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Opinions of Monday, 5 November 2012

Columnist: Mensah, Dominic

Why Debate in a Minority Language

when the Majority of Ghanaians understand Twi?; When Politicians Sideline their Audience with the Queen's Language!

Listening to the presidential debate organized by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) last Tuesday, the only question that kept on popping in my mind was how my grandmother, listening to our presidential aspirants outline their projected policies, was supposed to make an informed decision on December 7. She speaks no English and I know she isn’t alone in this. At one point it was like the four men were trying to prove to Ghanaians who spoke the best English. Was the Ghanaian public unanimous declaration of Hassan Ayariga as the worst performer related to the his poor English skills or was it due to his incoherent arguments? Was the aim of the debating platform to give our candidates means of conversing among themselves or was it rather a podium set up with nationwide coverage to give Ghanaians (including the millions living in our hinterlands) access to the candidates’ thoughts and visions for Ghana?

If the latter case was the goal of the presidential debate (which it was), why was it carried out in a language that the average Ghanaian has difficulty understanding? If the various presidential debates are carried out with the goal of helping the Ghanaian electorate make reasonable and content-based decision on the election day, mustn’t we ask why we insist on doing this in language that the majority of Ghanaians don't understand and those who claim to do, have limited command of. Or do we expect our various media houses to do their own interpretations of what they think the candidates said and didn’t say for the masses?

Ghana with a population of 25,000,000 has about 5,000,000 English speakers (Magnus Huber. Phonology and Syntax of English in Ghana). Akan (Twi, Fante, Akuapim, etc.) has 8,300,00 native speakers and millions more have it as their second language (2004 SIL). About 70 percent of Ghana’s population lives in the southern half (the coastal areas, Brong, Ashanti, Eastern and Western region) of the country. Twi, comprising the non-Fante dialects of Akan, is the main areal lingua franca in Ghana's south. And whoever has spent some time in the northern part of Ghana, knows that he or she can survive and function there comfortably with only a knowledge of Twi. With these unquestionable facts available to every Ghanaian to crosscheck, can somebody then tell me why a minority language had to be selected as the medium for a national debate calling for Ghanaians to make an informed decision-making on December 7?

I do understand people tend to become very sentimental when it comes to matters of national language in Ghana, to the extent that they approach the topic from a tribalistic and ethnocentric perspective rather than allowing the sociolinguistic situation in Ghana determine their argument. And I am aware that we are creatures of passion and prejudice but to the extent that we are willing to be rational and allow facts to determine our actions, we can overcome the obstacles in this matter. Most often proponents of the English language advance the theory that English has the credential to act as a buffer to diminish the danger of linguistic conflict; something I consider rather silly since Western languages chosen as official languages have failed to prevent conflicts elsewhere in Africa. And there’s another argument that states that it is desirable to have the candidates debate in English because that’s the language they all share. To this argument, I say that if a candidate cannot speak the language understood by the majority of Ghanaians, that means he or she cannot relate to the majority of Ghanaians linguistically, sociologically and psychology, and frankly speaking, has no business aspiring to govern Ghana on the national level. That’s why we have local governance (DCEs, MCEs, assembly men/women) and the parliament for such people to serve as intermediates between their local communities and the national government.

By sheer number, the number of Germans who speak English outnumber the entire population of Ghana, but never in this world would a German national debate be carried out in English. The UK Parliament just made a change in law to ensure Welsh voters receive bilingual ballot papers in next month's elections for police and crime commissioners. And in the run-up to the 2012 elections, the US federal government has ordered that 248 counties and other political jurisdictions provide bilingual ballots to Hispanics and other minorities who speak little or no English. And I don’t believe local candidates who go to such communities to solicit their votes go speaking to them in a language they don’t understand. But why do we insist on doing everything else counterproductively in Ghana?

My case rests on that fact that we- Ghanaians- haven't considered it important to develop and study our own national languages. If we did, we could have come up with an effective way to reconcile our local languages with our "mediocre" English. The “neutrality” of English can no longer be be accepted as a valid reason to sideline our local languages when it comes to national functions. Out of simplistic ignorance and laziness, we maintain our language must be inferior to English. Some months back, I came across a 1881 Twi dictionary that was compiled by the Basel Evangelical Society. They went through the trouble of doing so because it was relevant to their work of successfully bringing their message to the locals. As a linguist who understands the relationship between identity and language; as an African who wants to see Africa progress; as a fanatic of culture of learning who wants to witness the development of African literature, I am voicing out my concerns. In Ghana, it is not uncommon for lot of people to equate intelligence with mastery of the English language regardless of how hollow and uncritical the person may sound. Disturbingly illiteracy in any of our local languages doesn't bother anyone; it’s even applauded, cherished and encouraged.

English was solely adopted as official language by people who didn't really understand the correlation between language and national development; people who barely understood the connection between contents of education and medium of instruction. And we are still paying for their neglect of insightful decision making. English must be learned but I believe it is time we embrace our local languages and consciously promote literacy in them as well. Having studied the development and promotion of French, Italian, German, Korean and English as national languages, I agree with Carol Benson, who wrote in “Bilingual Programs as Educational Development: Access, Quality, Empowerment and Equity” that: “All spoken languages have equal worth in expressing their speaker’s thoughts; the difference is that opportunities have not been made to develop locals languages in written form or in forms designed for use in domains beyond the home and community. New terms and structures can be developed as needed, as demonstrated by Léopold Senghor, a literary scholar and former president of Senegal, who once translated Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into Wolof.”

A successful communication is determined by the extent to which the listener receives and understands most of the things the speaker intended to communicate. Even if two people had a perfect control of the language that is used for communication, language as a medium of expression ideas and sharing thoughts, is an imperfect medium clouded by our emotions and colored by our interests, as well as the haziness of our own thoughts and interpretations. With these obstacles in place, why put the majority of Ghanaians at a disadvantage by forcing them to listen to an interaction in a language they have to mentally compute to make sense of its words and structure while at the same time trying to make sense of our candidates’ political messages?

We must give our languages chance to develop if we are to embrace our identity and promote progress of our nation and continent on our own terms. These European languages, even though they have enjoyed privileged status in African multilingual societies, have failed to become the native language of the majority because the European colonizers were not interested in sharing their languages with the colonized indigenous population. In “Colonization, Globalization and Language Vitality in Africa: An Introduction” Mufwene argues that “the European language assimilation system was designed less for universal education than to create an elite class of colonial auxiliaries who became a buffer between the colonized and the colonizers and ultimately worked for the metropole.” It follows that even before independence, the ability to speak an European language was accorded with it certain privileges that became an incentive for the masses of the population to desire to speak one of these languages as well. And the same associations of intelligence, empowerment and social status with English still go on in Ghana! It’s time to stop that nonsense!

Dominic Mensah,