Monday, November 16, 2009

Ghanaians, hello; colonialism has been over since 1957!

Okay, I'm peeved. More than slightly. Ghanaians, when will you stop this nonsensical self-imposed colonialism???!!!

During my tenure as International Specialist for the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service, some American teachers and I visited an elemenatary school in Ghana. I was appalled to learn that new students, we're talking six-year olds, had to be able to communicate well in English before being accepted into a good school--Ghanaians parents choose schools for their children. The result of this stupid practice is that the younger generation can't speak their native language anymore. Parents want to get their children into the best schools, so right from birth, they speak English to them. This is wrong on many levels.

One of the fallacies of education is that a child will get confused learning two or three languages a time. Because I bought into it, my American-born children couldn't speak Fanti, my native language, for many years. Even now, they speak it poorly. While it is true that children mix up languages when learning more than one at a time, they learn to sort them out by the time they are five or even earlier. At four years old, I spoke Yoruba, Ashanti Twi and English. By fourteen, I could speak French, two additional Twi dialects and Ga. Okay, so maybe I have a flair for languages, but I've seen it happen here in America. Children whose parents speak their native language to them have grown up bilingual. My friends' children are examples. A native Czech spoke Czech to her kids; now the children are bilingual and have excelled at school. One graduated from Georgetown University and another from Boston University. My aunt in Springfield spoke Fanti to her children. They grew up speaking English and Fanti, and have done exceedingly well. These are children growing up in America. So why is that those growing up in Ghana can't speak their own language? What a travesty!

What is even more troubling is that some of these Ghanaian parents can't speak English well. I"m talking about those who didn't even make high school, who speak a halting English with faulty vocabulary. They raise children who say things like "No, he have came and took my book." This actually makes the teachers' job harder. It's like trying to mold cement after it has hardened. Fortunately, the educated children, especially if they go on to the university, learn to speak English well, but then they can't have any meaningful conversation with their parents! There's nothing sadder than not being able to have a deep conversation or share jokes with one's parents. Ghanaians are humorous and use lots of proverbs in their language. A lot of meaning is lost in translation. Children who can't communicate with their parents end up despising them, which leads to conflict. Even sadder than that is the loss of culture, something parents pass on to their children. Ghanaians have a rich culture, from the naming ceremony when a child is born, the outdooring at three months when the child is celebrated in the community, puberty rites, etc., etc. How are these going to be conducted?

Let me digress to grumble about the current notion in the English-speaking world that grammar isn't important. Oh it is!! One must know one's language thoroughly before one can even learn another. As a French/Spanish teacher, it was infuriating to have to explain English rules to my students.

It is important to know one's language well. Language defines a people, whether you're American or Ghanaian or both. Bottom line, learn your language well; it's your heritage. People need to have a good understanding of their culture so they can cut out what is unwholesome while embarcing newer ideas. That's how we grow as human beings. So Ghanaians, stop demanding English before enrollment. Stop teaching your children that their language is inferior and hence their culture is inferior. Embrace the best of both cultures. Colonialism is over.


  1. Fascinating post, Bisi.

    I'm taking French right now. (Just my first quarter!)

    However I feel it exercises parts of the brain I don't often use. Can learning additional languages help you in learning the other subjects? I've read that somewhere. Also that language is stored in the long-term memory, so that fifty years later, a man who learned French in high school can easily relearn the concepts.

    I think in addition to language, a country's citizens must know its history.

    I mentioned you at my blog this morning:

    Good morning, Bisi!

    ~ corra

  2. Corra, you are so right. In addition to language, a country's citizens must know its history! And learning a new language is like learning to play the piano, it helps to develop one's brain. In fact, it's an important intellectual exercise and great for kids.

    Good for you, learning French. I have dual degrees in French and Spanish. If you stick to it, I think you would enjoy the year abroad program where you go to school in a French-speaking country for one year. That was a life-changing experience for me. Of course, you must beware of the romantic and seductive French. Three of my friends came back with boy-friends and one married hers, hahaha.

