Friday, 24 February 2017

International Mother Language Day by Joseph Kofi Avunyra

Article 39 clause 3 of the 1992 Constitution enjoins the State to foster the development of Ghanaian languages and pride in Ghanaian culture. The State must also ensure that its citizens feel proud of their languages and cultural heritage. One wonders whether the State has been adhering to this constitutional requirement. In November 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed February 21 as International Mother Language Day. The day which was first observed globally on February 21, 2000, was to promote linguistic and cultural diversity, multilingualism and to highlight greater awareness of mother language education.

In Ghana, the celebration of the International Mother Language Day has not been given the due attention it deserves compared to other International Days instituted by the United Nations. Students who study Ghanaian languages even at the universities are mocked at and branded as “unintelligent” by their colleagues who pursue different courses. This worrying situation does not augur well for the study and development of our local languages. One interesting characteristic of language is that it is a living organism. This means that language grows and dies. Available statistics indicate that 50 per cent of about seven thousand languages spoken in the world are likely to be endangered within the next few generations, and about ninety-six per cent of these languages are spoken by just four per cent of the world’s population.

In Ghana, the neglect of Ghanaian Languages in the 60s, resulted in the number of students studying such Languages in the secondary schools steadily fall from 51% in 1960 to 24.5% in 1968. This unfortunate situation of neglecting Ghanaian Languages seems to be rearing its ugly head again in Ghana's current educational system. Students offering Ghanaian Languages at the universities have been on the decline over the past decade. This situation paints a gloomy picture of the future of indigenous languages. One sure way of promoting a language is to speak it and reduce it to writing.

However, in Ghana, many people appear to feel shy to speak their own mother language. The Bureau of Ghana Languages established in 1951 as the only government department mandated to write and publish books exclusively in Ghanaian Languages, in order to promote the local languages, is unable to deliver effectively because of understaffing, insufficient funds and logistics. The Bureau of Ghana Languages has been operating in the eleven Ghanaian languages, which are Akuapem Twi, Asante Twi, Dagaare, Dagbani, Dangme, Ewe, Ga, Gonja, Kasem, Mfantse and Nzema. However, the once buoyant Department engaged in the promotion and development of Ghanaian Languages, is now a pale shadow of its former self. The theme for this year’s International Mother Language Day, “Towards Sustainable Future through Multilingual Education,” would not have come at a better time. To foster sustainable development, learners must have access to education in their mother tongue and in other languages. It is through the mastery of the first language or mother tongue that the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are acquired. Local languages, especially minority and indigenous, transmit cultures, values and traditional knowledge, thus playing an important role in promoting sustainable future.

To reverse the trend, the existing Ghanaian Language Policy needs to be reviewed to make the study of Ghanaian languages compulsory in the senior high schools. The current Ghanaian Language Policy states that Ghanaian Languages should be used as a medium of instruction from kindergarten to primary three (3). The junior high school students are learning one Ghanaian Language and the teacher trainees are also made to study one Ghanaian Language under the policy. This has created a vacuum in the senior high schools and it is making the study of Ghanaian Languages difficult for most of the teacher trainees who do not study Ghanaian languages in the senior high schools.

To add insult to injury, some of these teachers end up teaching the subject in our basic schools. How can these teachers be adequately equipped to ensure the success of the policy? As we join the rest of the world to celebrate this year’s International Mother Language Day, let us ponder on the future of our indigenous languages and take the necessary steps to promote them for national development. Let us give prominence to our mother languages as we have given to some foreign languages like English, French etc. Bureau of Ghana Languages should be adequately resourced to deliver on its mandate. The call goes to the Ministry of Education, Ghana Education Service, policy makers, traditional rulers and other stakeholders to rise up to the challenge and save our mother languages from attrition and extinction.

To borrow the words of the late Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” In everything we do, let us not forget that language is culture, and a neglect of one’s language is a neglect of one’s culture.

By: Joseph Kofi Avunyra, Bureau of Ghana Languages. 

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