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16.07.2008 Feature Article


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You don't! Ghana's national language is English.

Whether you're living in Ghana or simply visiting, you can get by very well without using any local language. On the whole, Ghanaians are intelligent, well-educated and sociable people and almost everyone you meet, especially in a professional capacity, will speak very good English. The language of the workplace, and the language of instruction in schools (after 7 years of age), is English. Television and radio programmes are broadcast in English and you will hear English language music. Signboards, official forms, menus, newspapers and schoolbooks are all written in English. When making a purchase, the amount is always said in English and you can attend English language Church services and other societies. Due to Ghana's Francophone neighbours, French is also common.

Thousands of tourists come to Ghana every year and enjoy a perfect holiday without speaking a word of any Ghanaian language. Indeed, foreign business and tourism are at such high levels that it is entirely possible to spend almost all one's social time in predominantly expat circles. Curiously, some people seem to decide to do just that. I recently met a foreign worker who loves Ghana so much he's been working in the country for 30 years, yet couldn't even say “How are you?”. If you have a similar aversion to learning a new language, then there is no reason why you have to.

However, you will be missing out on a lot if you don't!

With very few exceptions, Ghanaians will always learn one or more local languages before learning English. Not only are these different mother tongues to ours, but also they possess something inherent and idiosyncratic to the Ghanaian culture, something which can be lost in translation. Thus getting to the heart of the people requires getting to the heart of their language. It also means that different people speak English to different degrees. Yes, you can get by with English, but you may have to forsake establishing meaningful relations with whole swaths of people, including; children, uneducated people, the elderly, some vendors, and families from poor or isolated communities. Strong accents or those of non-Queen's English speaking visitors, including Americans, can be difficult for Ghanaians to understand. Foreigners can often become frustrated by language barriers affecting their daily or working lives, some to the extent that they leave their job and go home, or at least fail to benefit fully from their time in Ghana.

Recently in the UK it has been proposed that immigrants should be made to take a test on English language and culture in order to gain entry to the country, due to some, mainly Asian, communities settled in Britain but not integrating and speaking only their own languages. As an immigrant in Ghana, would you be prepared to take such a test in Akan in order to gain your visa?

By far the most important aspect of learning a local language is that it shows respect to the people whose country you are visiting. Even the most faltering attempts are warmly welcomed and enjoyed. There is no reason why anybody who is in Ghana for any length of time should not at least be able to say “Hello” and “Thank you”. At worst, some people may consider it rude if you don't. The response you get if you try will be more than worth it.

Again, with some exceptions, when Ghanaians are talking amongst themselves they will tend to use their own language. This means that you could be sitting in a bar, bus, office, or under a tree drinking palm wine, without a clue what everybody's talking about. Wouldn't you like to join in a bit, share the jokes and ask a few questions? And how do you know they're not all planning to rob and kill you? (Actually, that would never happen, unless you're REALLY stupid- Ghana is a haven of peace.)

More realistically, speaking some of the language can offer you remarkable benefits, and help you to integrate easily into, and gain a deeper understanding of, the rich Ghanaian culture. You can learn how to haggle the best prices, ask for and understand directions, join in with the common practice of sending children to do things for you, and develop a repertoire of witty retorts for when people in the street shout at the white man as he walks by. On certain occasions, it would be customary to use some vernacular, for example when visiting a chief, speaking at a funeral, or praying before a meal.

Much of the media and entertainment is in local languages, and Ghanaian films and songs can be very enjoyable, especially when you can understand them! They are also an excellent learning tool if you can find the subtitled versions. If you are employing or working with Ghanaians, it would be a pity to have to lose the services of an excellent carpenter / plumber / mechanic / security guard / cook, etc., simply because you couldn't understand each other. And Ghanaians love to hear an obroni mangling their tongue!

It is possible to gain great success with only a few key phrases. You can learn by heart the basics of: “My name is…. I am from…. My job is…Yes I am/No I'm not married…”, because that's what everyone who meets you will ask you. Try to 'manage' conversations so you only say what you can. And it's common even when speaking vernacular for Ghanaians to use lots of English, so do the same and just pop in the few Twi, Ga, Hausa or Ewe words that you do know.

As well as adapting linguistically, make sure you are also respectful of Ghanaian culture and accepted behaviour. In many ways, this is far more important to be aware of than learning the language, as anybody who has ever paid the taxi driver with their left hand will no doubt have discovered! You will realise that, as well as what you say, your behaviour and appearance will also have a dramatic influence on how you are viewed and treated by Ghanaians.

From my own experiences, I can wholeheartedly say that learning and speaking Twi has been the single most profound and enjoyable aspect, not only of my time in Ghana, but of my life. It is always commented how visitors find Ghana to be a most welcoming, friendly and peaceful nation which has a lot of valuable lessons to teach to the outside world. This sense of appreciation is only deepened when you get 'under the skin' of the people: the key to this is speaking their language.

This is the introduction to the writer's first book : “M'adamfo! The Essential Guide for all Obronis in Ghana”
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Ian Duncan Utley
Ian Duncan Utley, © 2008

The author has 7 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: IanDuncanUtley

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

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