    You do store learned language in your brain. When my father first brought me to Ghana, I forgot my mother's language, Yoruba, until I returned there at age fourteen. Everything came back to me. By the end of that summer, I was speaking it again. Same thing with Spanish. I got out of practice until I became a Spanish teacher in America. Everything came back. It makes me sad that people want to do away with foreign language education in America, but that's another debate.

    Thanks very much for the mention.

    Take care,

  3. I'd love to go to France! Really, I'd love to see any country. One day, when and if I have money. :)

  4. I'm sure you will one day; you have so much enthusiasm and life in you. It's a pleasure to watch you bounce all over the place, sometimes kittenish, sometimes a puppy, other times a tigress :).

  5. From the beginning of time, the first step to erasing a culture is to erase their language. The Irish were forbidden Gaelic. Many Native American children were forced to mission schools and only allowed to speak English. It damages the culture. Many of those groups bounced back but only because someone took the time and trouble to 'store' that language for the future.


  6. Isn't that the truth! During colonialism, we were forced to attend missionary schools, forced to have Christian names because ours was pagan, forced to speak English. Now, we're doing it to ourselves. Thank you, Tirzah, for articulating better what I was trying to say!

  7. I meant to say 'forced to speak ONLY English'. :)

  8. Bisi, Good piece about the detriment of stripping away the foundations of a culture. Language, history and practices (religious and otherwise), have always been different in various parts of the world, and that's what makes us human and interesting.
    When the world is all homoginized, and we're all the same color, speaking the same language and acting the same way, what a bore it will be! LOL. (periscope)

  9. Periscope,

    I wouldn't want to live in such a world. Vive la difference!


  10. That is a fascinating post, and such a tragedy. Speaking several languages is not only extremely beneficial in a shrinking world, but also greatly respected and a sign of an advanced education. How ironic that in an attempt to get their children the best education, the parents are actually limiting it. Doralynn

  11. Parents are actually limiting it; well said, Doralyn!


  12. Hello Bisi,
    I thank you for this blog :-) I totally agree with you.
    As I mentioned on another site, I grew up in Ghana. Mother German, father Ghanaian. My mother spoke only German with me and I spoke English in school and with my father. Now I live in Germany and speak only English with my daughter. My then in-laws were not at all pleased. They were worried that 1) they would not be able to converse with their grandchild and 2) I was being rude because they could not understand what I was saying. I asked them what they thought a mother says to her toddler which could be construed as secretive.
    I have a friend who basically spent her first years at a market in Ghana. By the time she was 8 she spoke about 6 languages.
    I can just shake my head at parents who take the decision away from their children as to whether they wish to speak more than one language. I friend of mine wanted the children to learn German, English and French, but even though the parents were consequent, the children apparently always answered in German, no matter which language one spoke with them. So the parents gave up. One day I will ask the children whether they would have wanted the parents to continue. My daughter thanked me when she was 9 years old (because she could easily speak and play with other children when we travelled).
    As to Ghanaian parents who insist that their children speak only English before they go to school, I am afraid this is not only so in Ghana. In some cases here in Europe, I am wondering whether they are transferring their own fears and (perceived) negative experiences onto the child?
    Sorry, I got a bit carried away :-))

  13. Hi Alice, I only just saw this. Oh yes, I agree with you entirely. When my Aunt spoke Fanti to her children, they always answered in English. Now that the children are in their thirties, they answer in fanti. Not only do they do that, they're so proud and happy that they speak it. Once, at a Ghanaian party, while other people carried on and roared with laughter, I looked at my daughter and saw tears streaming down her face. It cut my heart open when she said, "Why didn't you teach us Fanti? Now, I feel there's a part of you I can never share." She was nine then, precocious, I know. Thankfully, now she speaks it because we lived in Ghana for three years. If I had to do it again, I would speak Fanti.

    You can't help your situation because your parents only communicated with you in English. My guess is that your friend's children will grow up and thank her.

    When I worked at the embassy of the Central African Republic, I was surprised that the chauffeur spoke only English to his child, a language he spoke badly on account of being francophone. Now I wonder if he is able to communicate with the grown child. Thanks so much for commenting, and good to know you.