Tag: language

Gambia to switch from English to a local language

Gambia’s president says that he wants to implement a policy change that would shift the country’s language from English to a local language.

Yahya Jammeh said on Friday that “we no longer subscribe to the belief that for you to be a government you should speak English language.” He spoke during the swearing-in ceremony of Gambia’s new Chief Justice.

Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh. (Pic: AFP)
Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh. (Pic: AFP)

He made the announcement months after the West African country announced it is withdrawing from the Commonwealth, a collection of 54 nations made up largely of former British colonies.

Though a popular destination for British tourists, Gambia has been criticised by the United Kingdom and rights groups for human rights abuses.

Jammeh, who came to power in a military coup, said Western countries have no “moral platform” to talk about human rights. – Sapa-AP


Being African abroad: Are we a lost generation?

A few weeks ago, I was approached by an elderly Somali man who asked about my ethnicity. I responded that I was Somali. He then began to ask for help in Somali. As he described what he needed, I stood there blank-faced, staring at this man and trying to figure out how to explain to him that I could not understand Somali. I mean, yes I am Somali. But I do not speak the language.

When I finally mustered up the courage to tell him, a wave of frustration appeared on his face. He was dumbfounded. “You do not understand,” he said. “Your language is your passport. Without it, you are just a Somali by appearance and nothing else,”  he protested rather poetically. I realised he made a very valid point. I truly had nothing that separated me from my fellow Canadian peers besides my skin complexion. I could not speak my language and the older I became the more I realised I had picked the ‘westernised’ card over the ‘embracing my ethnicity’ card. It was time I found my roots.

Growing up, I was always the token black kid in most of my classes. I had the darkest skin, the roughest hair. To put it simply, I was always the “sore thumb” in all my class photos. Despite being born and raised in Toronto, I was still subjected to societal segregation due to my appearance. It was nothing drastic, but I was still bullied or stereotyped by my peers and teachers. However, over time, I learned to adapt. Like a turtle, I mastered the ability to live both in water and on land. Or, I should say, I learned to survive at home and outside of my home.

I was taught at school that unlike the United States and their forceful melting pot, Canada embraced all of our various ethnic descendants. Usually, when a teacher would discuss Canada and our ‘tossed salad’ analogy, he/she would make it a fact to point at my direction while enthusiastically claiming I was an example of this wonderful multicultural nation, then ignorantly ascribing me to a random African country of his/her choosing to prove their point. During moments like those I wished that I was not a case study for my social studies class; that I could fit in with the Rebeccas and Ashleys sitting around me. To me, fitting in was entirely different from belonging. I did not feel as though I wanted to belong as I understood that I could never truly belong in this society. Instead, I felt I needed to learn how to adapt mannerisms, so that I would avoid such situations in the future. Being westernised seemed ideal.

My parents made it a point to make sure I acknowledged that I was both Somali and Muslim, as these descriptors became almost entirely interchangeable. However, at school I was just the black kid so these descriptors truly meant nothing to my classmates. As Christian beliefs dominated throughout my schooling life, trying to explain an Islamic holiday or fasting during Ramadan became irritating as my classmates could not fathom why I was not eating during lunchtime. They would ignorantly assume I forgot my lunch – every day for a month. This explanation appeared to be more logical for them to believe, rather than to care to understand that I was fasting for God. The reality was that westernised values collided with my traditional Somali values.

A “double identity” was not easy to achieve. My parents were traditional Somalis living in Toronto; my peers were all Canadians. I spent most of the day with my peers rather than my parents, so as time passed I slowly began leaning towards my Canadian identity rather than my parents’ traditional Somali one. The task of forging an ethnic identity is compounded by opposing demands from the two worlds. At school and with my peers, the more “westernised” I was the easier and more relatable I became. I wouldn’t call my parents ‘hoyo’ (mother) or ‘abo’ (father) in public, I would address them as mom and dad. I would not carry any Somali food in my lunch bag,  I’d take a  peanut butter and jelly sandwich with suitable snacks that I could be able to trade with the other kids during lunchtime.

I highly doubt my parents or parents of other second-generation children would imagine that their kids would be put in a situation where they would have to deal with the clashing of values. As I grew older, I began to witness the extremes: some second generation children began rejecting their culture or even effectively removing themselves from interaction with members of that culture just to avoid the stigmatisation of being associated with their nationality. Others began to develop a heightened sense of ethnic pride, often in reaction to discrimination or hostility from the host society. Either way, both seemed extremely drastic to me.

