The politics of language: the silent masses are not silent at all

In an opinion piece published on All Africa’s website, Dominic Mensah bemoaned the utter contempt in which Ghanaians who are not proficient in English are held when it comes to political participation. Due to language barriers, 80% of the population is effectively prevented from engaging in the decision processes that directly affect them, he argues:

If the various presidential debates are carried out with the goal of helping the Ghanaian electorate make reasonable and content-based decision on the election day, mustn’t we ask why we insist on doing this in language [English] that the majority of Ghanaians don’t understand and those who claim to do, have limited command of. Or do we expect our various media houses to do their own interpretations of what they think the candidates said and didn’t say for the masses?

This disregard by politicians for the reality on the ground is unfortunately commonplace in many other African countries. As Lori Thicke of Translators Without Borders explained on her blog earlier this year  ‘a vast majority of people in Africa are not proficient the national language of the country where they reside’, often the language of the former colonizers and the language of public discourse. This in turn results in the entrenchment of privileges, with a well-informed English/French/Portuguese-speaking elite on the one hand, and all the other citizens on the other hand. Mensah’s grandmother, who does not understand English well enough to follow the televised debate, is indeed being treated like a second-class citizen, along with millions of other Ghanaians.

A linguistic fault line that runs deep

This linguistic rift should not be downplayed. Ghanaians, Kenyans or Nigerians who do not master ‘standard’ English know very well where the power lies. The language is deliberately wielded as an instrument of domination.

Often though, the excluded people – who are the majority – do not remain passive when confronted with this overwhelming presence of the ‘metro-language’ in the public sphere. One of the strategies employed to reconquer the public space is to start writing in indigenous languages, as advocated by author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Another reaction has been the forging of their own linguistic codes in an attempt to reclaim a sense of agency. In Language Policy in Kenya: Negotiation with Hegemony (pdf), Wendo Nabea describes this phenomenon at play in Kenya with the development of Sheng:

In the light of this, one can deduce how societal members who subscribe to the standard norms, and in this case, English and Kiswahili denigrate variants like Sheng, while Sheng users are at home defying the standard. This defiance can be seen in a broader context as a protest to hegemony, especially considering that a language like English remains the reserve of the elite as has already been stated.

Conversely, as speaking fluent English is seen as a sign of upward social mobility, some people are ready to sacrifice a lot so that their children learn the more prestigious language and end up denigrating their own in the process. Perhaps the next generation can become real participants in their own country, so the reasoning goes.

Promoting regional lingua francas

Much like the debate on African languages in school, there is no easy remedy because a given country can be fragmented into dozens, if not hundreds, of different language groups. The politics behind the choice of a lingua franca is explosive, hence the often-observed status quo in favour of the language of the former colonial power.

In Ghana’s case, Twi serves as a de facto lingua franca even though it is subject to some controversy. It was suggested by Dominic Mensah as a more inclusive medium for conveying political messages, since it is understood by a vast majority of the population. An alternative idea was formulated in armarn55 ‘s comment:

A balanced suggestion would be to have interperators [sic] to ensure that the message of the debate gets to as many Ghanaians as possible.

Whatever the solution arrived at, there is an urgent need to bridge the communication gap, lest searing conflicts end up undermining nation-building and ultimately, peace. The silent masses are not silent at all: they just don’t speak the same language as the elite.

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