Opinions Wed, 17 Jul 2013

When Our Children Only Speak English at Home!

I am aware that the ability to speak English grants speakers special privileges in Ghana. But I'd like to know if it's the new trend in Ghana for parents to prevent their young children from speaking our local languages at home. A sad scene yesterday was listening to two adults discuss with pride how their nieces and nephews born and growing up in Ghana speak almost no Ghanaian native language. And when those kids showed up, they spoke some of the worst English I've heard a non-native English speak -- a rather common disturbing sight in Ghana. Some of these children, whose parents are mostly rich but rarely well educated, in their failure of learning the rules of simple good English, have resorted to constructing their own English dialect, which is incompatible with the standard English the outside world requires of them.

I do understand these parents mean no harm. Their intention is to offer their children a good foundation in the medium of instruction at schools. But what do the experts on education and language acquisition have to say on the matter? In a 1953 publication, Unesco reported that, "On educational grounds, we recommend that the use of mother tongue be extended to as late a stage in education as possible. In particular, pupils should begin their schooling through the medium of the mother tongue, because they understand it best and because to begin their school life in the mother tongue will make the break between home and the school as small as possible."

40 years later, on the ideal language of literacy, the same organization published, "Whatever language is used for literacy should have some or all of the following characteristics: (1) It should be familiar to and preferred by learners and teachers (2) It should be spoken by a large number of people over a large area. […]"

As commendable as the UNESCO proposal is, there are ,however, many who criticize the proposal of UNESCO on the grounds that "The proposal for large-scale mother-tongue medium is unrealistic, since it ignores the large number of languages involved, most of which are not yet developed. The cost of developing languages so they can serve as teaching media is bound to be enormous. To emphasize mother tongue mediums is to neglect the obvious need for a language of wider communication, which every modern state requires for efficient functioning."

They may have a point but in sociolinguistics classes, we read that “all 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”

Just like in many other African countries, English will continue to play a major role as a medium of instruction due to its dominance in global political economy in addition to the prestige Ghanaians associate with proficiency in English. What I however don't understand is that we lament about how little our children born and raised in foreign lands know about their roots (culture and language). But it appears those back home see little or no sense in upholding in high esteem what shapes their identity.

As noted, I do understand the need for having command of English as a former British colony, but what's the sense in forbidding our children from embracing their own identity at the expense of even feeding them with bad grammar as the basis of their English acquisition? What will become of our native languages (and to a degree, culture and identity) 50 years from now if we continue this mindless absorption of foreign values and identity? As a student of English myself, I repeat for last time that it is worthwhile to encourage the acquisition of English but why make the next generation of Ghanaians feel disgusted at their own native languages especially when the English world outside thinks very little of Ghanese English?

Dominic Mensah

Columnist: Mensah, Dominic