06.10.2011 Feature Article

Tribalism 2: English Remains Key

Tribalism 2: English Remains Key
06.10.2011 LISTEN

Following on from my earlier discussion on the subject; “Tribalism: The Keys Work Better Together,” I find a need to support it with this piece. As always, I shall attempt to tackle this sensitive issue with practical circumspection to the best of my ability. Nevertheless, I recognise that with issues of such nature, no matter how much one attempts to be neutral, there are those that would take exception to every argument made. In spite of this fact, I remain unperturbed in my quest to discuss a valid issue like this.

The reasoning for this piece stems from the demand of the La chief last week regarding either the removal of the word 'Akwaaba' or the addition of the Ga equivalent at the Kotoka International Airport. I am in two minds about this issue; whether to hastily dismiss this demand as being unnecessary in the context of our development as one people, or whether to see it as an indication of simmering tensions percolating to the surface in a measured manner. This is a dicey issue and I remain ambivalent as to what remains a right choice. Nonetheless, I find that as an advocate of national peace and unity, one cannot always dismiss another's grievance just because one is not in acquiescence. What helps is that such issues generate a platform to widen the subject to other issues that may be deemed much more relevant. On this occasion and context, I indubitably find that the discussion “ENGLISH REMAINS KEY” becomes ad rem to the subject of tribalism.

Without attempting to give a linguistic lesson which would only detract from the real thrust of this debate, it is worth building a premise for my argument. Language, as defined by the dictionary, may include; a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition. It may also refer to communication by voice in the distinctively human manner, using arbitrary sounds in conventional ways with conventional meanings; speech. Additionally, it may define any set or system of such symbols as used in a more or less uniform fashion by a number of people, who are thus enabled to communicate intelligibly with one another. In effect, language serves as a medium of communicating ideas, feelings, as well as concepts, amongst others.

According to Ethnologue, there are a total of 79 languages in Ghana. I find this debatable as there are many variations of languages spoken and an attempt to give an exact number may prove elusive. Of these, the Bureau of Ghana Languages presently operates in eleven Government-sponsored languages namely: Akuapem Twi, Asante Twi, Ewe, Mfantse, Ga, Dangme, Nzema, Dagbani, Dagaare, Gonja and Kasem.

Language remains an important element of every culture and serves not only as a vehicle for communication but also facilitates the propagation and extension of tradition, culture and philosophy of a people. Through language, the oral traditions of a people are bequeathed to future generations ensuring the continuity of a unique people's culture. Consequently, people display affinity to their language as they derive intrinsic worth and identity from it. In brief, one may observe an inextricable connection between a people and their language further corroborating the essence of language. It is not surprising therefore that Nelson Mandela once remarked that: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

From the above, it remains understandable why some people have called for the scrapping of the English language and for it to be replaced with a new national language. Others have sought to be more temperate in their approach, advocating for the addition of a second national language. To many, this new language could be a totally new one, an existing one or a combination of the former. In contrast, there are those who vociferously adopt the stance that no change is needed and that we should not attempt to fix something that is not necessarily broken.

As explained above, language is very essential and those who advocate a national language justify it on the grounds that it would enable development through enhancing national communication. They even go further to boldly claim that the lack of a common language for official use is responsible for our current state. Others also believe that a national language would make us more united. Furthermore, national pride and identity derivative is what some give as being the concession to the adoption of a new national language. Moreover, proponents of adoption of a national language label contrary arguments as being absurd or dishonest. They also dismiss in a bellicose manner, the notion of its cost or even the nature of our local languages being an impediment to the pace of development in this global village.

So if their reasons are cogent enough, then the ubiquitous question remains why we have not made the changes sought by them till date. I dare ask whether it is because our leaders lack the intrepidity to not only contemplate such but also to move forward to its application. One may further surmise if our leaders' failure to grant these advocates their much sought desire is simply oblivion to what they (the advocates) perceive as being a palpable benefit to be derived by the nation.

