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12.03.2005 Feature Article

The Language Dialog

The colonial environment and African languages A Ghanaian student participating in a 2001 study on secondary education commented: “I will only take a Ghanaian language to the final examination if I am unable to offer some other academic subject.” Asked why, he responded: “My parents will not allow that.” His father was a doctor; his mother was a businesswoman and former secondary school teacher.

Colonial education served to produce a small class of bureaucrats needed to help run the colonial administration[1]. The imposition of taxes on the general populace payable in the colonial currency made access to the colonial bureaucracy highly desirable. The ability to pay taxes and participate in the limited freedoms afforded by colonialism was among the several benefits of colonial education.

Indeed, learning potentially conferred simultaneously two rewards in many societies: a personal knowledgeability and an improvement in social status[2]. Colonial education skewed the incentives of learning significantly for the African. It shifted the focus of education away from its human development potential to its prestige function[3]. The Academic Fallacy, that “education produces a superior caste, irrespective of what knowledge it imparts and how it is applied”[4], became a view widely held by many Africans[5].

Overemphasis on the prestigious function of education created a distorted value system[6]. The colonially initiated education-as-prestige economy gained support by wider society[7]. After independence, the colonial standard was renamed the national standard[8]. In many aspects of African life the effects of this distortion were exhibited. State approved farming schemes encouraged cash crop farming over traditional food farming[9] at the expense of local food security. Farming activity itself became menial and was reserved for the largely uneducated[10]. Grandiloquence and intentional abstruseness in communication were preferred over clarity[11]. Titles and other markers of prestige became highly prized[12] and offenders against the resulting social protocol were duly punished.[13].

Subsequently, the indicators of value became increasingly external. English language fluency was mistaken for intelligence[14]. The following quote in from an educational report of the time states the most common manifestation of this trend.

The tragedy of education in Nigeria is that it is still confused in the greater majority of minds with certificates. – Chapter 25 – Nigeria: A country-by-country survey of educational development in Africa (1962)

Among other examples, government accountability to its citizenry did not matter if it enjoyed international goodwill by maintaining the colonial status quo[15]. Formal education became an avenue for gaining prestige[16] so that competition for places in higher education translated into competition for prestige.

Consequently the importance of the human development function of education was largely displaced. The case for local languages, which could most efficiently perform the human development function of education[17], became obsolete as a result of this displacement. Literacy as a human development tool was made subordinate to literacy for prestige. As this idea took root, all forms of justifications for it were made up. Chief of these justifications, which has motivated nearly all forms of language policy in sub-Saharan Africa, is communication with the international community[18]. This orientation was a derivative of the orientation towards export markets in colonial African economies[19]. The international community for each country most notably consisted of the former colonial power and other countries which spoke the same language as the respective colonial power. Human development was valuable because it was acquired in the colonial power's language and ability became only valuable to “the national development effort” if acquired in English[20]. Kumasi Magazine, the Asante king's traditional industrial complex for producing weapons, thrived manufacturing mills and engines for local use and repairing Benz engines, whilst the University of Science and Technology sat a few kilometers away studiously ignoring it and trying to reinvent the wheel[21]. Indeed, civilizing knowledge could only be gained by the thorough study of English, French or German[22]. Consequently, educational qualification in an African language became less valuable than qualification in the colonial language[23] because of the influence imperial countries exerted over Africa as a result of their science-supported civilizations.

It is important to note that the role of African languages in education had not always been marginal. Missionary activity in many parts of Africa long encouraged its use—despite general opposition by the colonial administration—if even primarily for religious literary purposes[24]. Faced with the threat of Asante annexation, the Fante Confederation[25] (formed, 1871) made a constitutional provision for national schools as an extension of the Wesleyan missionary effort in formal education. The schools were established for “the express purpose of educating and instructing the scholars as carpenters, masons, sawyers, joiners, smiths, architects, builders, etc[26]”. School instruction was carried out in Fante.

In addition, Africans themselves lived somewhere along the spectrum of totally subscribing to the demands of this prestige economy or totally rebelling against it. At the extreme ends of this spectrum the “neo-imperialists” and the “neo-colonized” preferred Western material goods and systems[27], while the “pan-Africanists” railed against the hegemony of Westernization[28].

The advent of colonialism gradually eroded the place of African languages in African economies by granting the highest prestige value to school education in colonial languages. Even missionary educational activity, traditionally affirming of African languages, was brought in line with the policy objectives of the colonial administration[29], namely to produce a bureaucratic class, proficient in the colonial language and capable of serving the colonial administration as lower-level assistants.

The decline of political colonialism further entrenched the valuation of colonial languages above African languages. The colonial powers handed over the reins of power to their Western-educated protégés instead of the pre-colonial traditional elites in all of newly independent Africa. This meant the perpetuation of the colonial language policy of using no African languages at the highest levels of government. This measure sufficiently excluded the traditional elite, and by extension the wider population from whom they derived their legitimacy, from participation in the powers and privileges of the newly minted African states. Torn between holding on to power and divesting power in order to encourage mass participation in government for rapid national development, African state rulers descended into what Prah describes as a “mood of indecision and the rudderlessness of language-policy pursuits by the relevant authorities in Africa[30].”

What remained was the distinct advantage of ex-colonial languages over African languages in many areas of the African economy. With nearly all of these new states still heavily dependent on economic aid from their ex-colonial rulers a similar situation to the colonial environment existed. Those who, by gaining proficiency in the ex-colonial language, were able to transact business with the ex-colonial economy and its agencies stood to gain substantial material benefits and more opportunity. The prestige that such material benefits inherently possessed or could acquire consequently lent credence to the case against local languages.

