best policy to adopt, so that nobody feels like a stranger in his own country. And believe me: a Kusasi who speaks Twi does not lose a modicum of his true self. Because that is not at all the issue at stake when communicating.

For the sake of national cohesion, I would suggest that we have two official languages at the national level: English and Twi, with every Ghanaian being taught these at school but with nobody being sent to prison for not commanding it. For encouragement, the state, however, could reward all its civil servants who command both in money terms. Within the various regions, the prevailing local languages would continue to play the role they have played till now. That could even rekindle interest in the local languages. At least for those who would rather bite their tongue than speak Twi. There is no denying the fact that Ghana would be a different country if she opted for Twi as a universal medium. We would have to change our way of doing things. For example, it would mean having parallel TV stations in English and Twi, plus regional TV in the appropriate languages to replace the current anomaly of declaring a day each for a local language, while the rest of the country sits back and sulk, while waiting for its turn to come.

A favourite argument of those opposed is the cost factor involved. The need to translate everything into Twi is offered as a deterrent. But why can't the same thing be seen instead as a job-creating project? Imagine the revolution that would take place in the print media and the job opportunities that would arise, if professionals in all fields of publishing started translating the entire world literature into Twi. If such a difficult book like the Bible could be rendered into Twi (not only), why can't Plato's Republic or Shakespeare's Macbeth? Absurd you may say, but fact is, the British Civil Servant Ward even attempted such a project at Achimota long before independence. Was he too crazy or bigoted? I for one, born in the Western Region and speaking Twi, Fanti, Nzima, Sefwi, am burning to take up the translation of Kwame Nkrumah's Consciencism and Einstein's Theory of Relativity into Twi. All those who say they are patriots should come forward and contribute, instead of sitting down, drinking tankards of beer, playing that popular game we love so much: self-belittling and looking on as others progress.

I call on Ghana's National Assembly to debate the matter passionately to find a workable and acceptable solution. Even if it takes years, this goal must be achieved. For our own sake, for our parents, for Ghana.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Yamfo Sakyim
Yamfo Sakyim, © 2005

The author has 5 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: YamfoSakyim

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