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21.02.2006 General News

Use of English language in Parliament is restrictive

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Accra, Feb. 21, GNA - Professor Kwesi Yankah, Acting Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana, on Monday said the use of the English language in Parliament and the District Assemblies was restricted the constitutionally guaranteed of right to free speech. He said the 1992 Constitution of Ghana did not require English language proficiency as a criterion for representation in Parliament and yet the Standing Orders of Parliament required members to either use English language or translate any Ghanaian language they used on the floor of the house into English.

Prof. Yankah made the observation at the 38th J. B. Danquah Memorial Lectures.

This year's lecture was under the broad theme of Education, Literacy and governance; A linguistic Inquiry into Ghana's Burgeoning Democracy, with three sub-topics.

Speaking on Free Speech, Censorship and Language Dilemma in Public Policy, Prof Yankah noted that before the 1992 constitution, previous constitutions like those of 1969 and 1979, specifically required Members of Parliament to be proficient in English.

"The 1992 Constitution, on the other hand, does not contain any language clause. The issue of language in Parliament comes up in the Standing Orders of Parliament," he said.

He said the Standing Orders provided that Ghanaian languages could be used in Parliament, but placed the onus of translation into the English language on the Member of Parliament who used the language, without specifying the languages that could be used.

Prof Yankah said the provision of the standing orders, visa avis the constitutional right of free speech and the non-requirement of proficiency in English language for potential Members of Parliament, presented a paradox, which required political intervention to address. He blamed the existing paradox on lack of political will to deal effectively with the issue of language in policy-making and discussions, saying that the extent to which illiteracy impeded governance partly depended on the readiness of state policy to mitigate its adverse impact and lack of proficiency in English.

Prof Yankah noted that in countries like Kenya and Tanzania, the use of Swahili and Kiswahili in the National Assemblies respectively was constitutionally granted and the onus of translation lied on the state and not the individual Member of Parliament.

"It should be possible therefore to allow Members of the Ghanaian legislature to use Ghanaian languages of their choice on the floor of house for a state translation machinery to be responsible for the translation," he said.

He said the 258-member Consultative Assembly in 1991-92 had the privilege of a translation mechanism during their sittings, adding that the 230-member Parliament should have a translation booth and earpieces for the purposes of translation of local languages into English. Prof Yankah argued that several Parliamentarians did not contribute to discussions on the floor of the house and were often criticized for their silence without consideration that they may not be as proficient as their other colleagues in the use of the English language.

He said the problem of non-contribution to discussions by some MPs was even more compounded by the Standing Orders restriction on reading of written speeches during discussions on the floor of the House, which, he said bordered on censorship.

Prof Yankah said his research in some District Assemblies (DAs) in the Volta and Ashanti Regions showed that the use of both English and Ghanaian languages, encouraged participation during discussions. He said most of the members of DAs were illiterate fishermen, farmers and traders or half-literates, who usually felt intimidated by their learned colleagues when they resorted to the use of English language at certain stages of discussion.

"In the Ashanti Region "our research showed that 67 per cent of the DA members prefer Twi only, 26 per cent want Twi and English and only seven per cent prefer English and in the Volta region 40 per cent want Ewe only, 50 per cent want Ewe and English and 10 per cent prefer English only," he said.

Prof Yankah also noted that the recent use of Ghanaian languages for discussion programs in the media had contributed immensely to grassroots participation in national policy discussions. He lauded the opportunity granted people who could only understand sign language to participate in this year's People's Assemblies and asked that such practices should be backed by definite state policies.

"It is important that the issue of language in policy discussion become central to state policy to ensure that the linguistic barrier posed by the strict use of English language in policy discussions at the higher level does not stand in the way of free speech.

"It is my hope that as we consolidate the democratic process, we would consider the issue of language as central, and formulate policies that liberate the mind and tongue to contribute optimally to national development," he said.

Other topics to be discussed during the three-day lecture were "Krobo Edusei and the Paradigm of Street Wisdom in Contemporary Governance and "The Tongue, the Thumb and the Ballot Box."