The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages to raise awareness of the crucial role languages play in people’s daily lives. It is the year that nations are supposed to take steps not only to celebrate the immense contribution of their indigenous languages but also to devise strategies to promote these languages for national development. Article 39 of the 1992 Constitution enjoins the State to “foster the development of Ghanaian languages and pride in Ghanaian culture.” By this constitutional provision, the State is obliged to formulate and implement policies and programmes towards the development of Ghanaian languages and cultures. It is also incumbent on the State to ensure that its citizens feel proud of their languages and cultural heritage. However, one wonders if the State is really performing her responsibility as far as this constitutional requirement is concerned. On November 17, 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO proclaimed February 21 to be International Mother Language Day. The Day was instituted 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 fore strategies nations can adopt to save their various indigenous languages from extinction 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. Some people even look down upon students studying Ghanaian Languages in our universities. This situation does not augur well for the development of our local languages. It is worthy to note that available statistics points to extinction of some Ghanaian languages in the near future. One sure way of promoting a language is to speak it and write it. However, in Ghana, 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 Ghanaian Languages, as a way of promoting our local languages, is unable to deliver effectively because of under-staffing, 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,” Indigenous Languages Matter for Development, Peace Building and Reconciliation”, would not have come at a better time. That peace is a sine qua non for development cannot be overemphasized.  It is through the mastery of the first language or mother tongue that the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are acquired. Local languages, especially minority and indigenous, transmit cultures, values and traditional knowledge, thus playing an important role in promoting peace, unity in diversity and sustainable development. As we celebrate this year’s International Mother Language Day, let us take the necessary steps to promote our indigenous Ghanaian languages for national development. Let us give prominence to our mother languages as we have given to some foreign languages like English, French etc. Government should adequately resource Bureau of Ghana Languages to deliver on its mandate. All stakeholders should rise up to the challenge and save our mother languages from extinction. To borrow the words of the late South African President, Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” In everything we do, let us not forget that language is culture, and a neglect of one’s language is a neglect of one’s culture. Happy International Mother Language Day to everyone.

BY: Joseph Kofi Avunyra of the Bureau of Ghana Languages.

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