I lived most of my early days in Tudu, a suburb of Accra; right at the centre of Accra, near the Accra Polytechnic. That was where I spent most part of my childhood and young adult life.
In that neighbourhood, we were surrounded by people from different tribes and ethnic groups. Our landlord was a Ga and right behind us were people who spoke Hausa. Speaking Ga came naturally. It became my third language. I could speak Twi and English. When I speak Ga, people ask me how I grew up to learn that language. And I am very proud of that.
Although we lived not far from Hausas and we hear the language being spoken every time, we didn’t show much interest in the language. It was partly because we didn’t live with anybody speaking the language but that was not a good enough excuse. It bothers me so much that I didn’t learn how to speak the language.
Although we lived in Accra, my father lived in the Northern region, Tamale specifically and we spent a lot of time with him during our holidays. I did my sixth form national service in the north, teaching children in a village called Taha. I learnt a little bit of Dagbani but not enough to communicate very well with it. It was a good opportunity I wasted.
Today, I regret not learning Hausa and Dagbani which were languages I could easily have learnt with a little effort. I would be very proud of myself today if I spoke these languages fluently. As a communications person who very often has to speak to the media about the work I do, I would have scored more points if I could speak more languages.
The regrets I have for not speaking multiple languages also includes not taking French seriously in secondary school. I still have memories of how we used to make fun of our French teachers. We actually called one of our French teachers “En chat malade”, after a page we were reading from Pierre et Seydou, our French book. I am still trying to learn French as I write but it’s not easy at all. Although learning French is possible on the internet it has become an uphill task with all the things that I need to do as a working mother and wife.
When I think about these opportunities I missed to learn six languages or more, I cannot in any way understand the shift from Mother tongue to English-only communications in many homes. I don’t think you have to be a magician to know that many people in Ghana especially young families now prefer to speak English only with their children and not their mother tongue. For inter-ethnic marriages, it is easy to understand that it may not be possible for the children to learn the language of both parents. However, if the children cannot learn both languages they must at least learn one local language and as it stands it is easier for most children to learn the language of their mothers.
The learning of Mother tongue is so important that it has been adopted and observed by the United Nations as an International Day and celebrated on February 21 of every year. Apparently, UNESCO has been celebrating International Mother Language Day for nearly 20 years. I didn’t know about it but I find it instructive that the UN would dedicate a day, time and resources to this celebration. The day is celebrated with the aim of preserving linguistic diversity and also promoting mother tongue-based multilingual education. It is interesting to note that Linguistic diversity promotes intercultural connections and better ways of living together and helps in improving better education.
Considering the importance of multi-language diversity, we must all ensure that we help to save our languages from going extinct. According to the UN, Linguistic diversity is increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear. The UN says, one language disappears on average every two weeks, taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage.
I know a few people whose children don’t speak any local language and when I ask them they seem to be very excited and proud of themselves. They easily blurt it out “oh as for my son he speaks only English’’ And when I ask to know why, they say “When we speak Twi or Ewe they laugh at us because they find it strange”. I feel very sad when I hear such excuses. It just tells me how some people simply don’t care about their identity anymore.
My personal take is this: of all the things we are losing in this country we must never make the sad mistake of losing our language, our mother tongue and our heritage. There is so much we are struggling to keep in Ghana already. We are struggling to keep our cities clean and we are struggling to keep our forests from dying. We are struggling to keep our roads fixed and our country developed. Why do we have to struggle to keep our indigenous languages from dying? I simply cannot understand it.
If you are a parent whose children cannot speak your dialect or any Ghanaian language, you have to take steps to address that. I always tell people that if you don’t teach your children to speak your language they will grow up to blame you. Imagine your child growing up to contest elections. How on earth can your child be a President or Vice President if he doesn’t speak any language? How is your child going to be an MP when he cannot address his own people in their own language except in a foreign language?
If you find it difficult to understand why you must uphold and promote your mother language remember the words of 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”. It’s your call!