Ghana Life: Do Visitors Need More Than English?

Ghana Life: Do Visitors Need More Than English?

Ghana, in common with most other countries that were once British colonies, adopted English as its official language on gaining independence in 1957. This avoided having to decide which of the more than sixty vernaculars should be so designated. However, the vernaculars are fit and well and spoken in most homes, informal workplaces, markets and everyday social gatherings. Foreigners planning to visit Ghana on medium or long-term business or development aid assignments often ask if it is useful to learn one of the local languages. The answer always depends upon the nature of the assignment and where it is located.

There seems to have been a period of a decade or two after independence when English was not only widely spoken, at least in the southern half of the country, but also very well spoken, but by the mid-1970s officials of the British Council were saying that the best English speakers were already in their forties. A steady decline has continued. It is difficult to say if the number of fluent English speakers has fallen or that rapid population growth has increased the proportion of people who have had little or no opportunity to learn the language. The result, however, is that for those foreigners who wish to communicate with many people at all levels in society, the need to speak a vernacular is greater than it has been in the past.

All professional people in Ghana: government officials, teachers, etc., as well as those who deal with foreigners on a daily basis: hotel staff, shop assistants, tourist guides, etc., all speak English fluently, and for those visitors who will only interact with such people no other medium of communication in needed. The same could be said of those whose main activity is to be undertaken in the major cities of Accra, Tema, Kumasi, and Takoradi, and perhaps in most of the rest of the regional capitals. For the occasional venture beyond these limits willing interpreters are easily found, but for those who wish to communicate directly and regularly with wider circles, both socially and geographically, the acquisition of a vernacular is beneficial.

The next question to be asked is which vernacular is most useful? With so many to choose from the answer could be extremely complex, especially in the north where it seems like every village speaks a different language from its neighbours. In practice, however, a simpler answer can be given. One language, Twi, the vernacular of the Akans, is widely spoken over the southern half of Ghana. The three main dialects, Asante, Fanti and Akuapem, are mutually comprehensible, as are some minor dialects and regional variations, and because Twi is so widely spoken, many Ghanaians of other tribes have found it useful to acquire a degree of fluency.

Apart from Twi, as a first language to learn in Ghana, three other languages are worthy of special mention. Many foreigners take the trouble to learn Ga, the vernacular of the capital city, Accra, and others study Ewe, the language of the majority of the people of the Volta Region, located east of the Volta River and once part of German Togoland. The third language, Hausa, is spoken more widely in West Africa outside of Ghana, and foreigners who have some Hausa from service in Nigeria and elsewhere will find it useful in northern Ghana and amongst colonies of northerners in the south. Some Hausa words have been adopted for general use in Ghana, especially in relation to markets, trade and horses.

The foreign visitor to Ghana who speaks both English and Twi will find that s/he can communicate with most people in most parts of the country. For those whose work will take them for an extended period to a location with a different mother tongue, the acquisition of that mother tongue would be useful. This is roughly the policy adopted by foreign agencies with volunteers posted to all parts of Ghana, such as the United States Peace Corps and British Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).

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