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

The manner in which Somali youths, or even second generation African youths, understand their identity is complex. The majority of second generation Somalis struggle with the notion of identity simply because identity and culture are deeply intertwined – as religion is an identity, and nationality is an identity, and so on. It seems as though rather than incorporating various aspects of both the western culture and our traditional culture, the majority of Somalis seems to have lost the overall Somali culture in their process of attempting to assimilate into society. There are more of us, who are unable to speak the language, or who do not generally uphold our cultural values.

We tend to forget that we are the future of our cultures. We are the ones who will carry forward our language, and our traditions. However, if we are too busy attempting to assimilate into a society that essentially rejects us, who will continue to keep our traditions alive? I would like to think there is hope. We have a chance to change our situation. Rather than suppressing one’s identity, I feel as though it is time we began embracing the variety of identities.

If not now, when will we?

Iman Hassan is a specialised political science student at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

How language connects us

When asked what my first language is, I often pause because it is not an easy answer. My first language was Chewa.  I spoke it like a native although I wasn’t one, but it has slowly faded away over time from non-use. I then learnt Bemba, English, Kaonde and Nyanja. At the time I didn’t realise that my experience as a child of foreign diplomats living in Malawi was quite unique. I had adopted the language spoken by my nanny, the cook, the driver and their children instead of English.

It was only at school where I came into contact with other children of diplomats that I was made aware of being different. Why didn’t I speak English? English came to me with time – I must’ve been 5 years old – and with it a whole new set of rules and airs. There were strict rules on enunciation and pronunciation, and it became very clear early on that this new language was considered superior to the languages I had spoken before.

I navigated my way through two worlds, speaking each language exclusively in different settings, but I always felt more at home with Chewa. This was likely because it was my first language but also because it connected me deeply to my family and earliest friends. The people I went home to allowed me to speak it without giving me stern looks or pinching their lips in distaste. Speaking it came without judgment.

The realities of the world we live in dictate that fluency in English and a handful of other European languages are required to be successful in our education systems and in the workplace. I can live with that, to a point, but it pains me to see indigenous languages falling by the wayside because they are not regarded as keys to success. I see evidence of this in Zambia where some parents explicitly tell their children that English is the only acceptable language in the home and then banish them from speaking anything else. This decision is made by parents whose own experiences taught them that “proper” English meant access to good jobs and advanced educational opportunities. The intent may be well-meaning but I’ve seen first-hand the alienation it brings when children are unable to communicate with peers or family members who are not fluent in English.

(Graphic: Cassandra Johnson)
(Graphic: Cassandra Johnson)

By speaking our languages we are doing more than stringing words together; we also learn about the underlying culture and influences. Honorific speech systems that exist in many Bantu languages are reflective of social structure, traditions and respect accorded to elders. These are intrinsic and complementary elements of culture and language. Furthermore, each language carries with it the history of the people who speak it and the areas it is spoken in.

Some of my fondest memories as a child are of those spent at my grandmother’s feet, slowly reading from her KiKaonde Bible and hymn book. In those hours she augmented my reading lessons by teaching me about my maternal family and sharing wisdom through proverbs. Proverbs are cultural treasure troves in any language; they reflect accumulated knowledge and wisdom from past generations. I’m always in awe of these proverbs because they reinforce the fact that my people had a history before missionaries and colonisers landed on our shores.

This Kaonde proverb encapsulates so well the lessons from my granny: “Fukafuka uja twabakulu talalala wajamo kubulwa.” (Kneeling, you eat with elders; keep standing, you learn nothing.)  It means: “You learn a lot from elders when you are humble but not when you’re rude.”

Wisdom is not exclusive to speakers of foreign languages which continue to enjoy unparalleled dominance. Much of our history remains unwritten and is stubbornly passed down orally, and there is so much to learn and safeguard.

There should be no shame assigned to those who speak indigenous languages. A break from the past is needed; rigid rules in schools that see children punished for speaking their mother tongues only reinforce negative messaging about the hierarchy of languages and assign value to what is considered perfect or acceptable – posh, lightly accented speech.

Language is a key component of our identity and through it we can express our unique worldviews. We should honour multiple language and cultural identities. If we lose our languages we lose a way of life, a way of thought and a means of expression.

Though I often take for granted my fluency in multiple languages, I have come to appreciate the inordinate gift I’ve been given. While language is only one marker of a person’s identity, I consider it to be my most important one. Language ties me to my people and my country, and most importantly allows me to communicate. I miss speaking Chewa. Whenever I can, I spend time practising it or listening to audio. I intend to recapture this language of my childhood and add it to my treasure trove.

