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Opinions of Sunday, 17 December 2006

Columnist: Lamptey, Lankai

English and the one-language generation

Here is a disturbing trend that should concern you: An alarming number of middleclass families in Ghana now speak only English to their children. It is as if this assault on Ghana’s cultural identity is a response to an edict from the Ministry of Education, and the only ones who could dance in step are the middle-class. It was not like this when we were young. I am reminded of Sefah, an old school mate, whom you should meet.

In the seventies, he was a nineteen-year old student in a Cape Coast school, and was unique among his fellow sixth formers; out of the classroom, he spoke only Twi, the kind that did not accommodate English words. He was short, my charitable guess 5’ 2”, but he had a regal aura that added a few inches to his frame. His manner suggested he came from a family steeped in traditions, and had learnt how to conduct himself from an “Okyeame.”

In an era swept by psychedelic culture and afro hairstyle, he turned an off-beat sensibility into a winning personality. His preferred haircut was Tokyo Joe, extended bow. With a regulation-issued wardrobe, his was a default aesthetic. While most senior students affected a severe, self-important persona, Sefah was refreshingly easygoing. He had a roommate, taller by a few inches, who was probably his best friend, but there was a subtle dynamic that hinted who was sir, and who was serf.

One evening, the house prefect asked Sefah to lead us in prayer at compline, the prayer meeting held in each dormitory before official bedtime. It was an odd choice, considering his low standing in the available pool of students committed to piety.

“Twediampong Nyankopong, wu a wu tumi…..” Sefah began a prayer in flawless Twi, the opening alliteration adding a sing-song spin to the moment. You could hear restrained laughter. We were laughing because he was praying in our own language, a subtle dig about the inferiority of the native tongue. Soon though, we were all in the grips of something at once spiritual and moving. He asked God to fill us with a higher purpose, and kindness towards one another. But beyond the spiritual atmosphere, there was also a new-found appreciation for the beauty of our language. Never on campus had we heard Twi spoken with pride and elegance. Campus was a place where we all picked up other local languages in addition to what we spoke at home. The average student spoke two native languages, but what we spoke was slang, with a lot of English words thrown in.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and consider Mantey, my nephew, a 22 year old university student in Ghana. On a recent visit to Ghana, I offered him a ride into town, after attending a dinner party at his parents’ house. My previous encounters with him had been formal, so we had spoken only in English. But sitting beside me in the car, the situation was more personal, and I switched to Ga, a language more suitable to certain emotions. To my surprise he did not understand Ga or Fante. For comic effect, I tried Frafra, which I used to speak fluently. He was clueless. And the poor guy was born in Ghana and had lived there all his life. Both his parents are upper middle-class professionals, the mother a sophisticated public figure. And in Ghana to be middle-class is to be sophisticated, and to be sophisticated is to subscribe to the trappings of Western culture. So was this English-only young man sitting beside me a victim of his parents over-indulgence in western values? Thinking it was a unique phenomenon, I phoned a mutual friend the next day, who chuckled and said his kids were unilingual as well. When I asked for an explanation, he said speaking only English made kids comfortable in the language. I imagined him saying this with a wink at the other end of the line. What is obvious to an outsider is that this has become a fashionable paradox among the upper middle class. For them, it is a subtle point of family pride that their kids are exclusively English-speaking.

The parents of these English-only kids represent the generation that was nurtured on the staple of Kwame Nkrumah’s policy of Pan-Africanism and black consciousness. Alongside the psychedelic popular culture, we identified with the grand themes of the era: The liberation struggles in Namibia, Angola, South Africa, Zimbabwe; the civil rights struggle in the USA; and the recognition of Swahili, an East African language that enjoyed the same status as English. We had a sense of ourselves as Ghanaians and that English was only a tool we had to master, but not necessarily to the exclusion of our own language. So how did we get from there to here?

One Ghanaian who has earned an opinion on this debate is Thaddeus Ulzen. He is a psychiatrist and an academic in the US. More importantly, he is a passionate nationalist on things African, and gets excited about lesser transgressions on African culture. Before his move to the US from Toronto, he was a co-founder of Afrofest, the largest African festival of culture and music in Canada, so his African nationalist shtick is not for effect. “It is sad that nearly 50 years after independence we still think most things African are inferior to Western ones.” Dr. Ulzen said.

He and his wife encouraged their Canadian-born daughter, who speaks Fante fluently, to do a semester at the University of Ghana, Legon. “It is my responsibility as a parent to make sure my children speak Fante, and that’s not going to harm them in anyway,” he said.

