Why Some Ghanaian Kids Don’t Speak and Don’t WANT to Know How to Speak a Ghanaian Language

Subtitle: Ghanaians inducing identity crises of other Ghanaians, with reference to individual, real life examples

I have had the privilege of recently meeting a film director, Ghanaian by heritage, raised in America: Sean Addo. I also got to watch one of his films, “Deeper Than Black,” at a Pan-African Club meeting at my school. Sean is a cool guy and the movie itself, apart from being fantastically animated (no, it wasn’t an animation; it was acted. I’m talking about effects), the story that was told was rather thought-provoking.

deeperthanblack

It was a very personal story, part narrative and part documentary, written by Sean, directed by him, narrated by him, and even featured him in the film as the main character. It was like a condensed autobiography of sorts. It talked about how it was like to be black in America. Apparently, African is not African-American is not Black. From what some characters in the film said, African-American is being traceably tied back to Africa, and Blacks are not Africans; they’re merely people who have a lot of melanin in their skin and have families that have been living in the USA for a long time, with no apparent ties to Africa. But that’s not the actual point of what I’m writing.

A large part of the conflict was the main character’s deficiency in the Ghanaian language – in his case, Twi. He couldn’t speak it, at least not fluently, and his girlfriend was making an attempt to teach him, and one thing she said to him really struck me. She was teaching him how to say “nkosia” (egg) or something of the sort, and he repeated it, laughing at himself. She said, “You know why you’re laughing? It’s because you know other people laugh at you, so when you laugh at yourself, it’s not as bad.” (I bet you want to watch this film now, don’t you?)

Apart from that, the latter part of the conversation was the two of them talking about how even knowing the language fluently wouldn’t be enough, because the people (Ghanaians) are still going to look at them strangely, like they don’t belong, because of, and I’m paraphrasing here, their “abrofos3m.” They concluded that nothing they did would ever be enough…

Which brings me to my particular topic of interest: why some Ghanaian kids don’t know and don’t WANT to know how to speak a Ghanaian language. (Hint: it’s not just because they’re lazy.)

I’m legally a citizen of the United States of America. I’m American – on paper. In everything else, I’d like to believe I’m as Ghanaian as possible. I was born in Osu. I was raised by an Ewe grandfather, an Akuapim grandmother, my father who is their son but speaks only Twi, my mother who speaks Asante Twi, Akuapim Twi and Fante. Mum grew up in Kumasi. Dad grew up I Accra and Italy. I’m growing up in Accra – where I have been my whole life. I went to a school where I was blasted and lashed and caned as much as any other person. I didn’t write the BECE, but from Class 1 to Class 6, I studied as if I was going to. Yes, it means I did Twi as a subject. No, I did not bomb, thank you very much. I struggle with Twi movies, I admit, but my conversational Twi understanding is pretty alright. I sometimes struggle to voice out exactly what I want to say, but I can speak so that I am understood. I don’t wear African print too often because I have my own fashion policy, which is to wear black, white or grey as far as I can possibly help it. My favourite food is fufu, ab3nkwan and fish. I don’t eat meat – perhaps that’s the most un-Ghanaian thing about me. Even my hair is natural.

If I met me, I’d think I was Ghanaian. But multiple times, I’ve witnessed the incredulousness on people’s faces when they come to the knowledge that I can speak/understand a Ghanaian language – Twi. (I used to learn Ewe from my grandfather and my grandma’s nurse, but she got dismissed and Grandpa went to the USA for a while, and I lost the ability.) In a variety of wording and phrasing, I’ve been told “me y3 me ho abrofos3m” (I hold myself like an English person.) Saa? So, why do I only get this from the Ghanaians?

In Ghana, they say I have a Western accent. I’ve gone to America so many times, and have been explicitly told that my accent is 110% Ghanaian. Whom should I believe now?

Ghanaians have a fault, and that fault is in their judgment. They place judgments on you as soon as they see your face/clothes or hear you speak. Why are we so culturally shocked when we hear a light-skinned part-Ghanaian speaking a language that they have inherited the right to speak by blood? Yet they look at the dark-skinned Ghanaians with insults implicated in their eyes when they discover that they cannot speak a Ghanaian language (fluently). There’s a paradox in this. Why? Because they laugh shamelessly when they witness people try.

Could you possibly think of anything more discouraging? Your judgments have managed to shame someone enough to making them desire to learn a language, and in their attempts, they are shamed even further. My fellow countrymen, how do we solve the problem now?

I have friends who have also been in Ghana their whole lives, of course fluent in English perhaps because they went to international schools, or their parents just raised them talking that way, or other circumstances. I have one particular tall, dark friend who has lived in Ghana all his life, but has a rather not-Ghanaian accent. It’s almost British – until you do an extensive comparison and realise it’s not at all British; it’s just him. (Nevertheless, people have seen it fit to nickname him BBC.)