Bwalya Chileya was born in the early 80s and raised in Malawi and Zambia. She holds a masters in business administration and works as a project manager. She reads and writes stories in her free time. Connect with her on Twitter

Funking up the Queen’s English

There’s a trending joke in Ghana’s business schools today that goes like this: a Canadian investor who owns a call centre in Accra dialled his business all the way from Vancouver, only to be greeted with: “Holla client, I gotta take your call big big up ayew …”

Baffled by the lack of ‘standard’ English, the owner revealed his identity to his employee and threatened: “I gotta take your call big big up? Do you think I’m still going to invest in your country and guarantee your job?”

The call centre employee’s fun and flexible street English is a new form of the Queen’s English that can be heard in Accra’s bars, hotels, schools, taxis and airports. When describing your recent whereabouts you say: “Aye wiv been dere now now.” When friends are hungry you’ll hear whistles of “Chaley, you chop?” and replies like “No, I go weg small.”

This blended language known as Ghanaian English is “the final curtain on the voice of colonialism”, one student I spoke to boasted.

I once struck up a conversation with the receptionist at a local lodge I was staying at.

“Have you eaten yet?” I asked.

She merely sighed and replied: “No I eat after small small, sir.”

“Small small?”

She shrugged and explained: “I simply mean I’ll eat when I show you your room.”

This increasing desire by young Ghanaians to ‘modify’ the Queen’s English has sparked a debate between conservative old Ghanaians and the street-savvy, upwardly mobile youth.

On one end lie the young, hip and patriotic who are busy inventing a new slang vocabulary. If you hear tax vendors saying “go quench”, they mean “die”. When you eavesdrop on hippie girls in a bank queue saying “wack, garl”, what they mean is “eat, girl.” If you spot a high school chap bitterly complaining that “I was held in a go-slow, man” he means he was caught in a traffic jam.

On the other extreme are old-school die-hard Ghanaians, usually Oxbridge-educated, who equate speaking with a proper London or ‘BBC’ accent with status and education. This group heaps derision and insults on the youth who’ve adopted the ‘lafa’ (locally acquired foreign accent).

But Ghanaian youth are proud of the lafa.  Some may be Akan (a language spoken in South Ghana) speakers but they also don’t want to sound too ‘Londonish’ when they speak English. A variety of English exists in the UK itself, they attest. “You don’t expect [to hear] the same English in Aberdeen, Wales and Ireland,” a hippie college major scrolling through her iPad in an Accra boutique tells me.  “Just observe the thick Yorkshire accent in Ian Rankin novels.”

Speaking English with an Oxbridge accent carried prestige for almost half a century after Ghana’s independence in 1960. Now, young Ghanaians are beginning to embrace Ghanaian English. These adventurous linguists claim that Ghana has outstanding achievers in chemistry, diplomacy, tourism, law or education who’ve never stepped a foot outside the country’s borders. They say that former UN chief Kofi Annan speaks fluent Ghanaian English on the international stage but is easily understood from Syria to Venezuela to Scotland.

The traditionalists, however, argue that while Kofi Annan speaks with a Ghanaian accent, his use of English grammar is perfect and, as far as they recall, they’ve never heard him addressing the UN General Assembly in “pidgin Ghanaian English”.

This generation of young language inventors have been spurred further by an explosion in technology, music and movies. In the past, many Ghanaians pop singers mimicked Madonna, Tupac or Beyoncé. Now a new brigade of local artists wearing Ghanaian name tags and brands have come to the fore. “The idea is to mix western music styles with our Accra accents and rhythms for a home audience,” explains Pio Fawcett, a local DJ.

This infatuation with a localised version of English is not unique to Ghana. Long back, our West African neighbours from Nigeria and Sierra Leone eased into speaking English on the international stage with a heavy local accent. Nigerians call it Pidgin English while Creole English is synonymous with Sierra Leone.

To douse fierce criticism from the educated Ghanaian elite that they’re diluting the Queen’s language, the youth argue that Ghanaian English unites the country. “We’re not watering down the Queen’s language,” explains Ammond Kotto, a dental science graduate who’s returned from studying in London. “Look at Israel. It was a disparate country of refugees coming from all corners of the globe until Hebrew became the common denominator that made it a nation.”

Language purists in Ghana further argue that English is the mainstay of the internet and global commerce, and any country that waters it down will be sidelined. Ammond is quick with his rebuttal. “Do you mean China, a non-English speaking country, is left out of global commerce?” he asks.

Whatever the merits or demerits of this slang, speaking grammatically correct English with a Ghanaian accent is fine by me. However, “I eat after small small” is going too far down the Ebonics road.

Kingston Ayew is a Ghanaian living in Accra.