What kind of English should a Ghanaian speak?

Fri, 9 Mar 2012 Source: Amenyo, Kofi

One of the most important things the British left us after more than a hundred years of colonisation is, perhaps, their language which has, today, become the world’s foremost. English is, arguably, the most unifying cultural element of our nation state given the fact that when Ghanaians do not speak it, they resort to one of, at least, forty languages many of which are unintelligible to their fellow countrymen and women. Today, Twi is assuming a predominant role that is unprecedented in the history of our country but it is doubtful if it will ever replace English as our principal official language not least because Ghanaians will still want to be fully integrated into the globalised village.

What kind of English should the Ghanaian, then, speak? This piece is about the spoken, rather than the written, language since for the latter, many Ghanaians can reach quite a high level of excellence.

Anyone who has gone to school in Ghana is confronted with English as the British speak it. We are supposed to use their spellings, constructions and when we speak, we should aim at the “Received Pronunciation” (RP), otherwise known as “BBC English”. This type of English accent is not associated with any region or district in Britain (perhaps loosely to the south) but with a particular social class with the attendant connotations of prestige, authority and even arrogance. It is what educated Brits speak especially in formal situations. It is what the British monarch uses to deliver her messages to the Commonwealth. It is the “Queen’s English”. It was what we in Ghana were being told to try to mimic! When I wrote my “O” Levels in the early 70s, there was an additional, optional, subject – Oral English. It didn’t count towards your final grade but it was cool. That subject has long been phased out.

Much attention was paid those days to pronunciation in secondary school. But it was difficult to get a Ghanaian to teach you how to pronounce English words correctly when he didn’t know how to himself. There were books giving directions, but... Even if you have a native born English (the VSO teacher rather than a Peace Corp) handling the subject, you are still not going to get it. As a Ghanaian, you will still end up putting the stresses on all the wrong syllables! This affects our reading, and enjoyment, of English poetry even though we don’t know that. Just compare a recorded version of Shakespeare’s sonnets performed by an English actor with your own frustrating attempts at giving voice to the Bard’s metered verses.

The stress of English in Ghana as a medium of instruction in school has led to the unfortunate idea that the better English one speaks, the more educated one is. In elementary school, vernacular may be banned and in secondary school, your friends will laugh at you for speaking bad grammar (bomb). This makes life a bit difficult for the students who are good in the sciences but care little for English. (Allow ... he is a science student!)

There are many parents in Ghana who now speak English at home with their young ones so that they may become better in the language. The unfortunate thing is that, some of these parents do not, themselves, have a good mastery of the language. The standard of the language in our educational institutions has also fallen. Pidgin English, which Ghanaians learnt from Nigerians but cannot speak well, is common in the high schools. Semi-literate Ghanaians are picking up some typically Nigerian English expressions from watching too many Naija movies. There are graduates today in Ghana who can hardly string a correct sentence in English even though they graduated with good grades from the humanities departments in the country’s top universities.

No matter how hard we try to pronounce English words correctly, there is no way a person born and bred in Ghana will be able to speak like an Englishman. Psychologists have shown that after the critical ages of 13 to 15, a person will not be able to speak another language as fluently as a native speaker.

Travelling has exposed many Ghanaians to different varieties of spoken English. The USA contains the largest number of Ghanaians in any non-African country. They have to deal with English as used by Americans which is different from the British influenced English they were used to at home. Many Americans think English accent is captivating, indeed, exotic (sexy?). Note the popularity of British sitcoms in the US (recently Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs, etc. or the regular British character in the popular Star Trek series). But this is not the kind of accent the Ghanaian who arrives in the US has in his baggage. Ghanaians abroad are forced to change their accent when they realise their spoken English is not being understood. Sometimes, this leads to some horrendous results. For some it will be far better to maintain their Ghanaian English pronunciations than what they think is American or British diction. These are the ones whose kids tell them not to embarrass them by speaking English to them when they are with their friends. This phenomenon is common in all countries where the immigrant tries to speak the local language which his children have become better at.

Unfortunately, many of us live in the immigrant areas of our new countries. The children brought up in such areas are in danger of not picking the correct form of the language, be it in some Paris banlieue, London, Hamburg, Amsterdam or Stockholm. This may not matter in places like the US, the melting pot of different cultures, or London where Bangladeshis with horrible English accents are working in banks, but in countries where the hosts may frown on the slightest aberration in the use of their language it can become a handicap in the labour market when the kids grow up.

In my student days in Ghana, we looked up to the newsreaders on GBC for correct Ghanaian English pronunciation. Those were the days of John Hammond and Kwame Amamoo who were among the best readers. Today, there is not much one can pick from the Babel that is broadcasting in Ghana. Komla Dumor, formerly of Joyfm and now on BBC, speaks well for a person brought up in Ghana. As a Ghanaian, you can hardly hear an accent in his voice, but if you listen hard enough, you can just about hear the edges of Ghanaian pronunciation especially of certain words. But a Brit can easily tell that he doesn’t speak with a native accent. I personally think Komla makes too much of an effort to sound like “them”. It shows. Thirty years ago, he may have been limited to the African Service at a time when every announcer spoke RP (the BBC claims it has never insisted on this). Today, many British regional accents and others from far flung places in the world can be heard on the World Service.

None of our leaders, past and present, can be said to be good examples of spoken Ghanaian English (yes, there is something like that despite the influences of our various ethnic languages on our English). Nkrumah and Rawlings were very articulate but I won’t call their spoken English typically Ghanaian. Busia spoke very well but he sounded too effeminate. Our military leaders haven’t been too good with English even though Acheampong improved considerably on his reading techniques especially during the latter half of his reign. Gen. Ankrah was very dull. Kufuor stutters a bit which is a drawback to his delivery, quite apart from the Asante influence on his accent. Mills is not much to write home about. Akufo-Addo is fluent but his accent is not Ghanaian. Well, he is a dadaba who spent much of his youth in the UK. One wonders if there is something pretentious about his pronunciation given the fact that he has spent much of his life in the country he is now seeking to lead. Nobody born and brought up in Ghana speaks the way he does unless the person makes a conscious effort to go FELA – Foreign Experience Locally Acquired.

You may have your own favourites but for me, the best example of Ghanaian English on the international scene is, perhaps, Kofi Annan’s clear diction. The man maintains the Ghanaian features in his pronunciation and yet succeeds in being easily understood by the peoples of the world. Wolé Soyinka is an even better example of an African speaking distinctly without aping Americans or the English. His efforts are laudable given the strong influence his native Yoruba has on the pronunciation of English words and the cadence of the language generally.

We all have to navigate the waters as best as we can. As for me, I will try to retain my “impeccable Ghanaian accent”. Actually, I really can’t do otherwise...

Kofi Amenyo (kofi.amenyo@yahoo.com)

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi