Every year, International Mother Language Day is observed throughout the world on February 21. It is a day instituted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1999 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity, multilingualism and to highlight greater awareness of the importance of mother language education. The institution of the day was also to bring to the forestrategies nations can adopt to save their various indigenous languages and tap their immense benefits to the fullest.
In Ghana, the celebration of the International Mother Language Day has not been given the due attention it deserves apparently due to lack of government commitment coupled with poor attitude of Ghanaians towards their own mother languages. Even though Article 39 clause 3 of the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Ghana enjoins the State to “foster the development of Ghanaian languages and pride in Ghanaian culture”, one wonders if the State is really performing her responsibility as far as this constitutional requirement is concerned. There is little or no commitment on the part of government to come out with comprehensive policies and programmes to promote our indigenous languages, culminating in the extinction of some indigenous languages.
Language is a gift from nature used for communication, identity, social integration and preservation of culture and it is said to be on the path of extinction when its speakers stop using it or passing it on from one generation to another. However, many Ghanaians feel shy to speak their own mother languages.
One interesting characteristic of language is that it is a living organism. This means that language grows and dies. Available statistics indicates that 50% of about 7000 languages in the world are likely to be endangered within the next few generations and about 96percent of these languages are spoken by just 4% of the world’s population. Again, a study conducted by Summer Institute of Linguistics in 2017 revealed thatGhana has about 81 living languages of which 73 are indigenous and eight non-indigenous. Out of this, 13 are institutional, 46 are developing 15 are vigorous and 7 are in trouble. This worrying statistics paints a gloomy picture on the future of our languages and if the trend is not checked, it will lead to the extinction of more indigenous languages in the near future.
One sure way of saving languages from extinction is to speak it and reduce it to writing. However, many people appear to feel shy to speak their own mother language. Bureau of Ghana Languages, the only government department mandated to write and publish books exclusively in the Ghanaian Languages as a way of promoting our indigenous languages is unable to deliver effectively because of understaffing, insufficient funds and logistics. Since its establishment in 1951, Bureau of Ghana Languages has been operating in the eleven Ghanaian languages so far studied in our educational institutions, namely, Akuapem Twi, Asante Twi, Dagaare, Dagbani, Dangme, Ewe, Ga, Gonja, Kasem, Mfantse and Nzema. However, the once buoyant Department engaged in the development and promotion of Ghanaian Languages, is now a pale shadow of its former self.
The theme for this year’s International Mother Language Day, “Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society,” would not have come at a better time. The theme recognises that languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion and the Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on leaving no one behind. UNESCO believes education, based on the first language or mother tongue, must begin from the early years as early childhood care and education is the foundation of learning. While the mother language serves as pre-existing knowledge upon which inferences can be made to facilitate transfer to a second language, some schools still implement the policy “Don’t speak vernacular” or “Speak English only”. Meanwhile the perception that a child’s fluency in English Language is an indication of his or her intelligence is unfortunately misplaced. In view of this, the government should take the necessary steps to protect language diversity and promote our indigenous languages for sustainable development.
As we celebrate this year’s International Mother Language Day, let us be proud of our indigenous languages and take the necessary steps to revitalise them as it is essential to guarantee the continuity and transmission of culture and heritage. Even though the new curriculum recognizes the study of Ghanaian languages from primary through to SHS 1, policy makers need to take another look at the language policy and enhance it for comprehensive and quality education. Bureau of Ghana Languages should be adequately equipped to deliver on its mandate by way of writing more Ghanaian languages books for use by schools and reducing more indigenous languages to writing.
The call goes to the government and other stakeholders to promote our indigenous languages for sustainable development. Let us give prominence to our mother languages as we have given to some foreign languages like English, French etc. The Ministry of Education, Ghana Education Service, policymakers, traditional authorities and other stakeholders should rise up to the challenge and save our mother languages from extinction.
Joseph Kofi Avunyra
Bureau of Ghana Languages