By Olivia Matthews, MIPP Graduate (2017)
“Akwaaba – you are welcome!”
Upon learning I was going to Ghana, I was extremely excited for the opportunity, and slightly relieved that the opportunity would be in an officially English-speaking country. While I did have some hope I would be able to practice my French in West Africa, I wanted to ensure I was also successful in my work output, which made English as a working language quite appealing. I found out very quickly that officially English speaking does not mean English is the main language spoken.
The main language in Ghana, especially in the South where I am located, is Akan Ase (also known as Twi), of which there are many dialects from the different Ghanaian regions. Being in the capital city of Accra, these dialects are all present, with Asante Twi being the most common. For example, the famous welcome of Ghana, Akwaaba, is Asante Twi.
While English is taught in school, most kids grow up speaking Twi in their homes. Twi is spoken widely at work, at the market, in the grocery store, riding the trotro, and on the street. I try to pick up as much as I can and I’m learning slowly but surely with some helpful guidance from colleagues and friends. It’s an exciting challenge as the market ladies consistently want to chat when I stop by, and every kid I pass wants to say hello. Needless to say, I stand out quite a bit. The children on my street in Kotobabi giggle outrageously when I attempt to speak Twi with them, but they’ve become used to my off-kilter accent, and now wait for me at my gate after work to ask how I am (Etesen? Eye). Language is such an important part of community, and it makes me excited to learn more.
A few nights ago, our compound came together for a family dinner (which has become a wonderful weekly event), and a friend of the house, Daniel, cooked a delicious Red Red with fish, fried plantains, and orange sauce. While we ate, the topic of language emerged and we all shared stories of different languages and poor translations we’d experienced in the places we’d lived and traveled. Our company included 1 Canadian (myself), 3 Ghanaians, 1 Dutch, 4 Germans, 1 Belgian, and 1 French. We began to count the languages around the table; English, Twi (Asante Twi, Fante Twi, Akuapem Twi), Nzema, Ga, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Hindi, Farsi, and a little bit of Swedish – 13 in total.
After we had finished our very large meal together, I tried to join in on a French side conversation that colleagues were having. After a clearly subpar attempt at my French (which I haven’t been using as much as I’d like), the joke was made that, “people who speak two languages are considered bilingual, people who speak one language are North American.” It was intended to be a light-spirited jab but it hits home when you recognize how isolated North America has become from the rest of the world. Language keeps us connected and I hope our education and migration systems back at home can grow to encourage more language sharing.
It is an absolute privilege to live somewhere where the lingua franca is English and I am reminded of that privilege daily. I am the only one in my compound whose first language is used to communicate communally in the house together. I am also the only intern at IOM Ghana whose mother tongue is English. I recognize how fortunate I am as I struggle enough getting by with my English while abroad, let alone my English being a second, third or fourth language.
I can’t wait to learn more – maybe my next blog post will be in Twi. Nante Yie!