The following opinion piece from the Accra daily Ghanaian Chronicle was seen on
AllAfrica.com at http://allafrica.com/stories/200504220290.html
. It has some
interesting observations re the educational system and literacy in maternal
languages vis-a-vis English, but also comes perilously close to an old vicious
circle in suggesting that translations into first languages be done only when
more people are educated to read in them. DZO
Let's Take a Second Look At Setting Our Priorities
Ghanaian Chronicle (Accra)
April 22, 2005
Posted to the web April 22, 2005
In tune with our traditional political practice where more prominence is usually
given to sod-cutting, inauguration and launching of projects than ensuring
their success, the Fante version of the President's State of the Nation Address
was recently launched at Cape Coast by the Deputy Minister of Information, Ms.
In this article, an attempt will be made to discuss the relevance or otherwise
of the launching of this document to our national development needs.
In recent times, so much has been said about the need for Ghana to adopt a
national language and I have no intention to comment on the pros and cons of
this suggestion in this article.
It is my humble opinion, however, that making one of our several languages a
national language would not mean anything if measures are not taken to ensure
that every necessary effort has been made to ensure that a respectable
proportion of those who speak the language can also read and write it.
It is, after all, a fact that the distance between understanding a spoken
language and being able to read and write it is usually wide.
Naturally, it would be a wonderful idea if such important information as may be
contained in State of the Nation addresses, the Budget, and even the
Constitution could be presented to the people in their mother-tongue. But let's
be sincere with ourselves on this issue. How many Ghanaians out there can read
and write their mother tongue better than English? To put it more directly, is
it likely that the President or the Honourable Finance Minister, Mr. Kwadwo
Baah-Wiredu, both thorough-bred Asantes, would have preferred to present the
State of the Nation address or Budget Statement respectively, in Twi, rather
than English if they would be permitted to do so? As much as I am in no
position to bet on this, I would be surprised if even they, who had their
primary education in the days of "Kan Me Hwe" and "Twi Kasa Mra", would prefer
to do that.
To further illustrate my point, I have no doubt in my mind that in their private
discussions with colleagues of their own ethnic group, almost all public office
holders speak in their mother tongue. However, when it comes to private written
correspondence, English is the preferred language. In other words, without any
survey results to prove, I don't think there is any doubt that the vast
majority of Ghanaians correspond among ourselves in writing in English rather
than our various local languages. In short, our educational system has made it
that, for most Ghanaians, English is much easier to read and write than their
indigenous languages. I'm therefore wondering the type of Ghanaian we have in
mind to be looking for Fante, Dagbani, Ewe or Ga versions of the State of the
I hope no one gets me wrong by thinking that I don't find it necessary for
important public information to reach the majority of our people. Far from
that. My concern is that steps should first be taken to ensure that majority of
Ghanaians can read and write their own languages before spending public funds
to publish official documents in them.
For one thing, the government will doubtlessly need substantial amounts of money
to translate and publish the various important official documents into all the
major local languages. There is therefore the need to ensure that the nation
will enjoy real value for the money so spent on the exercise. It is not enough
to publish official documents in local languages just for the sake of it.
First of all, it has been a while since the President gave his State of the
Nation Address. I don't believe the Fante version of the address is now being
launched because it is now that the authorities have realized the need for it.
The time it took to have the document translated must certainly have had a part
to play in this. And perhaps as I write now, it is still being translated into
other languages to be launched later. Obviously, a State of the Nation Address,
unlike the Constitution, is primarily not meant to be kept as a reference
document. The President delivered his message, expecting it to reach the people
as and when he was delivering it or at least, within the earliest possible
time. Therefore, any plans to have the document translated into other Ghanaian
languages in future, would be an unnecessary waste of public funds.
With FM stations broadcasting in all corners of the country, now what the
Information Ministry could conveniently do is to use the airwaves to explain
the President's address in detail in the major languages spoken in the
localities of the radio stations. Even if this would cost more money, it would
surely be a more effective way of getting the message across to the people than
putting it in print for them. After all, more people in Ghana have access to FM
receivers than bookshops and you are more likely to see an elderly Ghanaian
listening to the radio than reading an official document. Interestingly, even
in the 1960s when thanks to "Mass Education", many of our older folks who had
missed classroom education were taught to read and write in their own
languages, the government relied on mobile cinema vans to explain its policies
to the rural folk.
Of course, there were no FM stations in the country then. And by the way, it is
not clear whether or not the Fante or any other versions of the President's
address are for sale or free distribution to the public.
If the intention was to print them for sale, then it is expected that some
research must have gone into determining approximately how many people would be
interested in buying them and it would be worth knowing how many copies have
been printed so far. On the other hand, if they are for free distribution, then
I would like to know if the original English version is also available for
To conclude, I wish to make it clear that the purpose of this article is not to
rubbish the government's desire to let important information reach the masses.
Rather, it is to draw attention to the fact that for far too long, we have
preferred using ad-hoc measures to solve long-term problems. So little effort
has so far been made at developing our local languages that, only a fraction of
those who speak them fluently can actually read and understand them.
This situation is as true for the older population just as it is for the younger
ones. So there cannot be many people out there who can read and understand
official political speeches only in their own languages and not English. I am
aware that only a handful of our modern day JSS graduates can read and
understand the President's State of the Nation Address in its original English.
At the same time, I'm also aware that their ability to read
Twi, Ga, Ewe, Dagbani etc. is even less. The translation of official documents
into local languages would become meaningful only after the indications are
clear that many of our people have acquired the proficiency in reading them.
For a start, the Ministry of Education could make a good start by ensuring that
all computers being installed in the various schools could be adapted for use
in the writing of some of our local languages. In the mean time, all such
documents can conveniently be explained to the populace in the various Ghanaian
languages on radio. And for this exercise, I'm convinced that the several
well-educated ladies and gentlemen who can be heard on the various FM stations
with excellent knowledge of local languages would be found very useful.
Without mentioning names, I wish to seize this opportunity to congratulate them
for a wonderful job well done.