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Musings

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!

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