While showing deference to the arguments of the advocates of a national language, I nonetheless find much more plausible reasons for our leaders' current stance on the matter. It is not by scales of paramnesia that English remains the default national language of Ghana. It is reasonable to suggest that Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, a man ahead of his time and arguably the best leader this nation has had, left us with the English language for vital reasons. I do wonder at times what local language he would have adopted if he had his druthers. Should that have happened, would it not have been a form of vain contest for a successor to subsequently outdo his predecessor by adopting another language that conforms to his tribal affiliation?

There ought to be valid reasons why we continue to use English as our official language. What really makes English a valuable tool is the fact that only a small fraction of the words in the English language are actually words that can be said to be English. The greater majority are borrowed from virtually every language on earth. Dr. G. Manivannan observes the following regarding the English language: “It is spoken by more than 300 million native speakers, and between 400 and 800 million foreign users. It is the official language of air transport and shipping; the leading language of science, technology, computers, and commerce; and a major medium of education, publishing, and international negotiation. For this reason, scholars frequently refer to its latest phase as World English.”

English may be deemed as being more than just a language but also a multipurpose tool. With the breathtaking pace at which the world continues to develop, we continue to edge closer to what may be said to be a borderless world. Such a world would require a universal language which English may lay claim to in a bold manner. In corroborating this position, one may find that some of the most advanced discoveries and inventions in science and technology are made by universities which use English as the medium of instruction. Also, one can observe the use of English in commercial transactions throughout the world further supporting the view that it remains the language for international business management and commerce. Additionally, while facilitating inter-state communication, the English language also boasts a wealth of literature and knowledge enshrined in it.

Based on the foregoing, I shall pause and pose the question of how feasible it is to carry out research to the highest order and level either qualitatively or quantitatively in a local language. I am yet to find conclusive research that supports the view of the ease of such and would be very glad to peruse through such a study. Given the choice of Oxford University or University of Ghana to undertake a Doctorate in a local language, it is not farfetched the choice that many would contemplate.

While others are advancing and embracing much needed change, how justifiable would it be to divert scarce financial resources to fund a project of adopting a new national language? A cost-benefit analysis may render this notion as a non-starter. The time and money needed to carry out a project of such colossal nature should convince many to think twice on the subject. One may see such an exercise as akin to swimming against the tide rather than swimming along. After all, we have more pressing and weightier matters to contend with as a nation.

Even if this notion of a new national language was given attention, which language would be adopted? The fact that one language may lay claim to having hegemony over other languages would not necessarily justify why that language needs to be chosen. This may be construed as that language and identity exercising a preponderant effect over other languages and culture with a support from the state. Given a carte blanche to select a national language, which tribe would not assert its own?

Consequently, my motive for writing a piece like this remains national peace and unity and I find that there is a tendency to alienate one another rather than unite us which would be a reason that may be given for a new national language. It is not unreasonable to argue that adopting one particular language would not quench the flames of tribalism but rather fan it. Fortunately, we have adopted the English language for reasons that can be perceived as fitting. This view is lent further support by Jorge Luis Borges who states that: “In general, every country has the language it deserves.”

In a rather risible admission, Billy Sunday quips: “When the English language gets in my way, I walk over it.” This may be seen in practice at the most unexpected of places. Rather than arguing for the rules to be bent our way so we have our own language as the national language, the onus lies on us to pursue active development of ourselves if we are to remain relevant in a brutally competitive environment.

At this juncture, I shall use this platform to urge the government to address the obstacles that have made the English language a barrier to many. We need to create the right infrastructure to facilitate the learning of the English language in a manner that makes us relevant and competitive on the global stage.

To further mollify the embers of tribalism, the government would do well to avoid elevating any particular local language to national status and prominence. English offers us an opportunity to work and communicate with one together in a peaceful existence while allowing everyone to speak his/her local language without the need to discard it. Moreover, with our increasing quest to become the world's gateway to West Africa, English offers us the best hope at this.

Though the continuous use of English may not be favoured by those passionately advocating a new national language, the argument espoused here may suggest they have a rethink as our current situation in a changing world supports the view that “ENGLISH REMAINS KEY”.

In conclusion, I shall insert the first four lines from the second stanza of our national anthem that motivates me to write pieces like these. It reads as follows:

“Hail to thy name, O Ghana
To thee we make our solemn vow;
Steadfast to build together
A nation strong in Unity...”

Dr. Frank Robert Silverson
Email: [email protected]