I’m of Ghanaian and Nigerian heritage, born and raised in Britain, but I can’t speak my parents’ native languages. Language has a lot of significance for me. Of course language takes on many different forms, such as body language or sign language, but communicating verbally is hugely important to me professionally and personally. Having spent over 20 years on TV, I earn my living through the spoken word and my command of the English language has served me well so far. However, it’s my inability to communicate effectively in the languages of my parents that has prevented me from travelling back to Ghana, where I feel out of place, more frequently.
Globalisation and lingua francas
Whilst filming my new OHTV documentary Lost In Translation, I discovered that there are currently around 7,000 languages and dialects spoken the world over. However, within a couple of decades, that number could half. This is down to a number of factors, one being the dominance of languages of international commerce: English, Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish, and French. These languages are spreading because the power bases that use these languages to communicate are growing in economic and cultural influence. Fast forward a few years and languages like Mandarin or Arabic could even threaten the English language’s global dominance. I think we’ll end up with a cluster of five or six dominant languages, and these will pose a threat to the less prolific ones as they spread and become more embedded in developing areas and increase both in relevance and convenience.
There are approximately 70 different languages and dialects spoken across Ghana, some of which are spoken by a relatively small number of people. When young people move out of their various villages into urban settlements to study or work, they need a common language; you can’t speak 70 different languages in a university. English presents itself as the one unifying language in Ghana. The risk is that if these individuals become groups and these groups are not practising their mother tongue, those dialects will start to die out.
Language of instruction
This raises the highly political question of whether English should even be the official language of instruction in African countries. There are strong cases on either side. In today’s interconnected, globalised world, education serves to prepare children to live an inclusive life in which they can communicate proficiently with people from all over the world. Most of these many other people will speak English. If they are not being taught English, they are not being armed fully.
That said, being taught English and being taught in English are two separate things. It’s true that in some countries – take Germany – people still manage to attain high levels of proficiency in English, despite their language of instruction being German. Whereas in Germany you have German, in Ghana you’ve got, Ewe, Twi, Fanti, Ga… you’ve got so many different languages. For those who say that the official language of instruction should be a local language not English, the counterpoint is that if it’s Twi, the Gas will question ‘why not Ga?’ If it’s Fanti, the Ewes will lament ‘why not Ewe?’ The language of instruction question is a tough one to answer, but what needs to be understood and implemented is that whatever your mother tongue and wherever you happen to reside, don’t lose it.
Parents should speak it to their children, and much of the responsibility for the inability of some of us in the diaspora to communicate in our mother tongues lies with our parents. That said, I have grown to understand why some of our parents chose not to pass it down…
Flaw in parents’ rationale
They didn’t want us to stand out. None of their peers were doing it. They wanted their children to be successful in this foreign land. They didn’t want to ‘confuse’ children by speaking different languages to them. These are common reasons for why some of us were never taught our mother tongue.
Even though the intentions of our parents were good, we have been shooting ourselves in the foot.
My dad’s family are from Nigeria, so my dad speaks Twi, Yoruba, English, and, at one point, German. I can only speak English.
When my children come along, if I don’t yet have a grasp of Twi by then (I am currently learning) my parents will speak Twi to them. I personally want to teach them, show them, and explain to them everything about where they come from, but if I can’t do it, my parents will. The language might skip a generation, but they will learn so that they don’t grow up feeling like they’re missing out on fully experiencing part of who they are and so that they don’t end up being tagged as ‘lost’.
To my relatives in Ghana, I am lost. One thing that came through strongly in the process of making the documentary was that it’s easier to identify with your culture if you speak the language. It’s not impossible if you can’t, but it’s easier if you can.
If I can’t identify fully with the culture into which I’ve been born, I can’t pass it on, therefore there will be aspects of the culture that have been and will be lost. Traditions, stories, jokes… if you have to translate them, you will lose the meaning or subtle nuances. Add to these family history, cultural norms and values, and if they continue to be eroded because of language endangerment, we will not only lose the languages, we risk losing substantial elements of our cultures too.
Encouraging young people
Just as languages bring people together, technology makes the world a smaller place. Technology, in a way, is the world’s superlanguage. I’m hoping it helps to bring down borders and, in terms of communication, continues to open doors, like it has done in aiding the rise of afrobeats.
We can create a set of keys, but we can’t force people to unlock the door. We can’t force people to ask questions of their parents’ language if they’re not at all interested. We’ve got to want to learn. To those who are curious, ask your parents or arrange to go back home. Get online and discover a world of different online classes, tutorials, and resources. Urge your parents to speak to you in your mother tongue. It’s not too late. It’s not even too late for me! The longer you leave it to learn a language the harder it becomes. But it's not impossible. I now insist that my parents only speak to me in Twi when I visit them. It’s difficult at the moment and it’ll be a slow process! But I seem to have a better ear than tongue for the language.
