Parlez-vous Francais?

BY: Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng

Of all the Ghanaian languages, Akuapem Twi is the one that tugs at my heartstrings the most and makes me swoon. It has a rhythmic melody to it that washes over you in a gentle way that simply makes you smile.

As a young boy, listening to Okyeame Adi as he presented ‘Adult Education in Akan’ in flawless Akuapem held me spellbound. And the GBC broadcaster, Vida Koranteng-Asante, always pronounced her surname with a distinct Akuapem twang that was just delightful.

 I am sure my romantic attachment to the language has something to do with the famed politeness of the Akuapem people, even when they are insulting you. This has been fortified by my forays into the cool climes of the Akuapem ridge, their fresh, frothy palm wine and that famous world-acclaimed fufu joint at Larteh junction.  Ah…

But on the international language scene, French wins hands down. Perhaps my bias lies in the fact that I read French at the University of Ghana , Legon, with a year spent in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, as part of the degree programme. But my love affair with what is famously called ‘la langue de Moliere’ (‘Moliere’s language’, after the renowned French playwright of the 17th century) has not always been a happy one.

At the Opoku Ware School back in the 1980s, I hated my Form One and Two  French teachers with a passion and I suspect so did many of my classmates. Somehow, they fitted into the stereotypical view that French tutors were sadists, who simply delighted in compounding your confusion over the many complex rules of the language as they screamed at you in rapid, incomprehensible French. And so I endured the language, determined to yank off its oppressive yoke once I got to Form Four where it would no longer be compulsory.

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Growing love for French

Then something happened in Form Three when Mrs Gladys Kwapong took over. She was smooth, utterly professional, patient in a matronly way and fully competent. And she was very pretty too, which in a boys’ school counted a lot.

Why would you want to miss her class? By the end of Form Three, I was in love with French and Mrs Kwapong and so were many of my mates. She taught us for three years, and when the GCE O level results came out after I finished Form Five, even the Science students who had taken it as an elective subject did well. That began my affair with French. And I have never looked back.

I got the opportunity to bless Mrs Kwapong’s gentle heart many years after I left Legon and was living in the UK. One summer evening, a friend and I met up in London’s West End to hang out. We came across a very pretty young lady from France who did not speak a word of English. She lived in Boulougne. I think her name was Marie-Therese. My friend did not speak much French beyond ‘bonjour’, and yet he insisted he was interested in the young lady and asked me to be his interpreter.

My own interest

I obliged. We engaged her. My friend would ask a simple question in English, and then I would proceed to engage her in a conversation in French for close to two minutes. In flawless French of course. It soon became clear to my friend that I was parrying his questions and engaging in my own conversation. He seethed. I continued to show off. He bristled and kissed his teeth. I scolded him in Twi for his rudeness and then I ignored him as a rhinoceros would ignore a gnat settling on its hide. It was a most beautiful and enjoyable conversation I had with the lady, with my friend completely frozen out.

My friend nearly exploded after we had parted company with the lady, accusing me of betrayal. I shrugged and reminded him that he should have paid attention during his French lessons back in school and that he could not blame me for his incompetence in the most romantic language in the world. I am sure if we were in a dark corner somewhere away from the bright lights of London, he would have happily shot me in my head.I said a prayer for the beautiful Mrs Kwapong who now lives in retirement in Kumasi and is still adored by her former students.

Little effort to learn French

I think that on the whole, Ghanaians hardly make an effort to learn other international languages principally because our official language is so widely spoken across the world. And so there is a certain smugness anchored in an expectation that even if we were to find ourselves in Mongolia, Peru or Tahiti, we would certainly come across someone who at least speaks a smattering of English to make a semblance of communication possible.

The British also suffer from this affliction, with their colonial past which ensured that English spread far and wide.  Locally, many people of Akan extraction tend not to speak other Ghanaian languages, again for the same reason. Some call it linguistic arrogance. On the other hand, perhaps because of the limited spread of their language, an overwhelming number of the Dutch, for example, speak English well. I suppose it is in their interest to do so.


But I think there are enormous benefits to be derived from speaking another  language even where yours is more widely spoken. Language is an important lubricant in every aspect of our lives. For social and business purposes, it is an immense icebreaker if you are able to communicate in another person’s language with him or her, and it does build a fair amount of trust and warmth because the other feels flattered, as most of us would if we heard, say a Japanese, speaking a Ghanaian language. 

In 1963, US President John F. Kennedy’s line in German, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner (“I am a Berliner”) during a speech in Berlin, West Germany, immediately endeared him to the country’s people and boosted his popularity. One thing that made former President Jerry Rawlings popular during the days of the revolution was his insistence at speaking local languages at functions, during which he would massacre Twi or Ga. But people loved it and lapped it up,  utterly flattered.

In West Africa, the obvious choice for Ghanaians when it comes to a second international language is French, given that we are surrounded by three French-speaking countries. I am sure the fishes in the sea to our south do speak French too. In the wider ECOWAS community, Ghana is one of only five countries with English as their official language, with French dominating. It is ,therefore, in our strategic interest to promote the teaching and learning of French.

I think it is great that President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo speaks fluent French, having lived in the French capital at some point in his legal career. It was by no means an accident that when he was the Foreign Minister, he spearheaded Ghana’s application to join the International Organisation of the Francophonie (the French equivalent of the Commonwealth) as an associate member. And this week, the government, through the Ministry of Education, is pursuing access to resources from the Francophonie to promote the teaching and learning of French following its manifesto pledge. This comes on the back of the signing earlier of a linguistic pact between Ghana and the Francophonie.

Improving learning methods

I can only hope that the training of our French tutors will target methods of softening them and making them more humane,like Mrs  Kwapong. And I hope the teaching of the language will focus more of conversational French in the early years and making it more fun,  reserving the rigid, complex grammatical rules for much later.

But above all, I can only hope that my male readers in particular will take up French lessons with vim and vigour. It is not too late to repent from your phobia of the language. You never know when you will meet your Marie-Therese in Abidjan, Dakar, Geneva or Paris. Or even in London’s West End. And at that point,  you may need a linguistic tool to edge out a bothersome competitor.

Look sharp,  guys!

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