Here are two important things to note about this friend:

  1. He’s very dark. VERY. )y3 bibini ampa.
  2. He cannot easily buy bofrot.
In case you didn't know what bofrot was...
In case you didn’t know what bofrot was…

It may not be immediately apparent how these are related. Here’s a true story: Mr. Dark goes out to buy bofrot. As soon as he opens his mouth to ask for bofrot with his impeccable English in his not-Ghanaian accent, the bofrot seller gets very excited and completely ignores his request. Instead, she begins to exclaim in Twi and shouts for her colleague, who is probably at the back, frying more bofrot that, “Ei! Come and look at this bibini with skin darker than my own, talking like an obroni! Come and look! Come and look!”

The second woman comes out. Mr Dark requests again for his bofrot. The two women start freaking out together. All this has to be gone through before the guy can be given his damned bofrot?!

People used to ask me whether I could speak Twi. When I spoke it, because they had heard my abrofos3m English before, they would inevitably start laughing, whether what I said was funny or not, whether I felt like I’d made a mistake in pronunciation or not…they would just laugh, because the person from whom the sound was coming was me. And by the time I was ten or eleven, I’d gotten tired of it. Hence, when people asked me if I could speak, my response would be, “Yes, but I won’t do it now, and I won’t speak it to you because every time someone asks me if I can, they just want to use it as an excuse to laugh at me.” (I am not joking. I said this. Many times.) And nothing they said afterwards would be able to sway me from my steadfastness. And guess what? That’s how the older generation of Ghanaians loses touch with the younger generation. The old ones laugh, the young ones get defiant and give up.

Perhaps this shaming method worked in the past, but now, people are undeniably richer and more Westernised/globalised and kids are more rebellious. Thus, shaming can actually do more harm than good.

Here’s another problem that doesn’t seem that important but is actually a very large contributing factor: association. Some Ghanaian kids actually don’t speak Ghanaian languages because they don’t like the people who do. For example, one thinks, “These barbers and hairdressers are displaying nasty conduct by way of using their language to insult the people whose hair they are attending to, or “These nasty people speaking Twi make me feel nasty when they laugh at me for trying to speak it,” which leads to conclusions like, “If nasty people are speaking a language, I’ll be as nasty as them if I speak the language too, and if nasty people speak the language, then the language must be nasty too. Let me avoid all this nastiness.” And that’s another soul lost.

We still have a couple more problems to tackle.

I have realised that it’s actually easier for Ghanaians who are a bit ”abrofos3m” to learn Ghanaian languages OUT of Ghana. Why? Because sometimes, over there, your ethnicity singles you out as someone special, whether they (the people in one’s community) understand it or not. It’s like the way foreigners are eager to try to learn something native to another people. The difference is that, where they are, (taking out the factor of racism) they are encouraged to be as in tune with their own heritage as possible, whereas here, they are, for the most part, simply being shamed for not being in tune with their heritage. You feel me? And here, I’m using my own cousins as case studies, so this isn’t even hypothetical.

Here’s a quote from one of my friends: “Parents expect us to pick languages like they did, but if your friends speak a different local language, you can’t speak it with them. And when you are able to understand them when they tell you to do stuff in this language, it’s assumed you can speak as well. But because we never spoke with anybody else, and we established English as our means of talking to them from our infancy, we end up becoming passively bilingual.”

So, there we have another problem: being expected to be able to “pick up” all the languages like we’re geniuses and the languages themselves are just lying everywhere, waiting to be collected. I don’t think I need to elaborate further.

This particular friend is Adangbe, and will lash me (only metaphorically) if I insinuate that Ga and Adangbe are the same thing. Anyway, when he was going to school, he started out by learning Ga. Then, suddenly, there wasn’t a Ga teacher anymore, so he was forced to study Twi as his Ghanaian language…and that didn’t go down so well. For various reasons, he actively began to hate Twi – from being forced to learn the language under a flimsy excuse to arrogant taxi drivers, to people laughing at attempts, to a feeling of irresponsibility. Irresponsibility because as an Adangbe, he felt he had more responsibility to his own language, which he already wasn’t that proficient in, and when he hadn’t even mastered that, was being driven to the point of having to take extra classes to learn how to pass exams in a language he didn’t even WANT to know how to speak in the first place.

“Because you can’t choose a child’s first language for them, you can only create the environment. And even when they naturally pick up English, encourage them to learn their own local language by creating avenues for them in the classroom, by actively teaching them and not just expecting them to pick up everything from your conversations with your spouse/relatives/friends…Because if you don’t facilitate people learning their respective local languages, the one with the most people will always dominate,” he said.

So, here’s another problem: the forcing. It’s never bad to make Ghanaians learn their languages But is anyone familiar with the phenomenon of an interest or like suddenly turning into a burden because one HAS to do it? When it becomes compulsory?

