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Opinion | Feb 23, 2017

Ghana’s Language Policy In Education:   Denying Linguistic Rights, Hindering SDG4

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), there’re 7,097 known living languages and 2.3 billion people lack access to education in their own languages.

Consequently, UNESCO has declared February 21 of every year as International Mother Language Day. The theme for this year is, “Towards Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education”. In her message to the world, Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General states, “On the occasion of this Day, I launch an appeal for the potential of multilingual education to be acknowledged everywhere, in education and administrative systems, in cultural expressions and the media, cyberspace and trade”.

In a paper presented by Aba Brew-Hammond and Kwasi Opoku-Amankwa, it was noted that, “almost every educational policy and reform since Ghana’s independence in 1957 has emphasized the importance of mother tongue education but there has been no concerted attempt to design and implement a language-in-education policy incorporating this dimension”. (Projecting Monolingual Ideologies in Multilingual Classrooms in Ghana: A Critical Look at the English-Only Language in Education Policy”, CASS Journal of Art and Humanities, January-March 2012, Vol 2, No. 1, 110-118),

The above assertion shows that little has been done in promoting a Mother tongue or language in education policy in Ghana. English language only policy in education was first introduced in Ghana in 1957 and lasted until 1966. The reason assigned to this policy direction was, students’ English language proficiency was below standard.

In 2002, Ghana’s language policy in education was changed from the use of mother tongue in the first three years of education at the primary level to English Language only throughout the child’s education. One of the major reasons assigned to this change was, the abysmal performance of pupils and students in the English Language and in other subject areas because of the use of Ghanaian languages as the medium of instruction. Contrary, reports of various educational reviews suggest that, there’s the need to strengthen the use of the native languages or mother languages in schools (Ministry of Education 1996, 2003)

The change from the use of the mother tongue or language to English only is one that doesn’t promote the linguistic rights of the child and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Professor Kofi Agyekum, a renowned Akan scholar was once quoted, “Language is an intrinsic part of a people’s identity, so any person or group of people who lose touch with the purity of their mother tongue is on the verge of losing their identity and sense of national pride.”

Dr. Patricia Awiah, a language and development expert is of the view that the mother tongue is unique because educating the child through the mother tongue at the primary level is very rewarding in terms of the child’s general academic performance, linguistic performance and cognitive performance throughout the life time of that child. “It’s cost effective too”, she adds.

Dr. Awiah’s view is in line with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all. According to UNESCO, the achievement of SDG4 is “only possible when education responds to and reflects the multilingual nature of the society. Children, youth and adults require learning opportunities that are relevant to their lives and needs, in and through their own languages”.

Mother tongue or language is a human right. Language rights and human rights go hand in hand. Any attempt to deny a group of persons or people the right to use the mother tongue in an educational system is committing the crime of “linguistic genocide” as one researcher puts it.

Mother tongue or language plays a crucial role in the development agenda of every nation. It allows the use of community initiative, indigenous knowledge and participation – these are factors that enhance nation building. Thus, a language policy in education that is English only denies total participation, community initiative and the use of relevant indigenous knowledge. It’s important that we recognise how developmental challenges that bedevil our nation can be overcome if the language that is used in communicating these development strategies is in the mother tongue.

As Nelson Mandela once noted, “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."

Mother tongue or language is at the core of national development – it’s one sure way of ensuring total participation in nation building.

The writer is a freelance journalist. [email protected]/[email protected]

ALEX BLEGE, © 2017

This author has authored 96 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: ALEXBLEGE

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