In light of this it became locally rational to make statements like that of the Ghanaian student anonymously quoted at the beginning. Gradually, it became common wisdom to acknowledge that African language training offered no distinct advantage in post-colonial African society that could not be outclassed by ex-colonial language training.

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[1] Huxley, “The Education of the African”, Africa View(1968/1931), p314:27; Mosha, “A reflection on indigenous education and on African europocentric education”, The Heartbeat of Indigenous Africa: A Study of the Chagga Educational System(2000), p180:14ff

[2] Huxley, “The Education of the African”, Africa View(1968/1931), p315:20

[3] Huxley, “The Education of the African”, Africa View(1968/1931), p316:14ff; Stambach, “Schooling, Inheritance and Banana Groves”, Lessons from Mount Kilimanjaro(2000), p40:21

[4] Huxley, “The Education of the African”, Africa View(1968/1931), p320:31 – 321:1

[5] Kayira, “I go to school”, I will try(1965), p27:2; Mosha, “A reflection on indigenous education and on African europocentric education”, The Heartbeat of Indigenous Africa: A Study of the Chagga Educational System(2000), p181:5ff

[6] Mosha, “A reflection on indigenous education and on African europocentric education”, The Heartbeat of Indigenous Africa: A Study of the Chagga Educational System(2000), p181:22ff

[7] In the words of the Nigerian Governor, Sir Hugh Clifford right after World War I of the Nigerian colony: The position then is that there is throughout the southern provinces an abundance of schools but very little genuine education; that the children themselves are curiously eager to attend school, but are much less willing to remain there long enough to acquire any real knowledge; and that too many of them, no matter how imperfectly educated they may be, thereafter regard themselves as superior to agricultural pursuits and prefer to pick up a precarious and demoralizing living by writing more or less unintelligible letters for persons whose ignorance is even deeper than their own.

[8] Stambach, “Schooling, Inheritance and Banana Groves”, Lessons from Mount Kilimanjaro(2000), p43:20

[9] Nyerere, “Education for Self-reliance,” Freedom and Socialism (1968), p283:20

[10] Stambach, “Schooling, Inheritance and Banana Groves”, Lessons from Mount Kilimanjaro(2000), p42:32

[11] Soyinka, “Apataganga,” Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years(1994), p98-105

[12] Ruth Sloan Associates/Kitchen, ed., Bunting, “Nigeria”, The Educated African: A country-by-country survey of educational development in Africa, p370:9

[13] Soyinka, “Apataganga,” Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years(1994), p98-105; Kayira, “I go to school”, I will try(1965), p36:17

[14] Soyinka, “Apataganga,” Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years(1994), p103:9

[15] Ngugi, “Education for a National Culture”, Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to repression in neo-colonial Kenya(1983), p96:1

[16] Nyerere, “Education for Self-reliance,” Freedom and Socialism (1968), p276:25

[17] UNESCO, The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education(1953)

[18] Ochieng, “Ngugi's duty to teach us good English”, Daily Nation on the web(December 30, 2001): http://www.nationaudio.com/News/DailyNation/30122001/Comment/Comment9.html ; Advisory Panel on Language Policy, Chapter 4, article 5, Final Draft: Language Policy and Plan for South Africa(200): http://www.dac.gov.za/about_us/cd_nat_language/language_policy/Language Po licy and Plan for South Africa.htm

[19] Stambach, “Schooling, Inheritance and Banana Groves”, Lessons from Mount Kilimanjaro(2000), p159:5

[20] Nsibambi, “Language Policy in Uganda: An Investigation into Costs and Politics”, African Affairs(1971 vol 70), p70:14; Kayira, “I go to school”, I will try(1965), p58:21

[21] First hand knowledge gained from studying engineering for a year (2000/2001) at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi

[22] African Education Commission, “Education in East Africa”, Education in Africa(1924), p192:18

[23] Huxley, “The Education of the African”, Africa View(1968/1931), p321:19

[24] Wallbank, “Achimota College and Educational Objectives in Africa”, Journal of Negro Education(1935:4(2)), p240:5

[25] Thirty-three Fante chiefdoms assembled in a Fante Confederation. The Confederation was initially a defensive union to discourage territorial claims by the neighboring Asante kingdom as well as a reaction to an Anglo-Dutch exchange of territory that placed certain Fante communities under Dutch rule. It was also an attempt to lay the foundations for modern administration to succeed British rule. Its projected constitution included a representative assembly composed of two members from each chiefdom, one the chief himself and the other a Western-educated person. ref: http://www.thoemmes.com/african/ekra_agiman_intro.htm

[26] Adu-Boahen, “Eve of Colonial Conquest and Occupation”, African Perspectives on Colonialism(1987), p12:14

[27] Ngugi, “Education for a National Culture”, Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to repression in neo-colonial Kenya(1983), p95:36

[28] Ngugi, “Education for a National Culture”, Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to repression in neo-colonial Kenya(1983), p97:16 quoting Fanon, Chapter 6, The Wretched of the Earth(1965)

[29] African Education Commission, “Adaptations of Education”, Education in Africa(1924), p26:14

[30] Prah, “Mother Tongue for Scientific and Technological Development in Africa”, Deutsche Stiftung f·r internationale Entwicklung(1995), p6

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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