Feature Article of Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Columnist: Kwarteng & Ahia

Rethinking English Language in Ghanaian Schools

By Fredua Kwarteng and Francis Ahia

English language is, needless to say, the language of instruction in Ghanaian schools, colleges and universities. It is also the language of all formal professions in Ghana. In Ghanaian schools all subjects such as mathematics, science, social studies (history, geography and civics), art, and information and communication technology are taught and learned through the medium of English. Yet English language is a second language to a vast majority of Ghanaian students regardless of their stage in the education ladder. Ironically, it is equally a second language to teachers who are supposed to teach that language. The stark fact is that English language is not the language that parents or relatives spoke to those students at home; nor it is the language spoken to them in the larger network of communities in which they were socialized during their infancy, teenage, and adolescent formative years. Consequently, we are not surprised at all when recently a Ghanaian education official was reported as saying that Ghanaian primary and junior secondary teachers have difficulties teaching English effectively.
However, most Ghanaians frown on the phrase that English language is a second language to them, because they feel and believe that they possess a measure of English proficiency equal to native speakers of the language in Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand, the United States, and South Africa. There may be some truth in that assertion but having English as a second language does not necessarily suggest a lack of proficiency in that language. It does mean also, as one expert has stated, that English language has absolutely no cultural roots in Ghanaian linguistic history and for that reason it is not the language spoken in wider social circles in Ghanaian communities.
Oral Communication: Missing Component of Balanced English Instruction
Our primary concern is that the teaching and learning of English in Ghanaian schools is based exclusively on reading comprehension, spelling, grammar and writing skills. No pedagogical attention is given to the development of oral communication skills. We are not talking about teacher periodic or intermittent questioning in the course of instructional delivery. On the contrary, we are referring to the failure on the part of Ghanaian teachers to provide students formal instruction and opportunities in the classroom to develop oral communication skills through individual and group presentations and debates, and teacher-student interaction in which students are allowed the space to question, articulate arguments or their points of view, engage in dissension with peers, and offer comments and suggestions in the normal course of classroom learning. In addition, students should be taught pronunciation techniques, commonly acceptable enunciation, word and sentence stress, and intonation. These oral language activities would help students to develop the requisite sociolinguistic confidence in the use of the English language.
The Ghanaian school English syllabus states that one of the aims of the teaching of English is to assist students to develop confidence to communicate in that language. We wonder if students would be able to develop oral English proficiency, let alone a reasonable level of confidence, when it is never part of formal lessons in the classroom. We observed with an increasing worry the confidence difficulties most Ghanaian representatives and delegates in international forums encounter when they have to speak or make presentations. Even some times because they lack the confidence to speak most of them would remain silent or merely acquiescent by either nodding their heads or say yes or no. This is very appalling. We should not lose sight of the fact that oral English fluency is not synonymous with speaking with a Ghanaian intonation or what people commonly called accent. It simply means having the confidence to articulate and flow in the language at a specific moment.
Our perspective differs substantially from other Ghanaian researchers who advocate an increased emphasis on grammar in teaching and learning English in Ghanaian schools. This has been the status-quo position in Ghanaian schools: English language teaching and learning is quintessentially grammar. Nevertheless, we strongly believe that in the lower primary grades less emphasis should be placed on the teaching and learning of grammar and more on the natural flow of learning to speak the language. In upper primary school and beyond a balance should be struck between the teaching and learning of grammar and oral communication skills. This suggestion in no way diminishes the importance of teaching and learning of English grammar such as the correct usage of tenses, relative clauses, prepositions, punctuation and other aspects of grammar usage.
Prohibiting Local Language Speaking
In some Ghanaian schools, both private and public, school level policy prohibits the speaking of any local languages and stiff penalties like corporate punishment, suspension, penal labour, and denial of certain privileges are meted out to violators. This policy is defended on the theoretical grounds that the prohibition compels students to practice their oral English language communication skills. But students have nothing to practice since they are not taught any oral English communication skills in the classroom; nor are they given the space to practice that skill in the classroom under the supervision or through facilitation of the teacher. There is also a psychological unintended consequence to that policy. It causes students to look at their culture, of which language is an integral component, in a negative way. In some cases, it leaves a deep, indelible psychological scar on the students which they carry throughout their lives. The absurdity of the policy is this: Only in Africa are students punished for merely speaking their own language in the name of English literacy development.
The policy also requires constant and close monitoring by teachers to ensure compliance – detecting and identifying violators for punishment, not correction. Teachers in this case become language police rather than language teachers. That is why we are unequivocally opposed to the enactment of such school-based policy. From student point of view, the policy does not make any sense to them and for this reason they either refuse to talk with their peers in the presence of their teachers or speak their local languages when outside the hearing range of their teachers. We strongly believe that if oral communication skills development were made part of English language pedagogy in Ghanaian schools, it would highly motivate students to practice the skill willingly rather than being compelled to do so for fear of detection and punishment.
The Way Forward
We are strong advocates of balanced English language instruction throughout Ghanaian schools. We acknowledge the problems the average Ghanaian teachers face in achieving balance between grammar and oral English. Accordingly, we suggest that teacher education programs should incorporate skills, knowledge and dispositions that allow prospective teachers to develop pedagogical strategies for teaching English as a second language. Second, school teachers should be provided with teaching and learning resources particularly prepared for second language teachers and students. Our observation is that most learning resources provided to teachers for English are grossly unsuitable for second language learners.
Third, periodic support in the form of professional development activities should be provided to school teachers. We have learned from our observations that teacher professional development has never been taken seriously in Ghana because it is ill-organized and only urban school teachers are the beneficiaries while rural teachers are left out in the cold, so to speak. We want to emphasize that no education system can perform effectively and efficiently without well-scheduled, structured professional development of its educators.