A “mother tongue” is the first language a child speaks when s/he is born. It could be the language that a person’s mother, father or both parents or ethnic group speak. Studies show that learning your mother tongue is important for your cognitive and intellectual development. It also helps a child develop critical thinking skills, social skills, learn about emotions, read between lines and own cultural codes.

Knowing your mother tongue is useful in helping you understand his your sense of self, develop confidence, perform better academically and to transfer some of the critical language skills needed learn a second or more languages. Studies also reccomend that children be educated in their own mother tongue to ensure better academic performance. Widespread use of local languages help with business and cultural development.

Despite these benefits, there are many people around the world including myself who were educated in English or other foreign languages and were barely taught their mother tongue.

The reason?
Their countries were former colonies which delivered education and other learning models in English and other foreign languages. Children at young ages are sent to boarding or “international schools” where speaking their own mother tongue would be punishable or banned on campuses. Typically, many of these children spend several months a year in such environments as the system permits or mandates. During these long periods, students also in their critical formative years, barely speak in their own mother tongue. In some cases, mother tongues are barely taught, in other cases mother tongues are not accorded any importance or actually looked down upon.

This problem has been complicated by globalization and international migration. In an increasingly complex, diverse and competitive world, many kids are compelled in one way or the other to learn languages of the places or countries of residence in order to succeed academically and professionally. Children are taught in English, French, Italian, Spanish etc. and expected to master these other languages whilst parents are encouraged to teach the children’s mother tongue at home.
This according to researchers, creates some confusion in many kids or various problems for many.

The Outcomes:

1. Many of us have grown up mastering foreign languages better than our own mother tongues.

2. Many kids growing up abroad are unable to speak their own mother tongues.

3. Some speak a mixture of mother tongue and language of host societies.

4. Those who fail to master the host language, the main medium of instruction, do not do well or integrate properly.

Problem:

Some people just criticize and insult many of us for not speaking or teaching our children better or perfect “twi”, “ga”, “ewe” etc as if it is our fault. In most cases, people’s criticisms are based on assumptions and some preconceived notions. For some, their criticisms are based on their own ignorance and/or sheer hate for educated folks. People criticize you despite not knowing you at all.

Recently, someone ignorantly said “responsible parents” would teach their children their own mother tongues? I shook my head in amazement thinking really? Is one’s ability to teach a his/her mother tongue tantamount to responsibility or irresponsibility? Does teaching your child a language equate good parenting?

In fact, in places like Ghana, my native land, parents who educate their children, send them to the best schools that speak near perfect English tend to be the most responsible ones. Failure to enrol one’s child(ren) in the best often English speaking schools is like setting them up for social and economic exclusion or success.

I am not sure about now, but when I was a kid in Ghana, speaking one’s own native language wasn’t cool. It was looked down upon. Speaking English or French was rather highly regarded. People weren’t punished for speaking French or English in schools but were for speaking their mother tongues.

So whose fault is it? Is it my fault that the system screwed up? Are there any lessons learned? What did the cultural custodians do after independence or done thus far? What are they doing to boost the importance of local languages? How are they incorporating local languages in the daily lives of our society? How is that demonstrated in our social gatherings, religious expressions, manner of dressing and in our beliefs systems?

Some Ghanaians, including decision makers, cannot even agree on using one or two local languages as national languages. Yet we hear foreign languages:Arabic, Chinese, French etc being sponsored and accepted as mediums of instructions without much resistance.

And by the way, is the language issue unique or different from our way of worship? The types of foods we eat? Type of educational content, system we have? Government systems? Health care delivery? The clothing we wear? Type of marriage ceremonies? The foreign names we adopted? Why should people single out languages when they blatantly adopt and happily do everything else foreign?

Whilst I believe that individuals could make individual efforts to learn or to improve their language skills, no one has any right to attack any individuals for how they speak. It is beneficial for individuals to learn their own mother tongue for their own benefit, cultural connections and identity and success within their own groups. But no individual has any right to attack another person for speaking the way they do. Whoever is whining and complaining should ask herself/himself what they can do to improve things in the society. Attacking an individual wouldn’t amount to any good.

Showing the importance of a language or culture is primarily the responsibility of traditional and political leaders. They need to develop mechanisms to ensure local languages are incorporated into different forms of learning. They ought to show the people about the positive impacts of learning their own languages.

Since language expresses cultural values and identity, the meanings and shapes should be consistent with the behaviours of cultural custodians. The leaders should invest in propagating our languages, advocate for wider use and give us a reason to learn. They should not only speak but alsl create avenues for speaking them. Leaders and elders should emulate good behaviour to show us our cultural pride! They should create jobs so we can remain at home and learn our own culture. They should educate us in it if they see it as that important.

As individuals, we can do what we can to speak our mother tongues as much as you can. No one can force anyone. We should encourage and not condemn those who fall short.

Best wishes.
Akosua G
Ontario, Canada
January 07, 2020