Official use of Ghanaian languages will help modernisation

Thu, 18 Jul 2013 Source: Kofi of Africa

Official use of Ghanaian/African languages will help modernisation


The current Elections Petition before the Supreme Court has expended many weeks of valuable national production time of captured Ghanaian TV audiences. The proceedings have mixed blessings. They have mesmerized, exhausted and entertained us. We are exhausted by boring repetitive interrogations over ‘pink sheets’. Pompous Counsels have also applied casuistry (standard form of reasoning applied in common law) to both mesmerize and entertain us through the use of apish colonial English and archaic Latin words. ‘Amicus curia’ is uttered to mean an adviser to the court on a matter of law. Transmogrified is uttered euphemistically to mean pink sheets are being transformed in a surprising, magical manner.

While opposing Counsels belligerently drag their cross examinations with rhetorical (persuasive talk meant to impress – playing to the gallery) strategies, justice and freeing of national political time and ethnic passions still eludes us. Crucial to the aim of this article, the ponderous and pompous behavior of Counsels, alerts us to the issue of the link between linguistics and national development and modernization. The question arises: must colonial English continue to be used as Ghana’s/Africa’s official national language(s)?


The above question is heightened by a motivational feature article written in Fantse and posted by, Kwesi Atta Sakyi (Feature Article, Sunday, 14 July 2013, Sakyi, Kwesi Atta, Mfantse kasa mbirenyi bi nom-H3nara nkonkonko, http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/artikel.php?ID=279383&comment=9445677#com). Kwesi Atta’s excellent article reignites major cultural debates in the 1980s, that Africans must decolonise the continued use of European languages. We must begin to write and speak in our own native languages, because European languages were imposed by imperial countries who once colonized us.

Even as I support the writing and speaking of all our Ghanaian/African languages in our courts, parliament, policy ministries, media, key national anniversary rituals, etc, the reason for saying so becomes vividly expressed in the irony and paradox of commenting in English, the language of our colonisers. The downside of this is that, the billions of people who speak native African languages to whom we target our discourses, loose the understanding and full nuanced meaning or cutting edge of what we really mean to communicate to them. I will illustrate what I mean by close-reading what Kwesi Atta writes:

‘Y3taa ka d3 Mfantsefo anaa Fantsefo. Binom taa ka d3 woroko Mfantse, kyer3 d3 woroko Mfantse nkwaado anaa Mfantseman mu. Hmmm! Nhw3. Fantse kasa gu ahorow papa bi. Hon a wowo Gomua, Assin, Oguaa, Anomabo, Edwumako, Nkusukrum, Edina, Takoradi, Ahanta, Apaa, Abura Dunkwa na dza a okeka ho no nyinara wo nsonsonee kwan a wofa do ka hon Fantse.’

Translation: We often say ‘Mfantsefo (Fantse people) or Fantsefo. Some say they are going to Mfantse, meaning they are going to Mfante domain or Mfanse country. Hmmm! Look. Fantse languages are extremely varied. There are those from Gomua, Assin, Oguaa, Anomabo, Edwumako, Nkusukrum, Edina, Takoradi, Ahanta, Apaa, Abura Dunkwa, etcetera have unique ways of speaking Fantse.


A lot of Ghanaians/Africans, including myself, can write and speak fluently in the language of the colonisers (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, etc). Yet, we struggle to read, understand and mass communicate in our own languages. For example translating Kwesi Atta’s text above was slow and taxing. This is because our leaders, since Independence from formal European colonialism, have implemented and sustained a wrong national policy to conduct all written and spoken linguistic communication - from educational institutions throughout ministerial offices of administration - in the languages of the imperialist countries that had once colonised us. This is wrong and must be changed.


The time has come to change the above policy. We must start by debating the use of local languages at the highest level of national communication. The content of speaking and writing in local languages must be increased in all our institutions of learning, and across board to all national institution.

Why? We will be able to communicate more fully in our own languages. The full nuances, inflections, philosophies and wisdom in-bedded in our languages will be released in all areas of communication. Our understanding of meaning will escalate. We will attain national dignity, self-reliance and collective linguistic coherence.

All major cultures in the world write and speak in their own languages. The Chinese, Indians, Europeans, etc, write purely in their native languages. Even their math and science instructional and text books are written in their languages. This has not blunted their national development in the art, social and natural sciences. Rather, the heightened level s of communications, as I point out above, has clearly elevated their national cohesion and development way beyond Ghana’s/Africa’s splintered, inchoate dabbling around with foreign languages.


If the argument and examples I have adduced for the need to communicate in our languages is valid, then we must perceive how we must put it into practice. I suggest a phased approach:

1) A National Languages Research Team (NLRT) must draw a timetable to research, identify and draw a policy report that offers corrective measures which will lead to the implementation of an educational and public information campaign. This group must be composed of our best practioners of Ghanaian linguistics (my friend Prof. Adam Bodono comes to mind) media of communication (Kwame Kakari) legal mind (Dr. Raymond Atuguba – the senior law lecturer at the University of Ghana), etc.

