What’s The Point of Learning a New Language?

When I was an elementary school student at Soul Clinic International School, a stout, fair-skinned woman was ushered into my sixth grade classroom and introduced. Her name was Madame Naomisi.

“This is your new French teacher,” the Headmistress told us.

She then went on to explain some things about how we were all required to study French, expectations about respect, and a host of other things that Headmistresses say to students that nobody ever really remembers unless it involved the promise of a prize or a whipping. When she was done prattling, she left.

Madame Naomisi stared at us and we stared back. You could see the boys in our class sizing her up. At 5 foot dead, most of them towered over her. I’m sure they thought they could overrun her for sheer virtue of their size, but we quickly learned she had a tongue that could shred steel.

“What are some of the reasons to learn French?” she asked.

I had no reason to learn another language, so I looked around at the smarter kids in class waiting to hear what their reply would be. We were forbidden from speaking “vernacular” – Ga, Twi or any indigenous Ghanaian language – on school grounds. Just a few weeks before a few of the kids from La had been lashed for speaking Ga on the playground. We were told we must speak English and English only at school. And now you wanted me to learn French?

No, no, no…

En Francais? Pardon! Non.

Eventually, a very short list of reasons was drawn up and put on the blackboard. The two that Madame Naomisi seemed the most adamant about were:

1)      Because Ghana is surrounded by French speaking countries and

2)      Because French was (at the time) the second most spoken language in the world

Since my travels only took me to America and occasionally, England, I felt very uninspired. I decided at that moment that I would only ever do enough to pass the class and not to master the language. What was the point?

It’s a decision I’ve come to regret in my older years. Jemila Abdulai, my co-sojourner in creative writing wrote something on her Facebook page about the importance of shared language. With her permission, I’m sharing an excerpt with you. She was out having breakfast when she had the following encounter with a stranger. He asked:

 

“Where are you from? I have a daughter who looks like you. She lives in London and works with Pricewaterhouse Coopers. My other daughter is a fashion designer.”

After I respond, Ghana, he goes:

“Oh Ghana! I’m from Benin. When I was in grammar school, we would do an exchange with students from Ghana at Achimota School, Tema Secondary School. One year they would come to Benin and the next we would go to Ghana. It was good for learning English and French.”

That’s great, I respond. Unfortunately I don’t think they do that anymore.

“No they don’t, it’s quite a pity. But they should. Do you speak French?”

Yes, I do, I answer.

“That’s good. It’s important and we’re right next door to each other. I’m a business lawyer and I did an internship in London; when my daughters were growing up I made sure they went to London every year for a month – now they are bilingual.

I tell them that because of them, I couldn’t change my car as often as I wanted. But I don’t regret it. The best investment one can make is in their child’s education. Everything else goes, but that remains.”

I answer, laughing: My dad says the same thing.

“He’s right,” the man responds.

She nodded in agreement and went about having breakfast.

languageHer encounter reminded me of several times when I’ve looked helplessly on as Spanish only speaking laborers have been yelled at by their American employers in angry English, or that time when an elderly Chinese woman missed her stop on the bus because she couldn’t explain to the driver where she was trying to go, or any of the other times when language has been a barrier to progress. If we were all better versed in other languages, perhaps we’d better at showing respect, kindness and love.

In recent years I have come to understand that there are two things that bond humans: food and language. You might not be able to relate to anything else in another person’s condition, but nothing solidifies a bond like a good joke and a great meal.

I think if Madame Naomisi had opened up our young minds to the possibilities of what the future may bring, we might have taken our French courses a little more seriously. Apart from those two aforementioned students, we all failed her class abysmally term after term. What was the point in learning this language?

Perhaps if she had told us we might find ourselves in America working one day with an Ivorian co-worker going through depression and anxiety, it might be useful to speak words of comfort to her in her own language.

Or she might have told us to imagine ourselves on an adventure in Monaco – perhaps as a Formula One racer – you would need to know French.

What about a career? You might find that you want to become a diplomat and travel the world. You can pick up several languages along the way!

