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20.02.2008 Feature Article

International Mother Tongue Day

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February 21 every year is International Mother Tongue Day. The day was declared by UNESCO in 1999 to be celebrated world-wide. The mother tongue is so important in the upbringing and development of the child that the day was instituted in recognition of its value and for the promotion of its usage as an instrument for transmitting culture in the socialisation of the child.Since its inception, however, this very important day has not been given its due recognition in Ghana. Due to the prominence which ought to be accorded to the use of the mother tongue in transmitting culture and the development of the child, the Bureau of Ghana Languages, a department under the Ministry of Chieftaincy and Culture, wishes to associate itself with the International Mother Tongue Day.

This is the first immediate step in preparing the minds of the Ghanaian public towards the celebration of the Day in Ghana in grand style. In the ensuing years, the programme, which will be well-packaged, will mirror and deal with issues pertaining to the local Ghanaian languages.

Value of the Mother Tongue

Whether to use the mother tongue or not has been a big linguistic issue and has attracted a lot of discussions when it is raised by concerned individuals. There are two major schools of thought: those who support its use, and those who think otherwise.

The mother tongue of a child is closely associated with his/her growth and development. As a child matures, his/her language develops and, through language, the child gains personal experiences.

It cannot be disputed that language is the epitome of culture. The mother tongue conveys and transmits culture. It is through the language that the folktales, similes, proverbs and other literary forms of the society are conveyed to teach societal morals and values and eventually socialise the individual.

A person's mother tongue is, therefore, a compendium of what society regards as important; and this language provides the means by which the individual can study and understand the values and concerns of society.
This is why some language enthusiasts believe that no greater injustice can be committed against a people than to deprive them of their language.

To quote Vigdis Finnbogadotter, UNESCO's Goodwill Ambassador for Language, and former President of Iceland, “Everyone loses if one language is lost because then a nation and culture lose their memory, and so does the complex tapestry form which the world is woven and which makes the world an exciting place.”

Educators are increasingly convinced of the value of multilingual education, and studies show that children learn better in their mother tongue.

The latest publication, Education in a Multilingual World (2003) corroborated this fact and admitted that the most suitable language for teaching basic concepts to children is the mother tongue. Indeed, UNESCO declared this finding as far back as 1953 in its report, The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education.

Indeed, we must be conscious of the mother tongue, which gives us identity. Mother tongues are repositories of cultures and which, in the final analysis, make people what and who they are.

“If we start speaking other languages and forget our own, we would not be we, we would be clones of an alien people; we would be aliens to ourselves”, the statement declares.

In spite of these values, the Mother Tongue is looked down upon by many. Therefore, most of us are not taking advantage of its immense benefits to teach our children.
The international level

As the world went through modernisation, the smaller and weaker mother tongues around the world started dying. The formal schooling system, the media and the jobs, all demanded the language of power — the language used in the domains of power, that is, administration, government, commerce and education, which had to be learned by people if they want to be accepted.

As globalisation increases, languages die, and English is the Great killer language because the media and the corporate sector use it. As a result of this, half of the world's 6,000 to 7,000 languages are in danger of extinction.

According to a BBC report on January 24, 2008, a research conducted in America has revealed that a language in Alaska called Ear has recently become extinct because the last speaker died recently. According to the report, though the speaker, a woman, had eight children, they were not permitted to speak Ear but English.

This can happen to any of our languages in Ghana, so there is the need for us to protect our mother tongues by promoting their usage.
The Ghanaian situation

In Ghana, some people consider it prestigious to speak or write the English language at the expense of local languages. Many Ghanaian intellectuals are also prejudiced to the teaching of local languages, particularly the formative periods in our basic schools.

The impression created is that our languages are not worthy of any scientific analysis and study and are therefore not worth studying. This situation is worrisome indeed.

