The National Language Question

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 10 12:44:18 UTC 2006

The National Language Question

By Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D. | Posted: Thursday, March 09, 2006

"Oppressor's language" At the 39th J. B. Danquah Memorial Lecture series,
delivered by the Acting Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana,
Dr. Kwesi Yankah was reported to have observed that "the undue emphasis on
academic prowess, especially linguistic competence in English" was rather
unfair (Ghanaian Times 2/24/06). Further, Professor Yankah, a quite
prolific writer in his own right, was quoted as saying that "the
glorification of English within the electoral process [in Ghana] is

The problem with the foregoing observations is their quite pedestrian
nature. In other words, they do not appear to offer any critical or
constructive and remedial insights, short of merely pontificating on a
patently tired complaint which has been registered by a countless number
of Ghanaian politicians and pseudo-politicians of all shades and stripes
ever since this writer can remember. And I am a little over forty years
old. But the question of linguistic competence cannot be cavalierly
ignored by the leadership and citizenry of any emergent nation with the
hope of spurring its development at all levels of endeavor -
socio-cultural, economic and technological. For language is fundamentally
the common denominator unifying the comity of global humanity. And in
Ghana, the failure of past and present governments to clearly and
definitively articulate or promulgate a national language policy may be
aptly envisaged to constitute a sizable proportion of our developmental

And here, one need not point out the fact that when Professor Kwesi Yankah
sneers that "the glorification of [the] English [language] within
[Ghana's] electoral process is absurd," the renowned linguistic theorist
is hinting at the Eurocentric, or culturally disorienting, implications of
appropriating a foreign language at the deleterious expense of one's
indigenous language. And, of course, Professor Yankah ought to be expected
to wholly appreciate exactly what he is talking about, particularly
bearing in mind the fact that the Acting Pro-Vice Chancellor of the
University of Ghana, the country's flagship academy, is a quite
distinguished linguistician and, interestingly enough, one who established
his academic credentials and enviable social status largely on the basis
of his remarkable facility in the use of the English language, Ghana's
official medium and idiom of business and cross-cultural interaction.

In sum, even as he loudly decries the continuous domination of the
proverbial "oppressor's language" in our national affairs, the irony is
that the popular author of the quite Afrocentric anthology of essays
titled "The Woes of a Kwatriot," also acknowledges that "though the
language issue has been quietly agitating the minds of many (for so long a
time) it has been swept under the carpet due to its apparent sensitivity.
But issues of democratic governance crucially affect national development
and must be squarely confronted, sensitive or otherwise." On the preceding
score, one cannot but whole-heartedly concur with Professor Yankah. The
problem here, however, regards why it took the most recent Danquah
Memorial lecturer this long to officially let on such a pressing national
concern, particularly, in view of the fact that during the marathon course
of the last two-and-odd decades Prof. Yankah was well-positioned to
positively affect our national linguistic policy but, unfortunately, did

And then when he almost casually asserts that the language question
appears to have been "swept under the carpet due to its apparent
sensitivity," exactly what is the Legon academic chieftain talking about?
In other words, just whose "carpet" are we talking about (to adumbrate
much less on the Eurocentric usage of the English language)? And here, we
make bold to assert that it is absolutely the abject lack of courage on
the part of prominent Ghanaian leaders like Dr. Yankah that is to blame
for our woeful lack of a coherent indigenous language policy, nearly a
half-century after Ghana's political sovereignty. Perhaps he ought to have
thoroughly investigated just what Dr. J. B.  Danquah thought regarding
Ghana's need to facilitate indigenous language development (for Danquah
wrote equally eloquently in both Akan and English) from the grassroots up
to the highest levels of our national endeavors.

Unfortunately, being that this writer has yet to learn of the full
contents of the three-day and three-part lecture series, he can only hope
to wait until Professor Yankah's lecture notes are published by the Ghana
Academy of Arts and Sciences (GAAS) in order to offer his fullest
appraisal on this question.

Obvious choice of the Akan language

In the past, this writer, among a platoon of others, has suggested the
obvious choice of the Akan language, which is widely known to be spoken by
at least 80-percent of Ghanaians, as a second Lingua Franca or official
Ghanaian language, besides the more globally utile English language. Of
course, some "ethnic minority" sub-nationalists have vehemently protested
the latter proposition, apparently because unlike the English language,
which was imposed on Ghanaians by conquest, Akan is merely the language of
a dominant and unduly envied ethnic sub-nationality in Ghana.

But, as this writer also intimated then, the preceding regressive
protestation ought not to deter our leaders from institutionalizing Akan
as Ghana's national language. After all, ours is a democratic dispensation
in which the choice of an indigenous language could readily be put to a
vote either in a nationwide referendum or through a parliamentary ballot.
Then, of course, let those who think they are brave enough to set our
country alight attempt to do just that! Indeed, putting the choice of an
indigenous national language before the Ghanaian electorate, in the form
of a referendum or parliamentary ballot, is not without precedent among
the global democratic community. In 1901, for instance, the question of
the choice of a national language was put before the United States

Back then, the choice was between adopting the English language or German,
being that the Mid-Western states of the America Union were dominated by
citizens of German descent. In the end, the English language won out by
the piddling margin of a lone (or single) vote. The other major Ghanaian
languages, such as Dagbani, Ewe and Ga could then be declared "Regional
Languages" in their various strongholds.

Hausa, not French

Finally, Professor Yankah's reported commendation of Ghanaian
parliamentarians "for their current efforts at learning [the] French
[language] for purposes of bilingual communication within the West African
sub-region" (Ghanaian Times 2/24/06), a project originally initiated in
our secondary schools under the ill-fated Acheampong tenure, is woefully
and grossly misplaced. Needless to say, the most widely spoken language in
West Africa is Hausa, not French, and so it reeks of nothing short of
blistering inferiority complex for our parliamentarians to be craving to
be fatuously and vacuously Gallicized. Even among the members of the
European Community or Union, English is the language of choice, not
French. Besides, the only economic and political beneficiary of the French
language are the French, not Africans, Francophone or Anglophone; and,
indeed, it is the French who stand to filthily enrich themselves by the
massive exportation of their books and culture, as well as teachers.

But, perhaps, more significantly, our leaders need to be cautioned about
the fact that our ancestors did not fight against British imperialism in
order for us to exchange the latter for French cultural imperialism. If,
however and, of course, any of our individual parliamentarians opt to
learn French in order to be able to effectively communicate with their
counterparts in the ECOWAS Assembly, that is all well and good. But this
ought to be purely an individual affair. And what is more, even President
Nkrumah, who first officially mooted the idea of a Pan-African Assembly,
envisaged Hausa, not French, as West Africa's official language of choice;
in East Africa, the choice was ki-Swahili.

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