These would all be better reasons than “Ghana is surrounded by French speaking countries.” She made it sound like a rash – some sort of imminent invasion in which we would all be swallowed up in a cloud of ‘r’ induced spittle. (I couldn’t stand the way she said cherchè…like her throat was going to rupture at any moment. She took it as a personal affront if we did not hawk phlegm when we pronounced our r’s.)

 

Is there a language you wish you had the opportunity to learn? Have you encouraged your children to learn your native tongue? Some people have shame surrounding their mother tongue. They feel it is not “genteel” enough. Discuss! ↓

 

Oh, and if you’re ever in the mood for a literary treat, visit Jemila’s blog at http://www.jabdulai.com. The woman is sick with the vocabulary. You will be amazed!

  • Reblogged this on Speak Ghana.

  • Nana Ama

    Ok, this is a long one.
    It is a great shame that both public and private education policies in African countries prioritise the languages of the erstwhile colonial masters. We are simply buying into and continuing their xenophobic decisions not to learn nor speak their neighbours’ language! And thereby regrettably alienate our children, mutely accepting that their brains are defective! A large majority of Chinese, Indian, Latino, Eastern Europeans make sure their children speak their mother tongues. African parents are “advised” not to speak their own tongues but to stick to the European language, in order not to “confuse” their children! Biiiig mistake! Not true! All children have a listening phase when learning a language, and definitely discern and process words between and across languages. Why are children from other nationalities hailed as brilliant multi-linguists and ours too dumb to do the same? African parents! Wake up!
    People my generation and older (50s+) grew up speaking our mother tongues at home, pick up the language of the local people (if we were internal migrants) and learn the tongues of our playmates to boot! All done effortlessly as if by osmosis! I spoke Fante at home, Ga in school was taught in English and picked up Hausa with my playmates. (We lived in a part of Accra, where most of the jockeys, all Northerners, lived, very close to the Race Course, which was pulled down to build the Accra Conference Centre and new Parliament buildings).
    None of us spoke English when we started Class One. We had a great teacher, Mrs Rowena Brown, all of a slender 5ft nothing, not much bigger than her charges! She taught us to say “Please Mrs Brown, may I…” Something must have been lost in the translation, because we all thought her name was “Please Mrs Brown”!😂 As in “You wait! I will tell Please-Mrs-Brown!”
    By the end of the first term we were rattling away in English! I got my first ever prize for proficiency in English on Prize Giving Day in the last week of that academic year. It was a Ladybird copy of the Elves and the Shoemaker.
    Our school playground was a veritable Tower of Babel, and several of us, including me were unofficial interpreters for newly arrived schoolmates who did not speak Ga, English or any of the Akan dialects.
    So learning French for the first time in secondary school was no biggie. And as most of my classmates thought it was cool to dodge French classes, there was no competition to speak of. Our teachers were from the French version of the Peace Corps. So the diligent ones amongst us got the accent, grammar and diction from these teachers who were ever so grateful for and ready to work with those students who wanted to learn their beautiful but difficult language!
    Years later I trained as a languages teacher, what else? (double major French and English).
    Every job I have had since I was sixteen was because I speak several languages. As our people say “You become a different person with every language you speak!” Ok, shades of schizophrenia, but it certainly makes life very enjoyable, switching cultural persona to fit the tongue I choose to communicate in!

    • Thank you for the insightful comments Nana! I always appreciate them. You are so right on all aspects, I feel particularly on the notion that eschew knowledge local languages for foreign ones. I’ve never quite understood the reasoning that speaking Twi would ruin your English! Now we have whole generations of children who have grown up without knowing their mother tongue and who have never left Ghana!
      We need a Renaissance, and now!

  • Well i wish i spoke Spanish not that i realise a need for it now, i Just love the sound of that language. I however studied french at the university, so it helps in understanding some basic spanish. Understanding a language in a way makes you understand and be a part of that culture. It helps in appreciating other people and cultures. I do speak three northern languages; buli, kasem and frafra. Cant say much for my twi though.