2) The (NLRT) must allow the use of key native languages at the local level. But it must assess and elevate one predominantly spoken language to the level of official national language. 3) There must be open, democratic, assessable and pervasive national debate on the use of local languages. 4) Advertising and publicity blitz. 5) All teaching instructions in primary and secondary schools must revert to African languages. 6) Intensive African Languages for Erstwhile Speakers of Colonial Languages (ALESCL) educational course must be taught at all institutions of higher learning, state ministries bureaucracies and communities.

To those who unreasonably dread what will happen to their dear colonial languages, the answer is simple. Ghana/African countries can first write in our languages and translate what we say into relevant foreign languages - just like we now confidently write unquestioningly in the languages of the European nations and translating them into our local languages on radio.


I remember the many major debates that was waged on the pages of West Africa magazine in the 1980s, between literary heavy weights in Africa (Ng?g? wa Thiong'o , Wole Soyinka, Ayie Kwei Armah, Chenua Achebe and others) on the pros and cons of using African and European languages. Ng?g? put his money where his mouth is by astutely implementing his pro-African languages views. He is probably the only major African writer who has stopped writing in English. Even though he is a professor of English in a US university, he now writes only in his native Kikuyu languages:

"Ng?g? wa Thiong'o (Gikuyu pronunciation: [??o?e wa ði???]; born 5 January 1938) is a Kenyan writer, formerly working in English and now working in Gikuyu. His work includes novels, plays, short stories, and essays, ranging from literary and social criticism to children's literature. He is the founder and editor of the Gikuyu-language journal M?t?iri. In 1977, Ng?g? embarked upon a novel form of theatre in his native Kenya that sought to liberate the theatrical process from what he held to be "the general bourgeois education system", by encouraging spontaneity and audience participation in the performances. His project sought to "demystify" the theatrical process, and to avoid the "process of alienation [that] produces a gallery of active stars and an undifferentiated mass of grateful admirers" which, according to Ng?g?, encourages passivity in "ordinary people". AlthoughNgaahika Ndeenda was a commercial success, it was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening. Ng?g? was subsequently imprisoned for over a year.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ng%C5%A9g%C4%A9_wa_Thiong'o).


The late African nationalist presidents, Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Milton Obote, (Uganda), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) took a formidable decision to transform their East African countries linguistically in the late 1960s. Today all their countries speak Kiswahili.

There is no purism or authenticity in the linguistic coherence of African languages like Kiswahili or the hundreds of languages from: Ghanaian, Nigeria, South African and Sudanese. Because they are delta languages that have been influenced over many years by many cultural encounters with others: Arabs, Persians, Portuguese, English, French, Dutch, etc:

‘It is an undeniable truth that Arab and Persian cultures had the greatest influence on the Swahili culture and the Swahili language. To demonstrate the contribution of each culture into the Swahili language, take an example of the numbers as they are spoken in Swahili. "moja" = one, "mbili" = two, "tatu" = three, "nne" = four, "tano" = five, "nane" = eight, "kumi" = ten, are all of Bantu origin. On the other hand there is "sita" = six, "saba" = seven and "tisa" = nine, that are borrowed from Arabic…"chai" = tea, "achari" = pickle, "serikali" = government, "diwani" = councillor, "sheha" = village councillor, are some of the words borrowed from…Portuguese… "leso" (handkerchief), "meza" (table), "gereza" (prison), "pesa" ('peso', money), etc.’ (A Brief History of the Swahili Language, http://www.glcom.com/hassan/swahili_history.html).


In pointing out the above fact, bold policy decisions must be enacted to use African languages officially. I suggest all main native languages of our people must be encouraged. However, it is endlessly beneficial to identify and define one language as an official national language. I suggest Twi is used in Ghana nationally. Why? It is the most spoken and written.

What do we do about proud ethnicities that will be inclined to oppose this vehemently for political, cultural or historical reasons? The national interest must supersede all ethnic differences, biases and prejudices. The developmental and modernizing advantages of Twi as a national language need to be reasonably explained and discoursed nationally before the language committee I have mentioned above implements Twi nationally.

Lastly, an accurate translation services, as currently operate to a small extent in most African countries including Ghana, is needed. Dr. Nkrumah set up the Bureau of Ghana Languages (BGL) that was charged with translating key national texts into all Ghana’s key languages. Radio and TV stations in Ghana (led by Radio Ghana, Ghana Broadcasting TV - similarly tasked as BGL) have continued to provide some local language news and discussion programming. These must be well funded and resources to upgrade their linguistic output.

To conclude, it is important to veer the discourse of using official African languages away from the purist argument of authenticity or national pride. That is not the point. The key point is the mother languages of over 95% of our people are Ghanaian/African. Therefore, the need to elevate our traditional societies into advanced manufacturing industrial export economies imposes on us the need to communicate fully and efficaciously with them. To do so, we need to speak our own African languages officially.

We will be able to communicate more fully in our own languages. The full nuances, inflections, philosophies and wisdom in-bedded in our languages will be released in all areas of communication. Our understanding of meaning will escalate. We will attain national dignity, self-reliance and collective linguistic coherence. Language, therefore, becomes a political terrain for the negotiation of our development, modernization, independence, freedom and justice.

Columnist: Kofi of Africa