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07.07.2008 Feature Article

Which local language for a national language?

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FROM TIME to time, both very well educated people and ordinary Ghanaians call for the choice of one indigenous Ghanaian language as the official language of the country.

While some go so far as to advocate that English should be taken out entirely, others feel that English can become a second language. Why this advocacy for the choice of one indigenous language?

The argument is that, if the Chinese, the English the Germans, the French, the Russians, the Greeks, etc. use their various national languages as the official languages, why should we continue to use an alien language, all these years after independence?

Nationalist sentiment apart, the advocates also state that no real progress in our national life can be achieved as long as we used an imperfectly understood alien language.

Thirdly, it is argued that people think in their various languages and that children learn better when taught at school in their mother tongues. Until I retired officially in 1996 as Headmaster, I had taught English Language and English Literature for a living. All the same, I am also in favour of choosing one indigenous language as the national language while we also pay very serious attention to English, the legacy of our colonial masters. The question to ask is whether the advocates have taken the trouble to study the problem of a choice of one or possibly more than one language.

Which language do we choose? Should we choose a variant of the Akan group of languages on the grounds that, since the Akans form a majority of the population and possibly more non-Akans speak Akan than any other language, it should be the language of choice?

Dr. Bemile, one-time Director of the Institute of Language , himself non-Akan, nevertheless, felt that a variant of Akan could be chosen as our national language. We cannot allow logic alone to make us choose Akan or any other language, for that matter.

The fact is that a language is more than a collection of sounds arranged in a particular order to produce speech, or a collection of signs arranged in a particular order to produce writing.

No child is born with a particular language firmly implanted in his mind. A black baby taken to China at birth will learn to speak Chinese as long as he is brought up in China and hears no other language spoken. It is the same for any other baby taken away from his speech community and brought up in another speech community. Still, language is a cultural and emotional issue. Consequently, people become inseparably attached to their mother-tongues once they grow with that mother tongue.

No wise Government would attempt to force one particular language on the rest of the population merely because it is the language of a majority or even a minority ethic group.

Someone from a particular speech community who would otherwise freely like to learn the language of another speech community would rebel if that language was forced on him. One recalls the language riots that broke out in India following the attempt to impose Hindi (I believe), on the population. No Government or group of advocates should attempt to impose any of our indigenous languages on us on some mistaken belief that it is inherently superior to the others, or that it would make a person more civilized or that it is spoken by more people than any other language.

English was imposed on us not because it is inherently superior but because we were a subject people. Moreover, the knowledge and use of English opened the door to the economic empire of our colonial masters. At least the language gave the user a white-collar job.

We are no longer a subject people and no one ethnic group can impose its language on the rest of the population for whatever reason. It would be foolish and suicidal.

Some advocates say that we can choose more than one indigenous language. They point to Switzerland . What is the situation in that country?

Switzerland has what it terms three official languages and four national languages. The three official languages are German, French and Italian. The four national languages are German, French, Italian, Romansh, the last one said to be closely related to Latin.

The national laws of Switzerland must be published in the three official languages. The Swiss Tribunal, the country's highest court, must be composed of judges who represent the three official languages. It is estimated that about 70 percent of the people speak Swiss German while about 20 percent speak French, 10 per cent Italian and I percent Romansh.

It is obvious that those who speak Swiss German dominate the rest. Can we afford the cost of choosing and using four or more indigenous languages? And which ones do we choose? And how? By legislation or referendum? Do we still have the conditions that made it possible for Akan, Ewe, Ga, Hausa, Nzema and Dagbani to be “imposed” on us at the expense of the other numerous languages spoken in the country?

If we should choose one or two or three or even four indigenous language, people must be taught to speak any of them, write it, read it and understand it. Communication must be total, and not just limited to one only of the skills mentioned.

We would need to train teachers to teach the languages chosen. Will we have enough people to train and then teach the language? If we say that a child learns better in his own mother-tongue, then how does a child, for example learn if he is taught in the Guruni language because he happens to attend a school in a Gurunshie area? There is something else. I don't know about the “purity” of the other indigenous languages but Twi and Fante, for example, are so “adulterated” by English words, phrases and even whole sentences that I doubt whether they can be suitable as indigenous languages.

I am not talking of single English words borrowed into these languages for which there is no indigenous equivalent. How does one say, for example, typewriter, cheque, bank, computers, radio etc., in Twi or Fante?

Borrowing, in fact, can enrich any language. That is how come English has such a wide vocabulary. What I am kicking against is what I have chosen to describe as 'Twinglish” or “Fanglish”.

The other day, I got so exasperated by this “Twinglish” on TV AFRICA 's programme, Oman yi mu Nsem that I simply switched to another station. Why had the panelists turned an interesting programme in Twi into something that was neither English nor Twi? What kind of mental laziness produced that kind of linguistic incompetence?

Let us keep the discussion of the choice of an indigenous language alive. But for Heaven's sake, let us not abandon English.

Let us not see my very good friend and Vandal Mate, CEPS Deputy Commissioner Africanus Owusu-Ansah, as an irritating pedant fit to be published only when he is not criticizing somebody else's English.

An indigenous language, yes but throwing away English, no, Sirs.

Ghanaian Chronicle
Ghanaian Chronicle, © 2008

The author has 1023 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: GhanaianChronicle

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