Official languages

Official languages of African countries

Official languages of African countries

Most countries in Sub-Saharan (Africa south of the Sahara Desert) Africa have one official language. Furthermore, the official language of most of those countries is only spoken by a small percentage of its citizens, and only a few of those speak it as their heart language (mother tongue). In general, the official language is the language of the former colonial power. In former French colonies the official language is French; in former British colonies it is English; and in former Portuguese colonies it is Portuguese. Sometimes an African language is given official status in addition to the language of the former colonial power. So Sango is an official language of the Central African Republic alongside French. In most of those cases, the European language still dominates. Laws and regulations, for example, are generally distributed only in the European language in spite of the official status of the African language.

Since the 1960s, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have spent all their educational resources to teach their citizens to speak, read and write their official languages. They are still far from accomplishing that goal. Let’s take Ghana as an example. English is the official language of Ghana. When you arrive at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, you will be greeted by officials who speak English. You will find taxi drivers who speak English eager to give you a lift. If you go to a hotel, a restaurant or a store, you will find staff who speak English. You might get the impression that everyone speaks English. Understandable, but false nevertheless.

Bilingualism is a funny thing. A person can be very good in a second language in one area and not in another. For example, my Ghanaian car mechanic whose mother tongue is not English knows the names of car parts in English that I don’t know. That does not mean that he can talk about every topic in English with the same proficiency I have. It is mistake to have a satisfactory talk with hotel staff in English about hotel stuff and conclude that they can also carry on a conversation in English about politics, family life or religion with the same degree of fluency. It is possible to learn another language in a way that is deep yet narrow. People do it all the time. Then other people hear them talk fluently in that one area and conclude, wrongly, that they know English perfectly. When someone says: “Everyone speaks English”, I always take that with a grain of salt.

In Accra, Ghana’s capital, there is a proliferation of businesses that help Ghanaian high school and university graduates improve their English to get jobs or to prepare them for English proficiency tests some employers and universities require of Ghanaian applicants. If the secondary schools and universities were giving Ghanaians excellent English, these would have no reason to exist, much less abound.

Professor Gilbert Ansre is one of the leading authorities on languages in Ghana. As a linguist, he did research into the use of languages in Ghana. At an event a few months back, he said this about English in Ghana.

There is an erroneous belief that English is actually preponderantly used in Ghana. This is really true only of its enforced use in the educational system, on government and civic official functions such as now, in documentation and when the speaker is unable to use the commonly used language of the locality. Even the most highly educated Ghanaian prefers and frequently uses a Ghanaian language commonly shared.

The use and actual usefulness of English as a tool for wide spectrum National Development, especially at the “grass-roots” level is highly debatable to say the least.

Professor Ansre with his family

Professor Ansre with his family

He went on to say that:

… the quality of English as spoken and written in Ghana is drastically on the decline …

The official language of a country tells us in what language its laws are written and what language its elites master. The language(s) in which the people can grasp the Gospel, or even needed health information, might not be the same at all.

Countries have official languages. God’s people, the church and God’s Word should not.

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