Dying Ghanaian Languages

How the Bible can give it life again.

Late last year, I attended a Knocking, a traditional marriage ceremony between families who are about to have two of their children get married. These were two Ga families. At  the ceremony, English was extensively spoken by these leading Ga families. One of the  Aunties, attempting to address the gathering in halting Ga, admitted that Ga was a dying  language. Mortified by the idea of their tongue dying, a few other aunties objected to the  idea that their mother tongue was dying. The first aunty then responded, ‘we have to face  it, if we are going to fix it’. Many Ghanaian languages will die if we do not face it, so we can fix it.  

In modern Ghana, over 100 languages and dialects are spoken. These are variedly  ancient tongues, but society, for educational reasons, is becoming more and more  anglicised. With decreasing support for Ghanaian languages, a few of our leading  tongues may be extinct in a couple of generations. These tongues were made literate  through Bible translations by the old European missionaries, who brought these  languages to life by creating alphabets for them. This allowed them to be written and read,  and to form the building blocks for creating a literate population. The translations allowed  the languages to be written, read, and taught in schools, perpetuating our varied  Ghanaian languages, and our cultures. Today, Ghanaian languages are mostly read and  written mostly in Christian churches across the country.

Since independence, and especially in the last 3 decades we have seen Ghanaian  languages dying. More and more homes speak English, to improve educational outcomes  for their offspring. In the hinterland, the local languages are spoken, but not in a literate  way, as most can’t read and write these languages. Without the capacity to read and write, these languages will die, our cultures will pass away, and it will be as if we were  never civilised. We should work to prevent this.  

The early Basel missionaries that were stationed in Akwapim transformed what was an  oral language into written form. The missionaries realised that they could not carry out  their mission of spreading the Gospel if they did not have a written local language.  Johann Gottlieb Christaller, known for his ‘giftedness in linguistics, allowed him to  transform an oral language into written form’. He translated the Bible into Twi. Johann  Christaller is just the most famous of the missionaries who did extensive work  transforming the oral Twi language into written form in the 1850s.  

“Since independence, and especially in the last 3 decades we have seen Ghanaian  languages dying. More and more homes speak English, to improve educational outcomes  for their offspring.”

After the efforts of Christaller and others in the 19th Century the Ghana Bible Society, a  member of the global United Bible Societies, operating in over 200 countries, has  continued this tradition, and has had the Bible translated into languages that represent  99% of the population. The work of the Bible Society of Ghana today remains, by far the  greatest effort to make literate our people, to give them their languages in a form they can read and write and relate with their world through their mother tongues. This is arguably  the greatest civilising effort of the Ghanaian people.  

To improve educational outcomes and perpetuate our cultures, it will be important that  these languages continue to retain a pride of place in our society, by being a significant  medium of instruction. The examples shown by many other peoples – Singapore’s  second language policy, for instance – shows how this is fundamental to the development  of any society.  

We need to work to let the foundered literature of the Bible, and its wide and settled  availability in Ghanaian languages be the rails on which we gain back our language,  culture, and civilization. The Bible not only contains great literature, which is important for  training the mind, but also presented in our Ghanaian languages, allows us to experience  our own literature, and let the young Ghanian mind benefit from deeply learning our  languages. Further, the moral code of the Bible strongly aligns with traditional Ghanaian  values. If we are to retain the moral fibre of the Ghanaian society, then we have a ready,  paid-for resource in the Bible.  

The substantial expense that has been incurred for these Bible translations is a great gift  for the Ghanaian people. Our education authorities should not waste time and resources  but go to the Bible to train our young in our language, and literature, and with a moral  code that is credited with being the foundations of progress for the West. Now, let all who  believe in the Bible, join this campaign to get the education authorities to see the light and  bounty the Bible offers for educating and civilising our people.