He thinks having children speak only English is part of an attitude by some Ghanaians to celebrate things Western at the expense of those found locally. A few years ago, he said, he took a group of Americans to Ghana. At one of the places they visited, one of the guys bought some fresh pineapples. Tasting it for the first time, he called out to his friend in the group, who said he did not like pineapples. “No, this is different, you got to try this.”

The American visitors enjoyed the fresh organic fruits available in Ghana, yet Dr. Ulzen said there were several times that he was offered imported varieties at other places he visited.

To get some perspective from the one-language generation, I spoke to Adiviti, 24, a Ga-speaking law student in United Kingdom. She was aware of the trend, she said. “In preparatory school, the teachers would admonish us when we spoke the local language, so we only spoke the local languages in our homes. Among ourselves, we got used to communicating only in English, because some parents spoke only English to their kids. Few of my friends speak any Ghanaian language” Adiviti told me in a phone conversation.

When you talk to the unilinguals, they have a unique accent, but not particularly remarkable. LOFA (locally acquired foreign accent) is the disparaging term used to describe their particular accent. Nikoi (not his real name) grew up with parents who were both academics and worldly. At 23, Nikoi (not his real name) is charming, impeccably mannered, and comfortable in any situation. You could tell he has been brought up in an atmosphere of interesting people, books, and the finer things in life. Tall and slim, he is now in a Canadian university and understands the implication of not speaking the language of his people, and wants to change that. He has found a beginners book on Ga and is learning to speak it on his own. I pointed out to him that African-American thinkers lament the loss of their indigenous language, because it is a unifying element in any culture. And in a moment of recognition, he added, “And some of us have elected to lose ours.” I teased him about how funny it would be for him to visit his father’s village, where he would have to communicate with some important member who might be illiterate. Would he get an interpreter? Or what if he became a health professional who would have to deal with patients deep in the hinterland? Or a politician whose message needs to reach as many Ghanaians as possible? These young Ghanaians are victims of a culture that puts a premium on the language of our colonialist at the expense of our native languages.

Exhibit A of this fixation is the minister of foreign affairs, Nana Akuffo Addo. He has a refined diction, and an English accent that reveals privileged upbringing.

To hear him speak, with his smooth delivery is a delight to many, especially those for whom something like sex or a party is great because it was the first time for them. Style over content, and he is known to ham it up. He is seen as a contender for the leadership of the NPP, and at a social gathering in Accra, he became the subject of our conversation. One respected NPP sympathizer, with only a degree of separation from the party’s power center chimed in, “And he speaks English well,” a comment that says more about the author and our society than the minister. My own impression of him is as a tough, confident, and effective politician, and would be a formidable candidate when the race for the presidency officially begins. But this fixation with proper English accent is not useful, and we should grow up and break out of that last trace of colonial grip. Listen to Kwame Nkrumah’s speeches, and you feel conviction, passion, and love of country. Flaws, Nkrumah had them, but you can’t accuse him of trying to sound like the colonialists.

The other poster boy for my-English-is-special is former president Jerry Rawlings. (I am a grateful beneficiary of a new democracy that gives me freedom to say this without a midnight visit from special agents of the government). In the days when he could back up his threats with muscle and other instruments of intimidation, Rawlings was on Ghana TV speaking at a rally to a Twi audience. Departing from his English script, he delivered a proverb in Twi, “Obi nkyere abofra Nyame.” He spoke it with a condescending un-Ghanaian accent that reminded me of those Europeans who were beginning to learn the local language. How’s that for complex irony? It takes a trained sense to spot the forced accent. Having grown up in Accra, Bolgatanga, and Cape Coast, I am hip to the nuances in the local languages. Then there is Kofi Wayo, the loud, uninhibited politician with lots of bravado, and a talent for down-market retail politics. He has a studied American accent, and his speeches serve as a caution of what happens when you adopt another culture superficially.

Here in Canada, a country with another kind of language problems, Pierre Trudeau, the late Prime Minister in the seventies and early eighties, was a swan in both English and French. He was from Quebec, the French-speaking province known for its perennial attempts to separate from Canada. And his own tribe never trusted him. How could they? He spoke English better than the enemy. Another Quebec politician, Jean Chretien, followed him a decade later. Trudeau was everything he was not. Chretien spoke mangled English, to which one sympathizer said, “It’s because English is his second language,” and to which another added, “He mangles French too.” But Chretien, the butcher of English, was a great manager, and one of the most astute politicians Canada has ever seen. He won three elections for his party, demonstrating what a wise electorate thought of his bad English. Canada is in his debt for refusing to give in to US pressure to join the war in Iraq. He has many other seminal accomplishments, but that is not the subject here.

