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Preserving African languages and cultures: gal-dem in conversation with Pamela Sakyi

15 May 2017

Language and culture are inseparable. The ways in which we communicate are intrinsically tied to our histories, our approach to life and our ways of living and thinking. For the African diaspora in the UK, English language and culture are prioritised at the expense of our own diverse languages and cultures.

Why is learning our native languages so important?

It’s not just to avoid the side-eye you throw your parents when you’re asked “Wo te Twi?” Or the way your neck snaps and your eyebrows knit when you hear your name dropped in their conversations. Or even that Pappy Kojo is your favourite rapper and you can’t for the life of you understand a word of what he’s saying.

It’s important because for people who are British but also identify culturally with their African ancestry, learning your language helps you to access and form that part of your identity and therefore sense of self-worth. It’s important when you’re sat with your Grandma, this woman that has helped raise you, yet you can barely have a conversation. It’s important for procuring investment opportunities in African countries and consequently for their economic development. Finally, it’s important because we can’t afford to take languages for granted. Our languages can and will be wiped out if we aren’t proactive – UNESCO predicts half of the world’s languages will be gone by the end of this century.

In her documentary British Ghanaians: Lost In Translation Pamela Sakyi, a British Ghanaian, confronts the issue of language endangerment from the perspective of the British Ghanaian diaspora. Its success has not only raised awareness but also directly contributed to the preservation of Ghanaian languages.

Now, Pamela, in collaboration with Ortis Deley, hopes to raise funds to produce Part Two, where she will go to Ghana and explore more intimately the implications of favouring English.  So if you care about language endangerment and issues of cultural identity this is the perfect opportunity to get involved and make long-lasting change.

Click the link to support the cause by donating or just sharing the campaign Ortis Must Go!


GD: What do you hope to address with Part Two of Lost in Translation?

PS: The idea is to send Ortis to Ghana to retrace his roots; he’s half Ghanaian half Nigerian, so to retrace his Ghanaian roots.  We want to show first hand how difficult it is to go out there for someone who’s learning the language. English is the official language of Ghana so he may find in parts we visit it will be a lot easier, BUT we also want to go to some villages where they don’t speak English. We want to make the case for the importance of people in the diaspora learning the language for themselves, and showing how important it is when you do decide to go back to the motherland. The second part then explores the education system out there. Previously from about three or four years old it was compulsory to only speak English in school. And over generations they’ve realised that children, particularly those that went to boarding schools weren’t speaking in their dialect or were forgetting bits. There’s this ideology that speaking English is empowering, it’s better, it’s more intelligent, it’s been equated with that. Apparently now they’ve decided to teach in dialect up to an older age and then switch to English later.

Do you think that’s a good idea?

I think it’s a very good idea. But they shouldn’t completely wipe out the English. I think having as many languages under your belt…well it’s a no brainer…  it’s a beautiful thing. It’s been scientifically proven that children who grow up with more than one language are more socially adaptable, their brain function increases, it’s GOOD for them. For generations other migrant children have just been taught it’s good to know your parents’ language and you can go to school and learn English and be just fine.

So why do you think African/Ghanaian children are more inclined not to learn their parent’s language?

Many reasons. Like I touched on before I think because English is equated with a better lifestyle. For those who moved over between the 50s and 70s they faced a lot of racism and social tension and prejudice and, Ghanaians are very good at this, they decided they wanted to assimilate, to blend in.

And it’s funny because you never really blend in. You can’t not be black.

Exactly! Helloo? If it was just or two families here and there it would be fine, but I speak to, and have spoken to, so many people and I hear the same story and I think wait a minute this can’t be a coincidence. There’s been many times where people say you know it could be to do with the sense of community. Is there really a sense of community with British Ghanaians? I would say in some areas yes and some no. You have a lot of Ghanaian churches and that provide a sense community, you have geographic areas where there are a lot of Ghanaians and so a sense of community exists there like Tottenham. There are pockets. But in terms of a greater community where people come together and support I don’t think that’s all connected yet.

And do you think that’s down to language?

I think language is a massive factor. Within the community you Ghanaian associations and I’ve visited them. These associations based on a particular region or area in Ghana will come together and have maybe a dance or a dinner and try and raise some money for a funeral or a wedding and that might create a feeling of coming together. But from my experience you have the older generation come together and have a good time and the younger generation who weren’t necessarily taught their language and they’re stood there saying “what am I doing here?” I can’t speak to aunty over there. And then aunty over there calls them over and is berating them for not being able to speak the language. And then you’re thinking it’s not my fault. And that’s the end of it. There’s no “what are we going to do about this?” Or “we’re going to teach you the language or the customs and form that part of your identity” and allow us to pass on  our heritage. And people in my generation can be so proud of wearing kente, we appreciate the music…

…but these are all isolated acts.

Exactly. And language is integral for connecting people across the diaspora. You know it provides a way of communicating the shared experience of being of Ghanaian descent. There’s nothing like language that provides that.

Kinyarwanda and Swahili are now official languages of Rwanda as well as French and English. Do you think if countries like Ghana or Nigeria or Cameroon don’t make similar moves to acknowledge their native languages do think attempts at preservation will be worth it? Or will English and French and Spanish continue to proliferate and erase.

The thing about that is French/Spanish/Mandarin/Arabic/English have been and are business languages globally and so there’s more of a threat of a threat in smaller nations choosing to officiate native languages. The unfortunate thing is that sometimes it’s just not within their power. And it’s why it’s up to us as citizens or descendants to do preserve them.

So many dialects are not recorded they’re not documented so language endangerment is a reality. There are studies for example that recognise Ghanaian language have been and are being wiped out. And there’s definitely ignorance.

In what sense?

People think a language will always exist, there will always be people to speak the language. Life is so busy so people succumb to the convenience of just speaking English, especially when you marry someone who doesn’t speak the same native language as you.

And since you’ve done lost in translation do you think there has been progress?

Definitely. The Ghanaian Language School have told me straight after the documentary was released the number of applications for the school increased and the amount of people talking about the issue and vlogging about it has just increased. Naomi Fletcher was like you need to keep doing this and Destination Africa was created right after it was released. And I’ve just received so many personal success stories on twitter and things like that.

What has been the biggest obstacle to advancing the cause?

Getting people on board with my vision. For example, I was at an event with the British High Commission and they were trying to figure how Africans in the diaspora could give back to Africa. And most people were like well you know we’re going to need some money or investments, and one guy was like “what about language and culture?”

And he was right. As much as we like to say we’re Ghanaian, many of us were born here so how you encourage our generation to go over there depends on their sense of their cultural identity. I know many that only associate as British but their parents are Ghanaian.. so there’s a disconnect. How do you convince that person to invest? Ghanaian language fluency across the diaspora needs to be revived so we have a stronger sense of who we are, shapes our identity and touches us enough to say “I know the language, I know the culture I can go over and contribute directly to the economy” but it’s a matter of the heart. That’s something that governments need to learn and understand: that it’s not just nice to speak African languages, but it actually helps.

And after Part Two what other projects can we look out for from you?

Ooo, I can’t reveal! Suffice to say they will be subjects that are close to my heart. Things concerning cultural identity and the struggles that black women/African women face. I’ve got some ideas so once we’ve got the sequel done I’ll be on to that.


You can find out more about Pamela Sakyi’s project at the justgiving homepage for  Ortis Must Go!