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Opinions of Sunday, 5 October 2008

Columnist: Adu-Gyamfi, Kwaku

Shouldn’t The Ghanaian Immigrants’ Kids Be Bilinguals?

“First we took on Anglicized names as means of” fitting-in”.

But, does having a Ghanaian name or visiting home frequently make us culturally fluent Ghanaians? Does going to the stereotypical Ghanaian parties, replete with Ofori Amponsah music or Ghanaian latest Hip- Life music make you a culturally “Ghanaian” in the diaspora, even if you and your family can’t speak any Ghanaian dialect?

Interestingly, most Chinese immigrants’ kids speak their mother- tongue fluently. So do Koreans and South American immigrants’ kids. But, how often do you see that among Ghanaian immigrants? Not that often.

As immigrants in the diaspora, have you ran into a Ghanaian immigrant’s family at the shopping Malls and Grocery shops, lately? Whenever you come in contact with one , just watch closely. Chances are the adult in the family —which is usually the mother—with her heavy Ghanaian accent ,which weights several pounds—will talk to the kids in English (“Twinglish”)—a mixture of twi and English-- or a mixture of Twi and the language of the host country. But, her accent always betrays her “ghanaianism”. In other words, she couldn’t camouflage her Ghanaian heritage with her newly-acquired English, Italian, German or French accent ,which is never closed to the natives of her host country.

The interesting aspect of the whole thing is that the kids, who have full command of their local language, sometimes make fun of the parents who mispronounce most of the words and mix-up their tenses and grammar. I’m not making this up. C’mon, you know quite a few Ghanaians in your neighborhood that fit in this mode.

As first or second-generation Ghanaian immigrants we sometimes behave as if being a Ghanaian“has been reduced to a set of aesthetic symbols or an obligatory family vacation to Ghana every two years, when our kids can’t even communicate with the folks because they don’t know a word in the local dialect. Sometimes, all that the Kids know about Ghana is static or unrealistic version of the country of our birth constructed by us—the parents.

The question is: Why are we not making any effort to encourage our immigrant kids, including those we “imported” from Ghana ---who want to shun their Ghanaian heritage so badly, ----to speak the mother- tongue at home?

As a Ghanaian Immigrant, shouldn’t you teach your kids your mother-tongue?

“But, how do you manage that in the host countries, where English or the local language is dominant?”

A lot of Ghanaian immigrants are using the above statement as an excuse not to try at all. They’re very adamant about not teaching their children their mother -tongue.

Why should they spend time and energy to teach their kids of Hausa, Twi, Ga, Ewe, Fanti, Dargarti or any other Ghanaian dialect they themselves hardly use? Why should their children learn any Ghanaian language which they think is not going to be a great utility in school and work? Mindful of the fact that the kids have no intention of living or working in the country of their immigrant parents—Ghana.

In their line of reasoning, assuming that their kids live in the U.S, it would be better to teach them the English language, in order to prepare them for the life in the U.S.

It’s a reasonable argument, given the fact that most of us have lost the sense of belonging and we don’t even know when and if ever we’re going to go back home to live again. But, the benefits of passing one’s mother tongue to the next generation, especially those born and raised outside Ghana, is enormous.

Take my 15yr old daughter, Asantewaa, who was born in the States. I started speaking to her in Twi from day one. I consistently talk to her in Twi at every opportunity at home or when we go out. She speaks English primarily, but she perfectly speaks Twi to me. She’s also hooked on Ghanaian movies, especially those filmed in the Ghanaian villages, laced with Agya Koo’s indigenous proverbs. Mind you, she does all that at her own will. Thank you!

Amazingly, I didn’t know the importance of the movies and their effects on her until we made a trip to Ghana in Dec. 2007.Frankly , my expectation was very low for her because I didn’t know how she was going to ‘fit –in” . But, to my surprise she communicated with everyone and able to mingle very well.

Needless to say, she was able to communicate with her grandparents, cousins, aunties and uncles in Twi fluently. Everyone, including the Waakye seller was proud and fun of her because she was able to talk in a language they all understood. This girl enjoyed herself so much so that she literally cried when she was coming back at the end of her visit. I think her ability to communicate in Twi made her adjust easily to the people at home and made her one of the “natives”.

The point is, if the parents speak enough English or the host country’s language and insist their children to speak their mother –tongue, it’s not going to happen. So to give the mother tongue a chance, the parents can set up a household system where that heritage language has the opportunity to develop and grow in a lot of different ways within the child.