I will make my final point with another quote from him: “Well I think parents try their best most of the time, but when we go to school, we all speak English because that’s what we all understand. And it starts when we’re young. So when we start speaking as toddlers and we start speaking English, our parents aren’t going to tell us to stop, they are going to encourage us because who doesn’t want their child to be speaking?”

I’m sure there are a multitude of other reasons, besides laziness. I’m never exhaustive when I write stuff like this. But I’m interested in recognizing problems that need to be solve, so if there are any factors anyone knows that I’ve left out, I’ll be happy to hear them, and any proposed solutions that I and my friends have not thought about, well, feel free to express. Also, feel free to counter; we may be wrong.

-Akotowaa

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18 thoughts on “Why Some Ghanaian Kids Don’t Speak and Don’t WANT to Know How to Speak a Ghanaian Language

  1. One of my favourite subjects ever. Ghanaian languages.

    “I have realised that it’s actually easier for Ghanaians who are a bit ”abrofos3m” to learn Ghanaian languages OUT of Ghana.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Growing up in Cape Coast, I spoke Fante but many extended relatives who were Ewe lived with us so I think I passively soaked it. However, I got better at speaking it when I moved to the UK.

    I also definitely feel a stronger need to cling and hold tightly on to my Ghanaian identity. At this point, I’m confident it’s not going anywhere but it’s just weird how I actively seek out my highlife and Kojo Antwi as comfort when I grew up on a diet of Celine Dion for breakfast and Westlife for lunch.

    Well, everyone’s case is interesting and Ghanaians should let people live, man. The shaming thing gets us nowhere.

    Anyway, comment’s getting long but holla if you ever wanna further discuss Ghanaians and abrɔfosɛm.

    Loved this one, Ivana!!

    1. Thank you!
      I love getting these kinds of responses. Long comments are not in any way bothersome (at least, not for being long).
      On the subject of you ‘going nowhere’ with your Ghanaian identity…I don’t believe that. Because, after all, where is there to GO? The birth right, knowledge of history and culture, and identifying yourself as Ghanaian are basically all you need, n’est-ce pas? Who’s to say you aren’t authentically Ghanaian already? (Except Ghanaians – but they don’t count.)

  2. The nuggets of truth stashed away in this piece! I agree ten thousand and three percent – there is surely a very odd strait of constant and illogical judgement in many Ghanaians, and it seems perpetuated simply by the fact that others like talking about such nonsense as well.
    Such kinds of derision have always confused me, and it’s lovely to see how you delineate it well in this piece.

    I wish I had something constructive to say; good criticism is bad criticism – or vice versa.

  3. I wrote a post on this subject which blamed our parents taking pride in turning their Ghanaian kids into ‘Europeans’ by encouraging and applauding their abilities to speak English and deride them for speaking their mother tongue.
    Once we come to terms that language is intricately part of once identity,it will do us all a good deal.
    Good post

  4. I know Mr. Dark.
    And I totally agree with you on the nasty bit. Totally true. Some people wonder. I don’t want to speak Ga, ga’s are loud and vulgar(just a stereotype) and so it goes with ewes and the other. But they are all wrong. Learning to speak a language can make you feel as part of a community. It helps you fit in. So the abrofosem people too, they want to fit in with the wrong people. Basically that’s what I think.
    It’s Simeon.

  5. Fascinating!!! Its funny how people see the Ga language to be loud and vulgar, but i find it sexy. Lol.
    I find lately this sense of “swag” attached to not speaking the local language (specifically twi) in its rightful manner. People who do this feel this sense of “pride” to be associated with the abrofosem.
    Basically willfully diluting their “identity factors” to impress.

    1. It’s kind of interesting that I’m doing a mini-thesis on a related topic for school. LOL.
      I’ve heard some pretty converse comments from what you said.

  6. this is the most relatable piece i’ve ever read. i found myself exclaiming yes at all the points made. this summer in Ghana was a lot for me. here i was proud of myself for still being able to speak ga even though i’ve been away for a decade and there i was in ghana being ridiculed for speaking ga with a non-ga accent. like what? so i find myself forcing myself to continue to speak ga because i don’t want to lose it and it feels almost like i’m falling off a cliff and someone has grasped onto my hand from the top (this someone is symbolically my fellow ghanaians) and the hand is trying to let me go when all i want to do is stay alive. the same person suppose to be saving me is trying to kill me. lol that was a rough analogy but i know you feel me.

  7. i also found it fascinating that cousins who have lived in ghana all their life can’t speak local dialects. and i didn’t understand that but this has made it more clear for me what exactly is going on. on how to move forward? perhaps making it mandatory in schools to learn? however that brings us back to the problem of forcing can actually have opposite effects. once something becomes attached to a grade it affects motivation.

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