Last week, I met a young Ghanaian lady whom I later got to know as Shirley in Accra— studying Spanish and hoping to work at the Foreign Affairs ministry.
Shirley spoke English, Twi, Ga and Hausa, and she was paying huge amounts of money to add Spanish to her impressive CV of languages. Though I cannot speak Spanish, I know a few sentences from my regular visits to Spain so I was able to chip in a few sentences during our introduction.
In Ghana, most educated people are bi-lingual; they speak mostly English and their native language. A few others speak more than two languages. My mother for instance fluently speaks English, Twi, Hausa and Dagbani, and my senior brother, a chemistry lecturer speaks English, Twi and Hausa.
Like most Ghanaians, I speak only two languages; Twi and English—but I wish I could speak one more Ghanaian language. I speak Twi because that was what my family spoke at home and with English being the language of instruction in Ghanaian schools, there was no way I could have missed that.
It’s beautiful and important that a person is able to speak at least his own native language—if not for anything at all, for the sake of identity and culture.
However, there is a growing pathetic trend in Ghana where parents are prohibiting their children from speaking any other language apart from English at home—to the extent that children born and growing up in Ghana cannot speak or comprehend any other language except English.
I remember those days in Ghana when speaking vernacular was a taboo in schools, such that my school appointed student spies, who went about writing the names of students who spoke vernacular— and these students were subsequently punished.
Considering the fact that the mode of instruction in Ghanaian schools is English, it is reasonable to encourage students to speak English while on campus to create that sort of language comfort and improvement, capable of helping a student’s general studies.
It is therefore understandable why schools would insist on English-only policies on campus but importing this academic set-up into our homes and compelling children who are just learning to speak to have English as their first, second and only language is really disturbing.
I thought the borders were clear: children learn English in school and at home they get the opportunity to learn the language of their parents—equipping them to be able to communicate in both languages while being able to identify themselves as belonging to a particular culture.
Beyond the conception of culture which may mean less to a lot of people, several people are paying huge amounts of cash to learn a second language and instead of freely granting our children this, we are robbing them of this natural privilege under the new notion of being ‘posh’.
I know over 15 families in Ghana who refuse to speak any other language apart from English to their kids—and shockingly, the children can only speak and understand English despite having been born in Ghana.
African parents who had their children abroad back in the days suffered in the hands of this problem. I know several Ghanaians and Nigerians who grew up in UK unable to speak their local languages bitter about this.
This has always been a western problem associated with Africans born abroad but as usual; this has been swiftly borrowed into Ghana with increasing number of Ghanaian parents finding it prudent and proud that their children are able to speak only English.
Perhaps, the confusion resides in the fact that some people honestly think speaking fluent English is a quintessential tough ingredient to becoming smart—when the measure of intellect or smartness has nothing to do with a person’s spoken language.
We have millions of global geniuses who cannot speak a word of English—don’t look far, just pay attention to China. In the UK, 1 in 5 adults struggle to read and write—meaning, these people can rattle English eloquently but they are somewhat illiterates.
I find it deeply shocking that instead of celebrating and embracing the Ghanaian setting where almost every Ghanaian school going child can jump between English and a local language, a more desirable phenomenon, we are quickly developing a single language approach. And pathetically, it’s our local language which is being annihilated.
Although a lot of the citizens of France, Sweden, Germany, Denmark and Netherlands can speak good English, they always serve their local language first. If they find you pitiful enough, they may switch to English to help you. These people take pride in their countries, their languages and cultures, and here we are as Ghanaians selling out the crumb of our left identity, right in Ghana.
It may sound refreshing to have your child speak English eloquently but it’s deeply superficial if this same child cannot speak a word of his own language, especially having been born and brought up in Ghana.
We need to adjust our thinking—our obsession with everything foreign is dangerous.
I confronted one the 15 parents I came across doing this and she told me she has not prohibited her 2 year old child from speaking Twi—it’s just that she prefers to speak only English to her. So I asked; how will this child learn to speak Twi? Adding that, refusing to speak to the child in her mother tongue is a disguised prohibition.
This is a growing trend, albeit inexcusable—and parents are proud of this, unaware of the problems they are nurturing.
If English was the epitome of excellence, China would have been down the ladder.
Once again, we are copying blindly.
Do you know of any Ghanaian parents doing this?