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16.12.2009 Feature Article

``Towards literacy``

``Towards literacy``
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ONE COULD take the infectious joke on every Ghanaian's tongue seriously, which says, "If you want to hide anything from a Ghanaian, put it into a book." You won't miss it, at any social gathering, but I must render an unqualified apology to extant Ghanaian play-writes, some with world renown, in the light of this "heinous joke."

Just be reminded there is no weekend without the myriad of funerals, especially in the major cities, or townships, and lately the tail-ends of such events, resemble a "Roman Empire-Type" of gathering, whereby guests are obliged to imbibe and quaff, ad infinitum. You may miss something, but never the rhetorical joke, "If you want to hide anything from a Ghanaian …"

Some Africans think the joke has "such sickening connotations," and they can't enjoy it. Well, I have tried to establish in my own way, (in my mind), how the acquisition of proficiency in any language should be linked with the ability to acquire any skills, or the reverse. Let me limit the skills in question here, not to such skills as in basket-weaving, or bread-baking, or let's say, "throttle-feeding", which graced into simple English, should mean working as a Chauffeur.

Perhaps, these may be trades that may not require that one needs to understand any language to a sophisticated level, to be able to expedite them to a satisfactory level. This may be just an assumption, but one that may not be all that difficult to escape from, coming from such a weak edge of the argument. I am tempted to come from the angle, which is close to the profession that I eke a living out of. To study medicine, one should have a proficiency of the language offering the training.

In Germany, and for a century, Latin was an additional pre-requisite, to enter medical school. At the moment, avenues are so many that one could get confused. Just imagine, you could graduate in Medicine, having studied in English, in Polish, German, French, Dutch, Flemish, Russian, Japanese, and in Chinese, lately. When that may be the case, proficiency ought to be so taken for granted, that the individual in question so understands the language one has in mind, such that he/she should be able to get a research program understood, so as to be able to get by, to a meaningful extent, or design such a program single-handedly, or lead a team in so doing.

The debate gets distraught when we must turn the flow of thought around, and advance that it is not possible for one to carry through the enlisted, when one is not literate, or "not so literate." The word "literate" implies being able to read and write. But, I guess everybody would agree, it can be deepened at will until the meaning requires being mined out of the depth, like gold, and polished, before being able to use it.

An example should be at a social gathering in an European city one midsummer evening, over a decade ago, and tempers soaring sky-high, when an Asian guest suggested that African students, (pupils) in English "Public Schools" don't match their Asiatic counterparts when it comes to written English. An English teacher of British citizenship was of the same opinion. Filled with emotions and anger to the brim, I quibbled and cited names like Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature, and also Chinua Achibe, the famed Nigerian play-write, whose only book I happened to have read at the time, being "Things Fall Apart", but there being many more I wanted to mention, but I could not instantly think of anymore.

Sad! In the end, I thought it was better we left the quibbling alone, and say to each other," it was all a banter." The rest of the evening concentrated on what we were invited for - Food and drinks. No debate about that."

But, this issue of Africans not doing as well in English, as our Asian counterparts, has crossed my path many more times, since then. What is truth? What is race? What is sheer arrogance? The Japanese doesn't have to learn English, to become a Nuclear Physicist. But, for an African to come to the same horizon, he must learn, one of the following languages; German, French, English, Japanese, Russian, and lately Chinese too. Adolf Hitler, the Nationalist par excellence, was frustrated when during the "Third Reich", the dictator wanted to see all scientific literature in German only. His linguists-scientists however could not find a suitable German equivalent for the word "CARBURETER." He was too late to enjoy the glory, when in America, following World War II, all studies in Science, and Medicine had to include Russian, Chinese, or German. German was preferred to the other two, and as a result, most American Engineers, and Doctors of Medicine a generation after Hitler's war was over, became fluent in German.

De facto, some languages fall short, when it comes to expressing some thoughts, or ideas for the rest of the world to understand, either in Science or literature. I have been struggling with myself to express in Twi, (my mother-tongue), the word consensus. I have not had it satisfactory, when I have sought assistance from those who speak Twi, but are linguistically miles ahead of me. For a long time I used to believe, journalists could be the best yardstick on which to measure and learn a language. How does a nation get the cue, to just sit down and begin to read a language like Chinese?

One would ask, "How have languages evolved?" People living closely to one another like Akans, and Ewes, like Mamprusis and Kusasis, or Europeans, whereby Germans and English, and the French, don't speak the same languages, even if some words and the alphabet may betray a common ancestry.

I am not tackling this issue as a language specialist. The attempt is only scraping the surface for the discussion. You may get lost, when you look at Chinese, Korean, and Japanese similar characters, as they call them, (not alphabets), but you don't understand Korean, when you are Chinese, or vice versa. Finally, is there anything on one hand as an advanced language, in which science could be studied, and another non-advanced language, in which you may not be able to teach science? In the Bible, God spoke to Adam and Eva in what language? Long thereafter, God must have given "Engineering-precise" instructions to Noah to construct the arch, (the ship) that would survive the Biblical deluge, five thousand years later. Was that in Hebrew? Hebrew is believed to be some five thousand years old. So is Hieroglyphics, (language of the Pharaohs).

Writing is said to have began in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, (cuneiform characters), and the Phoenicians transferred all to the Nile Basin. So the issue seems not quite resolved, which establishes that the Chinese characters are/were the forerunners of writing. That should not divide the issue. Just how much is conceptual thinking linked to language, and literacy? How relevant is your language a yardstick on which your intellect might be judged? Is being able to read and write, (especially read first), comparable to a football player, who must practice, and acquire skills which might help him score goals? How much truth is there in the assertion that, " Africa hasn't done as well, (and the comparison is always with the Tigers of the East), in terms of development following World War II, BECAUSE AFRICA IS BEHIND ASIA, in terms of Education?" If you did not come by a copy of The Chronicle, gratis, you must have coughed out the equivalent of 30% of your daily income. With a Singaporean, it is about 2%. Your depression, if you were so concerned about the need to read for your compatriots, should be that people are reluctant to read, even if provided the material, gratis! Sad, but true.

Something equally sad. Kumasi has a population of some three million. It harbours a renowned University which teaches Engineering and Medicine. It has no public library presently, even though in times past, there existed a library the Queen of England could be proud of. Just have a look at the Central Library, when next you visit Accra. The last time I had a jocular discourse with a compatriot on this issue, his suggestion was "I donate books to the libraries in Kumasi and Accra?" But, one is increasingly awakening to the dictum that it cannot all be a matter of donation, all the time. The Statue of Liberty was a donation from France to the then young USA. But, think of the myriads of statues in America since then! E-mail: [email protected]

Ghanaian Chronicle
Ghanaian Chronicle, © 2009

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

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