‘Vernacular freestyle’ alert: our local languages in danger!

BY: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari
Ajoa Yeboah-Afari
Ajoa Yeboah-Afari

Yesterday, as they have done annually since 2000, UN member countries marked International Mother Language Day, “to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.” 

Ghana, too observed the Day.

But how seriously do we Ghanaians take our vernacular languages? Do we as parents, grandparents and guardians ever pause to think about the importance of our children and wards being proficient in both their mother language, as well as the official language, English?

Apparently not. We’re still fixated on our young ones concentrating on English alone, as a feature in the Ghanaian Times highlighted earlier this week.

The writer, Abigail Annoh, wrote: “Ghana risks losing its indigenous languages in the nearest future as most basic schools across the country continue to defy the use of the local languages as the primary means of instruction.

“The local language policy reignited by the Ghana Education Service in 2015, stipulates that pupils from kindergarten to primary three be taught mainly with the local languages to improve literacy and language acquisition.

“However, checks by the Times … revealed that most basic schools in the capital, both private and public, have flouted the directive” (Ghanaian Times, February 20).

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“At least 43 per cent of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered.

Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain...” the UN warns.

In this column, from time to time, I have expressed similar concerns about the neglect of, and attitudes to, Ghanaian languages usage.

The following is an abridged version of what I wrote in 2017:

* * *

Earlier this week, a news item about a workshop on the teaching of Ghanaian languages excited me because it coincided with an online communication I had just had with daughter No. 2, resident abroad.

Our WhatsApp chat had ended with me making the humorous comment: “some of you need Twi lessons!”

Her equally light-hearted response: “Twi on social media is freestyle!” She had added: “You will collapse if you see how people write Ga!”

I replied: “I put it to you that it’s ‘freestyle’ only to those who don’t know the spellings.”

Daughter again: “Also, the keyboards are not Twi friendly. Hahahaha!”

The coincidental news item, a Ghana News Agency report in the July 10 issue of the Ghanaian Times, quoted Asante-Akim South District Education Director Ignatius Mwinbe Ere-Der as attributing the poor academic performance of some pupils to their inability to read.

“He was opening a capacity building workshop on the teaching of Ghanaian languages under the ‘USAID Partnership for Education Programme’, and jointly organised by the Ghana Education Service, the Education Ministry and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

“Mr Ere-Der noted that the use of the local language as a medium of instruction would go a long way to improve reading and writing among school children. Participants will help to train others,” the report added.

My daughter’s witty explanation for her poor Twi spellings sums up perfectly the general situation.

Not only is the writing of Twi in a lot of online chats “freestyle”, unfortunately, that is also the case in other media, including newspaper advertisements.

Even advertisements by reputable organizations, as well as official communication at times show ‘freestyle’ tendencies.

But if we are not able to read and write properly in our own languages, it can’t be a matter to be glossed over.

Many children can’t even count in their vernacular or name the days of the week.

And as for knowing the vernacular greetings, clearly it’s expecting too much!

But surely, these are basics, our cultural heritage and underpinnings!

If we lose language and customs, what makes us Ghanaian?

And we are all to blame! Many of us, educated in and with foreign languages, are guilty.

The gravity of the problem is underscored when one listens to some radio stations which are supposed to broadcast in Twi.

More often than not, their panellists speak so much English that the programmes might be mistaken for English language ones ….

What is equally hard to understand is why the big organizations which spend a lot of money to commission publicity featuring vernacular expressions don’t go the extra mile to make sure that their spellings are correct.

For example on the same day that the Times published the report about the Ghanaian languages training, there was a full page colour advertisement in the Daily Graphic by DStv about a reduced price package, with what appeared to be a Twi/Akan slogan “ЄDA FƆM”.

I read the announcement a number of times, trying to understand it.

I could understand the first word but what did the second word mean?

Apparently it was meant to express ‘low’, but in that case was the spelling correct?

I thought the catchphrase was meant to convey the meaning ‘it (the promotion/price) is very low/on the floor’; but if so, shouldn’t it rather have been ‘Єda fam’?

But why would anybody creating an advertisement based on a Ghanaian language slogan not take the trouble of checking if it is correct? Surely Ghanaian language teachers could assist?

Anyway, it’s good to know that the GES is organizing such training. But what an irony that USAID providing funding for us to train people to teach our own languages!

Nevertheless, undoubtedly it’s a positive step towards ending the embarrassing vernacular ‘freestyle’ so much in evidence.

It’s also noteworthy that while the computer keyboard has symbols that one can substitute for some of the Ghanaian alphabets, it’s not the same with the standard mobile phone keyboard, as my daughter pointed out.

Anyhow, despite the keyboard issue, I intend to do my bit towards reducing the Twi ‘freestyling’.

There will be a Twi dictionary in the post to my daughter very soon! (Column of July 14, 2017 ‘Tackling the problem of vernacular ‘freestyle’).

* * *

The Times article of February 20 quoted a memorable observation by a language expert, Mr Enoch Adinortey Adibuer: “Politicians during elections go to their constituencies and speak their local languages to get votes (but) come back to Parliament and speak English when making laws, so how do you expect the people to understand?” Very perceptive, I thought.

Postscript: I did surprise my daughter with a Twi/Akan dictionary, delivered safely and speedily by Ghana Post.

And, happily, she assures me: “We do use the dictionary. It’s very useful.”

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