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Opinions of Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Columnist: Ackon, Paa Kow

Stop confusing the Ghanaian child

It is true that globalization has placed an importance on the learning of English at every level of society. However, I have observed a seemingly dangerous sub-culture occurring in Ghana, which I am convinced, is an affront to our culture. It is very normal now to see a sizeable number of parents who have developed the proclivity of always speaking English with their children at the expense of the local language; just with the hope that their children will become better English speakers.
Some even believe that if they do not speak English with their children, they will not do well in school. I just do not know where this is coming from. Who says the more you speak English with your child/children, the better English speakers they will become? The sad thing is that most of these parents are not even good English speakers themselves and so they end up transferring their bad English to their naive children.
Although you cannot laugh, it becomes quite hilarious sometimes to listen to the kind of English these children speak, not because the children are bad English speakers, but because of the bad English language training they received from their parents. Interestingly, because these children get to speak the language nonetheless, they do not even make the effort to read. This is a serious observation that must receive attention.
Some have suggested that since children turn to master their first language more than what they learn in later years, it is good to first train them in English since it will help improve the mastery of the language. Well, I am still wondering how many of our English dons at the Universities were taught English at home by their parents when they were kids. I am not too sure mastery of the language can be as a result of how early or late one learns to speak English. In any case, mastery is simply due to continuous reading. Parents should rather encourage their children to read more instead of just thinking that if they speak English with their children, they will just be fine.
Ghanaian parents should understand that the very foundation of language which is formed through the local language should always be pulled out from under the child in order to promote any new language. Available research shows that children with strong first language skills are more ready and able to learn a second language. In other words, it is difficult to build a second language if the first language foundation is not established and supported while the second language is being learned. What most parents should realize is that the child's first language is critical to their identity. Maintaining the first language helps children to value their culture and heritage, which contributes to a positive self-concept.
Recent Research from the George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development, Center for the Study of Language and Education shows that children who learn English at school and continue to develop their native language have higher academic achievement in later years than do students who learn English at the expense of their first language.
The research further stated that "Students need uninterrupted intellectual development. When students who are not yet fluent in English switch to using only English, they function at an intellectual level below their age. Interrupting intellectual development in this manner is likely to result in academic failure. However, when parents and children speak the language they know best with one another, they are both working at their actual level of intellectual maturity".
Sadly enough, our society now perceives parents who do not speak English with their children as being backward and benighted. I am not too sure if this is Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana. Black people turned White all in the name of globalization? What shall we make of the National Theatre, School of Ghanaian Languages at Ajumako, the Arts Council of Ghana, the Ghana Dance Ensemble, the Institute of African Studies, our Festivals, the School of Music and Drama, or the Ghana Bureau of Languages if we continue to teach our children English at the expense of the local language? We should take a clue from South Africa which has eleven official languages that are mostly indigenous.
Not too long ago, a very good friend quizzed me “tell me what use is it for a child to speak Chamber when he is in Accra. I rather teach him English, Twi, Ga and Hausa. These languages will help him more than my father's language which is Chamber. Think about it”. I found myself shocked and confused at the comment made by my friend. I believe this is the philosophy of most parents who teach their children English at home instead of their local language. It is important we encourage parents to speak the local language with their children from birth to preschool. Once the child enters early intervention school, they can then start learning the English language.
The need for a child to speak a native language like Chamba or Nzema when he is in Accra is that it will not hurt the child’s language growth. Parents should not forget that children must be able to function or communicate effectively in their homes before they can do same outside and that mastering the native language like Chamba or Nzema will not impede on the child’s English language development but rather enhance it. Therefore, the native language cannot be stripped away, even for children with language development delays. There cannot be any rationalization or justification for this.
One can comfortably say that parents have the choice of deciding which language they would want to teach their children so why the bother. The plain truth is that we all have the responsibility as a society to promote our culture. The Ghanaian culture which includes our local languages plays a central role in shaping the principles of our lives. Our culture shapes our personality and gives us unique identity. Why do we want to be what we are not?
The importance of language in sociolinguistic terms is inseparable from culture. Language is even the vehicle through which culture is transmitted and manifested. Another significant issue is how as a nation we have decided not to include the study of Ghanaian languages in our educational system. It has been said by many linguistic scholars that to deny any child literacy in their mother-tongue by not including it in the educational system will only be a means of helping the child to look down on his or her own culture. This point is adequately illustrated by Armstrong (1963) that if we despise the language of a people then by that very token we despise that people. If we are ashamed of our own language then we must certainly lack that minimum self-respect which is necessary for the healthy functioning of society.
Arguably, most of our first and second-cycle school graduates use mainly their local language to communicate in their day-to-day activities. English is hardly spoken partly because of their low level of proficiency. Boadi (1971) confirms that as far as the majority of school leavers are concerned if there is any agreement about the level of attainment which they reach in English, it is that this is low and inadequate for most ordinary purposes. If this is the ultimate plight of the Ghanaian school leaver in the use of the English language, then instead of directing almost all energies at the teaching of English, emphasis should equally be placed on the good old Ghanaian language which will be of immediate and practical use when they leave school.
Many people have suggested that our educational policies should reflect our national goals and aspirations but we must also appreciate the extent to which a serious approach to the teaching of a Ghanaian language in our institutions and at home is of prime importance. In other words, for government policies such as increased productivity, decentralisation, rural development and industralisation to succeed, the broad masses of the population need to be involved. The truth is that we can only achieve these objectives with the proficient use of the Ghanaian languages rather than with English. As the parliament of Ghana in 1971 indicated “The continued use of English condemns the overwhelming majority of the people of Ghana to second-rate citizenship by disqualifying them from discussions of serious national issues”.
It is certain that apart from the mass functional literacy campaigns under the non-formal unit of the Ministry of Education and under non-governmental organisations, there is no deliberate effort by government to promote the study of Ghanaian languages at home and in schools. It will be a step in the right direction if the majority of our children have a good working knowledge of their written mother-tongue through an emphasis on Ghanaian language education in the homes and at school.
In the words of Chinebuah (1976) “If the Ghanaian and, for that matter, the African is to have roots in the way of life into which he is born and in which his earliest emotional and social experience have their setting, he must be taught an appreciation of the culture of his people and his native tongue in which that culture finds its fullest expressions. Otherwise our educational system will only succeed in producing men and women who are linguistically and therefore culturally displaced persons”.
The Bureau of Ghana Languages is an agency of the government of Ghana that focuses on Ghanaian languages, including publication of materials in them. Although the Bureau was established in 1951 by the missionaries who in their time produced a high quality newspaper in Twi, (Kristofo Senkekafo) and in Ga, (Kristofonyo Sanegbalo) and several textbooks, it has had little support from government to enable it to perform its key role of promoting the 11 Ghanaian languages: Mfantse, AkuapemTwi, Asante Twi, Ewe, Ga, Dangme, Nzema, Dagbani, Dagaare, Gonja and Kase. How can such a state institution function effectively with only two offices in Accra and Tamale since it was established in 1951?
We promise in our National Pledge to hold in high esteem our heritage won for us through the blood and toil of our fathers. But heritage is our inherited traditions and culture of which language plays an important part to shape who we are and ultimately our personalities for our future and our future heirs
We must all accept that our local language is the road map of our culture. It tells us where we come from and where we are going. The subject of language is perfectly illustrated by a quote of the great African, Nelson Mandela. He said, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. But if you talk to him in his own language, it goes to his heart”.
Whatever you are thinking, just be mindful that you are a Ghanaian first and you cannot force your child to be someone they are not or will never be. We must therefore not confuse our children.

Paa Kow Ackon
ackon.pk@gmail.com