A recent documentary hosted by Channel 5’s The Gadget Show presenter Ortis Deley on language endangerment in the Ghanaian community got me thinking about my own fluency in my parents’ language Twi.
There are over 70 indigenous languages actively spoken in Ghana, and yet fluency is on the decline among Ghanaians in the Motherland and those across the diaspora.
The growing march towards Western globalisation combined with an under-utilisation of some spoken native languages has meant that increasingly, speakers are losing fluency in their mother tongues.
The fact that English is the official language of Ghana and as a result has become the lingua franca of government, commerce and education, naturally limits the arenas within which local languages can be spoken.
In Ghana, the mother tongue is used as a medium of instruction for the first three years of schooling after which English takes over. Children are required to speak English at all times and can face physical punishment it they don’t.
Although there are some radio stations and Ghanaian TV programmes that broadcast in the local languages, in the main the mode of communication remains in English. And let’s not forget that for some people within Ghanaian society, speaking the Queen’s English is also seen as a sign of prestige.
The end result is that the indigenous spoken word becomes relegated to social settings only. And this accelerates the demise of some underused words, phrases and sentence constructions unique to the language.
It also hampers the evolution of the spoken word and forces speakers to substitute Ghanaian words they have forgotten; never knew existed, or those that have yet to be invented, with English.
As such, it is commonplace for English to pepper conversations in indigenous languages so much so that the word ‘Twinglish’ has been coined to represent a hybrid of Ghana’s Akan language Twi and English.
A good friend of mine made the point succinctly when he invited readers of his newspaper column to give him the Twi word for wristwatch.
After much discussion online, and despite me consulting with elders who were schooled in Twi, we had to admit defeat. None of us could come up with one word that succinctly described an apparatus that tells the time from one’s wrist…..
It got me thinking about the role of such institutions as the Bureau of Ghana Languages, which was established in 1951 (under the name Vernacular Literate Board) to promote the literacy in local languages (see Documentation and Preservation of the Akan language by Kofi Agyekum).
The Gesellschaft für Technisch Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), a German organisation with over 40 years of experience, has also been instrumental in Ghana in promoting mother tongue education across Sub-Saharan African.
Thanks to the foresight of government and private institutions, these bodies have become a repository for documenting, producing, promoting and housing literature in some of Ghana’s main languages. They have also been instrumental in helping to preserve and protect Ghana’s oral traditions. But these bodies are also financially under-resourced.
Cut to Britain where the population of Ghanaians and those of Ghanaian origin has jumped by 67% to almost 94,000 in the 10-year period between 2001 and 2011, according to the latest census figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).
And in that time, the gulf between those who are fluent in their home language and those who are not continues to widen. The desire to assimilate and fear that their offspring will not grasp the English language and could therefore be at an academic disadvantage to their English peers, are common reasons why Ghanaian parents don’t pass their language on.
It is also the reason why a large majority of British-Ghanaians end up with sparse knowledge of their home language. This linguistic disconnect has its repercussions with youngsters ending up feeling alienated from extended family and their culture, and being forced to grapple with their dual identities as British and Ghanaian.
These issues and more were explored in a recent documentary ‘British Ghanaians: Lost in Translation’ produced by Pamela Sakyi and fronted by The Gadget Show presenter Ortis Kwame Deley.
Ortis is a household name in the UK having first appeared on our screens in 1994 as a Blind Date contestant. Since then, his TV accolades include presenting CBBC (children’s BBC programming) and appearing in the British film Kidulthood ….
MisBeee decided to turn the tables on the loveable presenter and find out his experiences of learning Twi, explore what it means to him to be a British Ghanaian, and learn more about what his future career plans are.
by Kirsty Osei-Bempong.
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