Consequently, in our homes, in schools and at public places, we see evidence of how Ghanaians look down on their own mother tongues. Some Ghanaians feel shy to speak their mother tongues but rather communicate with their children in the killer language, English.
The school situation

In schools, some authorities are waging silent wars on the teaching and learning of local languages. In order to improve the teaching and learning of the English language, school authorities often discourage their pupils from speaking local languages on their premises. Offenders are humiliated accordingly.
Teachers, in most cases, use Ghanaian language periods to teach other subjects, another way of killing local languages.
It is quite unfortunate that in areas where schools are keen at teaching the Ghanaian language, qualified persons do not make themselves available to teach the language for the mere fact that the mother tongue is not accorded due respect.
Schools, therefore, fall on anybody who speaks a particular language and who they feel can teach to do so. Such teachers, more often than not, teach the wrong orthography to the children; and this eventually results in disaster.
 In senior high schools, students who want to learn a Ghanaian language are ridiculed by their peers. On occasions when new staff are to be introduced in the schools, the Ghanaian language teacher is given a raw deal. He is either welcomed with a murmur or a boo.
Teachers and pupils do not take the teaching and learning of the Ghanaian language seriously. The consequence is the poor performance of most of our children in the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) and the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE).
Chief Examiners' Reports on candidates' performance at these levels attest to this. These developments have resulted in the proliferation of different orthographies in the same language.
The irony of this situation is that those local languages were used to bring us up to the positions some of us find ourselves in now.
The value of the first language is well established. It is optionally efficient as a teaching tool as the first language is the tool of thought. One cannot think effectively in someone else's language.
Furthermore, the use of the local language contributes to the building of self-esteem and self-consciousness in the child as it creates receptiveness in education.
In the Northern Region of Ghana, a Danish NGO School For Life is trying to improve the situation through teaching programmes.
In their classes, pupils are given instructions in the local languages to achieve the desired results. The experiment has proved that as a result of their competence in the first language, children who enter the formal school system through school for life perform better in other subjects than their other classmates.
Government's commitment
The New Education Reform recommends that, “the child's first home language should be used as the medium of instruction at the kindergarten and first three years at the basic level”.
The Government has realised the importance of the child's first language as an effective communication tool at this level hence the directive.
It is my belief that education authorities will take this directive seriously and employ qualified teachers to instruct the children to achieve the desired results.
The Cultural Policy of Ghana recognises the importance of language as an instrument of Culture and the Ministry of Chieftaincy and Culture is bent on promoting language as a vehicle for expressing modern ideas and thought processes towards national development.
 The Cultural Policy of Ghana also seeks to support and promote the writing and publication of books in the Ghanaian languages.
Wrong language usage  in public places
The Bureau of Ghana Languages has for sometime now taken note of some misrepresentations in our languages. As an institution charged with the development of Ghanaian languages, particularly the eleven government sponsored ones, we are concerned and are obliged to ensure that the correct thing is done to save our languages and work towards their promotion.
We have of late observed that all around us, most of the writings in books, on sign posts, on vehicles, on kiosks, on music albums, on textiles and footage of movies and what have you, do not conform to the orthographies of the languages in which they are presented.
This situation has come about as a result of our negative attitudes towards the mother tongue. This is the situation, and we cannot allow it to continue.
We also hear the airwaves, unpardonable instances of code mixing by some presenters in some of the Ghanaian language programmes. While commending our Ghanaian language presenters on the use of the local languages, we also advise that the right thing is done in order not to send wrong signals about the languages concerned.
Fortunately, the Bureau of Ghana Languages, which is responsible for the promotion of the local languages, has sufficient literature in the Ghanaian Languages for readers.
It is however very pathetic to note that while schools complain of lack of Ghanaian Language books which affects the teachers' delivery of lessons and consequently the performance of their pupils in their schools, publications of the Bureau are locked up in our ware houses in Tamale and Accra and are not being patronised.
As we celebrate International Mother Tongue Day with the rest of the world, the Bureau wishes to use the occasion to appeal to the Ministry of Education, Science and Sports to come into agreement with the Bureau of Ghana Languages to purchase Ghanaian Language books in bulk for distribution to schools to enhance the teaching and learning of Ghanaian Language in our schools. This arrangement we believe will enhance the teaching and learning of the Mother tongues.In order to ensure that the local languages are protected and accorded the attention they deserve.We also recommend that:
The government passes a law that makes it mandatory for any writer of the Ghanaian Language to seek orthographic approval from the Bureau or any recognised language institution before exposing it for public consumption.
The Ghana Institute of Journalism integrates Ghanaian languages in their Course content to update the skills of presenters in the use of the Ghanaian Languages.

Daily Graphic
Daily Graphic, © 2008

The author has 236 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: DailyGraphic

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