For better or worse, our parents have done their bit. It now falls to our generation to actively decide to cleave the language and the culture from our parents and proliferate it.
The onus is on us. We will be around longer than them, but many endangered languages will die before we do. We need to act now before we lose that conduit to the past and to our cultures. Let it not get to that point where we have to sit with a university lecturer or a historian to listen to them explain what, in their minds, they believe certain stories and cultures actually meant. Whilst we still have a direct pathway to the source of our stories, our cultures, and our traditions — and can access them in their raw original state — let us use it before we lose it. Failure to do so could result in us losing ourselves.
Actor and TV presenter ‘The Gadget Show’
Translator, linguist, entrepreneur, blogger
Parents are often unaware that children are much more capable of learning multiple languages during their childhood while their brain is still fresh, away from the limitations of technology exposure. It is the combined role of government, scientists, and media to help inform parents.
And it's not only the languages; it is dialects too. Arabic is my native language, but there are many dialects across the region, from Bahrain in the east to Mauritania in the west, and each country has its own dialect. Knowledge of one dialect of Arabic will not guarantee understanding spoken Arabic in another country. I understand Egyptian Arabic, Levant Arabic (Syria, Palestine, Lebanon), Saudi Arabic, and Bahraini to some extent. I don't, however, understand Moroccan, Algerian, or Tunisian. However, not enough is being done to preserve indigineous languages prevelant in the Arab world, like Tamazight, Nubian.
I work in Global Voices' Lingua project. Part of its mission is to translate content into languages that are not well represented online. If you feel your language is endangered, check out our Lingua project and send us a request!
Mohamed ElGohary is a Cairo-based entrepreneur, translator, blogger, and social media expert. He is a co-founder at The Workshops, with a passion to transfer skills in Egypt with a hope to go worldwide. Mohamed also works as Global Voices' Online Lingua Coordinator and Arabic Lingua Editor. His work ranges from supporting the 35 languages that Global Voices is translated into. He goal is to increase Arabic content on the internet. To this end, he volunteers as in Twitter Arabic's translation moderation team.
Dr Aaron Benavot
Director, Education for All Global Monitoring Report, UNESCO
Ortis raised the issue of the language of instruction in school, which is indeed hotly debated in Africa and elsewhere. UNESCO has long promoted that instruction take place in the mother language. Not only it is crucial for enabling children to understand their culture and identity, but learning outcomes are better when children begin in the mother tongue before switching to an official language.
Children often face language barriers that prevent them from their right to quality education. Examples abound: a Ewe speaking child in a country where English or French is official, a Q’echi’ speaking child in Guatemala, a Kurdish child in Turkey, or a minority language speaker with a different culture heritage from the dominant majority in Europe. All children have the right to be educated in their mother tongue.
Different strategies have been implemented to ensure that children’s access to mother tongue education. In Latin America the Intercultural Bilingual Education program help children to learn in their mother tongue, in sub-Saharan Africa bilingual programs help children transition from mother tongue to official language instruction. In Europe, language in education policies vary substantially: in Sweden children who hail from Sami, Finnish, Romani and Yiddish speaking homes (which are official national minority languages) have particular rights at school, while in the Netherlands children may be taught in their mother tongue from grade 1 to 4 to facilitate their learning in all subjects.
Dr. Aaron Benavot is director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report (EFA GMR). Previously, he was Professor in the School of Education at the University at Albany-SUNY. Before taking up his professorship at the University of Albany-SUNY, Dr Benavot contributed to the development and drafting of four EFA Global Monitoring Reports: Literacy for Life (2006), Strong Foundations: Early Childhood Care and Education (2007), Education for All by 2015: Will We Make It? (2008) and Overcoming Inequality: Why Governance Matters (2009).
Linguist, teacher, digital influencer
Ortis makes a number of solid points, many of which I’ve made. I’m glad that he was able to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching subjects (including English language) in our local languages. I tried to make a similar case in a recent television appearance. The problem, as raised by the hosts on that show, is the expense needed to develop syllabi, manuals, primers, and other training materials in those languages (especially in countries like Nigeria with so many languages). The response is the same: we’re rich enough to make this happen if we put premium on our own sense of self worth.
What I can only add to this is that there is much more that is in our own hands as well. Yes, we should learn our languages and teach it to our children. But more importantly, we should support projects that make our languages relevant to the new world of information technology. Where are the Yoruba keyboards? Where is Siri Twi? Where is the Igbo online dictionary with audio and other linguistic/anthropological information? Where is our Facebook Igbo? And where are local language ATMs for our aging parents...?
Kola Tubosun is a linguist, creative writer, language teacher, blogger, translator, and researcher. His professional experience spans working as a literary and non-literary translator/proofreader, a creative writer/editor, and a travel blogger. He has also worked as a language teacher at different levels of school education. Most recently, he worked as a Fulbright foreign language professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and as an adult literacy teacher/volunteer at the International Institute in St. Louis.
Photographs courtesy of Pamela Sakyi