Several years ago, I was fortunate to be in the audience at the Toronto Literary Festival, held annually at Habour Front. The star attraction was Chinua Achebe, author of several African classics. After he was introduced he rose from the second or third row, his African robe and matching cap lending a dramatic effect to the prelude. He read quietly from his book, Anthills of the Savannah with a thick accent, whose trailing DNA had the unmistakable green and white colours of the Nigerian flag. Somewhere in the story, there was a recitation in Igbo. The audience caught on to the rhythm, and at the appropriate breakpoints responded with just a single clap. This went on for about a full minute, never mind that we did not understand Igbo. Here is an iconic figure of English literature proud to speak with an accent that’s part of his identity. Yet we have Ghanaians, who for the sake of sophistication, their kids must lose part of their identities. It must be interesting to see how a Ghanaian household becomes English-only, Ghana being such a place where you cannot escape speaking at least one native language.

In May of this year, Kwesi Andam, the Vice-Chancellor of KNUST, waded into this debate with a tirade about local languages being spoken on the air waves. His point was that English was important in Ghana’s economic development, and since academic culture was English-based, it is that language which should dominate the air waves. While no other article challenged Professor Andam’s view, the comment section of the article went into an overdrive of fulminations. Most of the comments were against his opinion. You would think the great professor would know better. Surely he must be familiar with the English spoken in India or Pakistan? Most educated citizens of these countries may not have figured out how to pronounce “victory” (comes off Wictory), but the growth in development and their status in the world economic order should put the lie to the prof’s concerns. The Ghanaian print media, an English-only industry, has done little to improve the quality of English and content offered to readers.

Is it also lost on Professor Andam that broadcasters have an economic interest in reaching consumers who would be more receptive to programs in the local language of their preference? Personally, I enjoy hearing different languages on radio or anywhere else. Hearing Hausa or Fante is music to my ears. On a Twi talk radio a few years ago, the topic around valentine’s day was “who are more romantic, men or women?” The phone-ins were funny and entertaining, all of which would have been lost in English translation.

Some sentiments and emotional outbursts are better expressed and understood in their native state, unedited. Recall the match with USA during the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Mensah, the Ghana defender, chased after the ball in a bid to retrieve it and avoid a throw in, but he tripped, crashing into the line of spectators. And being the only Ghanaian in a diverse Toronto group of TV viewers, I heard him exclaim, “Adjayne!” I thought, what a true patriot! I also wondered, in a similar situation, what kind of emotional outburst would have come from these privileged unilingual types? “Ouch?” or “Damn?” Somehow these expressions sound contrived coming from an African.

On my last day in Ghana, I drove to Kokrobite, a fishing village about 18km from Accra. When I got to the beach, there was a big haul of fish that had just been offloaded from the canoe. I saw a caucasian woman, late twenties, negotiating a sale with one of the fishermen. I moved closer to pay attention to the sale. Arizona native, she said, and had been in Ghana for three years. I have a negotiating rule, and it has rarely failed me. In transactions of this type, I pay half of what the foreigners pay. This is not racism, it’s market intelligence. I wring it out of the seller. Only this time it did not work. After considering the quantity that Ms. Arizona desired, the seller called out the price, 220 thousand. “Aah! ejala wa chohn,” Ms. Arizona shot back in perfect Ga, without any self-awareness or cuteness. Impressed, I asked her how and why she picked up the language so quickly, and she said she lived with a family that encouraged her to speak Ga, and felt the way to understand the culture and function in it was to embed herself, language included. She closed the transaction at 120, near the 50% rule. When I said “Bye,” she replied in Ga, “Yaa wo odjogbaa.” Let’s hope Ms. Arizona’s gesture of cultural acceptance would be an inspiration to all Ghanaian youth, who will be the community and business leaders of tomorrow.

POSTSCRIPT: Two weeks ago, as this article got ready for publication, I asked a friend, Robert Awuah of Atlanta, Georgia. for editorial input. He had to put me on hold as he explained something to his twelve year old son, in Twi. It was homework time with his son, he told me. I asked him what he thought of the theme of this article, and he shared his own experience on this topic. A few years ago he and his son stayed with a friend in Ghana, and discovered that his friend’s children did not speak Twi. Robert’s son had to teach the lads how to speak twi. In Atlanta, Robert speaks only twi in Ghanaian formal gatherings. Ironically, he said, it is those less equipped than he, who criticize him for not communicating in English. He reminds them that as a college professor, he works exclusively in English, and that should be enough English.

By Lankai Lamptey, Toronto

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.