However, it becomes a problem when both parents have different mother tongue. In such case they have to negotiate and compromise on which language they want to use at home.

Nevertheless, some pre-school teachers speak against the need for the immigrants to teach their mother- tongue to their kids, because they think it will” interfere with the host countries’ language development”. They say that for the fear of learning and speaking mother- tongue at home before they attend school might impede their learning of English, or the host country’s language and, that might slow their academic learning process.

But, that is not true. Speaking the mother- tongue to a kid before he/she starts pre-school allows the kid to learn the natural language of the host country the proper way.—with correct pronunciations and the syntax of the language. My own daughter is a proof of that.

I know it’s not the number of vocabulary, words or phrases that the child has before the child starts regular school that counts. The long- term benefits of the mother -tongue over ride the short-term impediment of it. The local or the host country’s language is like infection—your child will get it regardless of what you do or don’t do. So stop worrying and stop pushing the host country’s language down your kids’ throat.

The advantages of being a bilingual (trilingual) are numerous; especially in cognitive or academic arena .Researchers have proved that children with a second language tend to do well in school than those without.

For the immigrant children learning the parents’ mother -tongue as a second language helps them to develop a very strong sense of identity, which can help them to develop a strong self-esteem and self- confidence.

It’s also believed that allowing and helping the immigrant children to have a mother- tongue as a second language, allows them to visit the folks we left behind. Because if the children don’t speak the native language they will have nothing to talk about with the people they will come in contact with and they won’t have a sense of belonging.

In fact, Italian, French, English, German or any other language which we pick up from the host country doesn’t foster the kind of closeness that the mother- tongue gives to the kids.

Interestingly, some Ghanaian immigrants claim that teaching our kids to learn our mother- tongue will “confuse” them. I beg your pardon? Do those of us who grew up in Ghana, with multiple languages look, feel and act confused? If anything, they grounded us in whom we are and developed relationships that expand our understandings of the space that we occupy in our host countries and communities in the Diaspora.

It’s that sense of belonging I’d like to pass onto my daughter and hopefully, she will pass it to her own kids .But, if I failed, at least I expect her to visit me in Ghana and able to express herself in Twi ,fluently.

Unfortunately, we immigrants experience the sickness of displacement, caused by travelling many, many miles away to migrate. So the only thing which can hold us together is the maintaining of our languages, which are the major parts of our heritage and existence.

Yes, the world we live in our host countries is too” comfortable”, depending on one’s own definition and interpretation. However, the world we left behind has changed dramatically.”So what good is it by teaching our kids about our languages or heritage?” You may be tempted to ask.

Well, yes, we don’t intend to move to Ghana anytime soon. But, teaching our kids the native languages will entice them to go home for a visit. And, going home for a visit is a form of therapeutic secret; regardless of one’s age. The feelings you get when you you’re among the folks who speak the same language you’re familiar with are very strong and special. So why deprive your kids of such transformation and life experience?

Let’s face it, the joy of visiting home, the air, the smell, the sight, the food , the people and one’s ability to communicate in the mother -tongue can never be captured in words. I don’t know about you, but to me, the home cooked meal in U.S hasn’t quite tasted the same as the meal I had in Ghana. My favorite dish at Heavy- chop Bar at Kokomelele or other favorite eating joints in Ghana are delightful. Do you notice that I didn’t even mention the cocktail of “Herbal Afrique” and Mandingo bitters, diluted with Smirnoff Ice ?( It’s my own recipe, so please don’t tell anybody. Thank you) And, Please don’t get me started!

Oh, where were we? I know it feels so good to know that our children speak very fluent Russian, French, Finnish ,Portuguese or whatever language your kids speak in your host country .But you’re not teaching them your mother- tongue for that reason., Would your children being fluent in your host’s language make them appreciate the sacrifice you made on their behalf and prepares them for their roles in this world and ultimately have any allegiance for Ghana?

In the world shaken by terrorism, natural disasters, jobs downsizing and outsourcing ,economic uncertainties, banks failures and mortgage foreclosures, the need for Ghanaian immigrants and their offspring to get close to their “roots” is imperative now than ever.

The fact is, teaching your children your mother- tongue will give them an “identity “, inner satisfaction and a chance to enjoy that social fabric which waves our hearts and souls together---which are sometimes taken for granted.

Kwaku Adu-Gyamfi (Asuomgag@hotmail.com)
NJ, USA