Is Alban Bagbin’s call for a local language to replace English as Ghana’s official language a realistic one?
Recently, Ghana’s Speaker of Parliament, the Rt. Hon. Alban Bagbin was reported to have called for the adoption of a local language as the official language of Ghana. In his call, he advances the argument that the English language is a foreign language and does not reflect our sociocultural identity, claiming further that it belongs to another culture, and we could not progress or develop using it in our society.
The Hon. Speaker’s sentiments are not entirely new; several Pan-African thinkers, for instance, have been calling for African countries to replace foreign colonial languages (e.g., English, French, and Portuguese) with their indigenous languages as a sign of true liberation and cultural emancipation. In this opinion article, I want to respond to Rt. Hon. Alban Bagbin and specifically discuss the issue of official and national languages in Ghana. In presenting my perspective on the subject, I wish to take a pragmatic rather than an idealistic view, bearing in mind what is realistic and feasible in our present circumstances.
Let me begin by acknowledging Mr. Bagbin for reviving the subject of which language(s) in Ghana should be official and/or national. This is an issue of language planning and language policy, and it has been thoroughly discussed and debated since independence. Given the extent of multilingualism in Ghana, it is not surprising that this topic is still controversial today. I think, however, that discussions on it ought to be well informed and based on realistic, workable recommendations.
I should now go on to state that I strongly disagree with the Speaker, and I argue that his call is misguided. At the present time, it is not feasible or communicatively wise to make a local language the sole official language of Ghana. At best, and with good planning, we could add a local language to English, so that we have two official languages and possibly make one of them our national language. In a sovereign state, an official language may be defined as the language that is usually constitutionalized (stated within a legal framework) to be used for business by the government and other civil and public institutions. But it is also possible for a country’s official language to be implied (unstated). A national language, on the other hand, is the language that symbolizes a people’s culture and serves as a bond of unity in the nation. Besides, it is usually spoken by most people, and its places of use are most widely dispersed across the country.
English is currently the stated official language of Ghana, and it is also the unstated national language of the country. But the view held by some, including the Hon. Speaker, that English in Ghana is a ‘foreign’ language and does not reflect our sociocultural situation and identity is, at the very least, a lay view that cannot be supported by available research evidence.
English in Ghana, like in Singapore, Nigeria, Kenya, or India, is not a foreign language. In these countries, it is an important second and/or institutionalized language that has, over a long time, undergone processes of acculturation and nativization, so that people in these countries use English in culturally new and appropriate ways. Research shows that most users of English in Ghana and in these other countries have developed a strong sense of emotional affection for the language and are very proud to be associated with its use. It is observed, for instance, that if you try to undermine a Ghanaian’s, a Nigerian’s, or an Indian’s competence in the use of English, they are likely to take offence at your attitude towards them. Their reaction reflects a feeling of ownership toward English. It is therefore a linguistic fact in the world today to say that English cannot be said to be owned solely by native speakers in Britain or the United States. In countries like those listed above (i.e., Ghana, Singapore, Nigeria, Kenya, and India), English is accepted as one of their languages – they claim ownership of it too.
It is probably in countries like China, Korea, Japan, Egypt, Turkey, and Germany that they may perceive English as a foreign language because it has a very different history in these countries. Users of English in these countries are unlikely to be offended if more proficient speakers accuse them of speaking bad English – in fact, in many instances, they readily admit this and laugh over it. Their emotional attachment is to their own languages, not English.
Based on my foregoing arguments, I think that English (even a localized English, which we might call ‘Ghanaian English’) can continue to serve us well as an official language given our history and current circumstances. But it should be possible to add an indigenous language to English so that we have two official languages. The most likely candidate in this regard would be Akan (Twi/Fante) (embracing all its dialectal variants), not least because it is the local language spoken by most Ghanaians and, more than any other local language in Ghana, its speakers are widely dispersed across the country.
The process to make Akan a second official language will have to be necessarily gradual, as there is the need to first develop its literacies and consciously guide it through the process of vernacularization, i.e., a planned simultaneous process of enriching its linguistic resources and restoring it to official status to be used in higher domains, like English is used. With Akan, this process can be said to have started already. However, while it is true that most Ghanaians can speak Twi or Fante (though at different levels of proficiency), not many people can also read or write these dialects.
In nearly all formal and informal communicative situations, Ghanaians, including Akans, feel more at ease writing in English than in Twi or Fante. Have you noticed that even when two people are engaged in a casual chat on WhatsApp or another social media platform, they are more comfortable typing in English than, say, Twi or Fante? Of course, sometimes, interactants do throw in a few words of these local dialects, especially when they are Akan. The point is that for a local language to effectively function as an official or national language and be able to facilitate much formal and informal communication, users must also be motivated to read and write it.
I argue, therefore, that with proper planning, Ghana can eventually develop a new language policy that has two official languages (English and Akan) and one national language (Akan). In fact, many countries, such as Kenya, Botswana, and Paraguay (to mention just three), have similar language policy arrangements. In Kenya, English and Kiswahili are the official languages, and Kiswahili is the national language, Setswana and English are the official languages in Botswana, while Setswana functions as the national language. In Paraguay, Guarani and Spanish are the official languages, while Guarani serves as the national language of the country.
For us in Ghana, such a language policy cannot end there. Given that we operate in such a pervasive multiethnic and multilingual context, the elevation of Akan in this way could be a source of politically motivated ethnic tension. In fact, this has been a major reason why, to date, English has served both the roles of official and national language in Ghana (although the latter role has not been constitutionalized). Therefore, I suggest we add to the new language policy I have proposed the recognition of working local languages in public and government institutions so that other major local languages can be used by those who wish to transact business in them. We can agree to include all the local languages taught in schools (apart from Akan), namely Nzema, Ga, Dangbe, Ewe, Gonja, Kasem, Dagbani, and Dagaare, as working local languages. If, for example, people find themselves in the law courts and decide they want their lawsuit to be heard, read, and decided in a particular working language, that arrangement should be possible or allowed, especially when it is the language that they can best express themselves in.
To conclude, I must stress that language and/or communication are crucial aspects of the life of any society. At the very least, how political, economic, or social activities are effectively accomplished depends on language, especially as an instrument for exchanging and sharing personal, relational, and official information. Language also expresses culture and values for different groups of people in a society, among several other uses. All of this explains why discussions on language planning and language policy in a multilingual society such as ours are inescapable. While I appreciate the Speaker’s well-intended call, I think the matter is not as straightforward as he puts it.
Writer: Dr. Richmond S. Ngula
University of Cape Coast/University of Botswana