English language as medium of instruction in the former colony Ghana

The loss of indigenous languages

Hausarbeit, 2020

23 Seiten





Theorising language of instruction in ex-colonies

Contestations around language of instruction choice

Some evidence from the field




This paper used evidence from the literature, policy documents and the field to analyse the epistemic and pedagogic effects of using English language as the language of instruction in an ex-colony. The analysis proceeds from coloniality theory focusing on the rights of indigenous people to a linguistic identity. It highlights how educational language choice legitimises linguistic imperialism in which ideology simplifies the sociolinguistic field, rendering some persons and their sociolinguistic existence invisible or less important. The central thesis advanced is the idea that using English, legitimises and sustains the colonial proposition that indigenous languages are inadequate as teaching media. We argued that using English reduces indigenous language(s) to literary ‘vernacular; and to that consistency represents denial of identity, the cutting of a tongue and the amputation of being. The analysis discusses using English as delegitimising indigenous knowledge, and cultural practices that are usually associated with indigenous languages. It puts forward the idea that using English language concomitantly transports English values and practices into the postcolonial context, especially when that denies children the opportunity to express themselves in their indigenous languages within the school community.

Key words: sociology, identity, language, indigenous, colonial


The international value of English language as a working language within the United Nations system and the Commonwealth is well established. Language is an important aspect of human existence, learning and development. Many writers, theorists and human rights organisations have discussed language as a basic right that has connections to the politics of human identity (Humphries, Kushalnagar, Mathur, Napoli, Padden, Rathmann and Smith, 2013; Harber, 2004; Adzahlie-Mensah, 2017; Adzahlie-Mensah & Dunne, 2018). Gibson (2004) argued that language – both code and content – has a complicated relationship with interpretations of identities. Edwards (2009) puts it that “the language we use forms an important part of our sense of who we are – of our identity.” Painter (2010:252) argued that language is always “tied up with politics of identity in contexts that are characterised by intergroup differences and inequality.” Best et al. (2000) suggests that linguistic socialisation develops our personality, our sense of self and our identity. Spolsky (1999) argued that when we hear someone speak, we immediately make guesses about gender, education level, age, profession, and place of origin. Jackson (2003) argues that the discursive construction of people occur via language. All these points above suggest that language is a powerful symbol of individual and group identities.

Fanon (1967) assigned pre-eminence to the language-identity relationship in any analysis of colonialism.

I ascribe a basic importance to the phenomenon of language. That is why I find it necessary to begin with this subject, which should provide us with one of the elements in the coloured man’s comprehension of the dimension of the other. For it is implicit that to speak is to exist absolutely for the other (Fanon, 1967:13)

Fanon argued further that language was the “arsenal of complexes that has been developed by the colonial environment” (p.23) for “the amputation of … being” (p.17). The fact is that people do communicate with each other in the vernacular, and they do so daily, without specialized knowledge of language (Lippi-Green, 2012). The analytical concern, however, is that the colonial subject is not seen as “having a language” (Painter, 2010).

In terms of education, there are three main analytical threads - language as a problem, as a resource, and as a right - within the literature concerning practices, policies, and educational outcomes of educational language choice. In ex-colonies, the ‘language as a problem’ analysis emerged from a fallacy in which the language of the historical coloniser is claimed to be associated with the study of science, the acquisition of goods and a whole interconnected system of international benefits that needs to be acknowledged (Bhabha, 1990; Macleod & Bhatia, 2008). It comes from assimilationist deficit thinking approach where students who are not proficient in the language of the colonizer are positioned as deficient in their ability to think and learn (Darder, 2011).

Multi-lingualism or even bilingualism is positioned as a threat to nation building, having the potential to cause conflicts and to destroy the unity of a nation state. This is a mystification ideology that has become a striking case of self-denigration in ex-colonies (Lippi-Green, 2012). The mystification message is so strong that many people really believe (Lippi-Green, 2012) without analysing the epistemic effects of creating a dominant hegemonic culture (Lippi-Green, 2011). Proponents of language as the problem thesis drive the State toward assimilation and away from a pluralistic society (Baker, 2011; Darder, 2011). Education programmes utilize the strongest forms of moving groups to a common culture through by legislating that textbooks and other teaching materials are constructed in that privileged language that must also be used as language of instruction (Baker 2011).

The ‘language as a resource’ group argues on the evidence that knowing more than one language is a resource. They take the view that developing bilingualism and biliteracy leads to higher achievement across all curriculum and is a better use of human resources in a country’s economy (Baker, 2011). They promote ‘additive bilingualism’ as opposed to ‘subtractive bilingualism’ on the grounds that it has the potential for creating pluralistic society with the guiding principles of coexistence between multiple and varying languages, cultures, interests, and convictions. The deficit of this approach is that it does not leave the choice to the student but consciously requires that education programmes are framed to impose the obligation to learn a compulsory additional language. Learning additional languages become an imposed performance on the grounds that it leads to higher achievement across all curriculum and is a better use of human resources in a country’s economy (Baker, 2011). Thus this view of language as a resource subsequently devalues the indigenous languages as inadequate.

The language as a right proposition defines language in terms of personal, human, and legal or constitutional rights. It encompasses the freedom of an individual or group to speak in and to preserve his or her heritage language as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “individuals have the right to freedom of expression, including the right to choose any language as the medium of expression.” There are two approaches to the discussion of language as a human rights in educational pedagogy (Darder, 2011). The first is tolerance-oriented approaches that do not recognize the non-dominant language as a human right lead to oppression, domination, and injustice. The second is the promotion-oriented approach that leads to very good results for both minority and majority children. Outcomes are especially significant when there is a status difference between the minority and majority languages and groups.

This paper carries the arguments further to by discussing the epistemic and pedagogic effects of the legislation of English, foreign language, as the medium of instruction, which have persisted in Ghana despite several contestations and research evidence that critique the practice (Graham, 1971; GES, 2001; Anamuah-Mensah, 2002; MOESS, 2004; Mfum-Mensah, 2005; Owu-Ewie, 2006; Seidu et al., 2008; Adzahlie-Mensah, 2014). A national study (GES, 2001) dates the legislation of English as medium of instruction and its persistence to 1852 when British colonialism introduced the language as the official language of instruction in Ghana. The use of indigenous languages for instruction was identified as the main and they were abolished as “inadequate” teaching media (GES, 2001; Bamgbose, 2000; Owu-Ewie, 2006). The curriculum subjects were included

Reading and Writing of the English Language, Arithmetic and in the case of girls, Needle work. English Grammar, English History, and Geography could be taught at the option of the teacher (Report of the Educationist Committee, 1920:18).

Proficiency in English language became the indicator of good education (Antwi, 1992; Quartey, 2007). Since then, several writers have suggested that the institution of schooling largely functioned to provide cut-rate education - aimed at producing clerks for merchant houses, the civil service and missionary workers (GES, 2001; Wooolman, 2001). They argued that, legislating the language of the colonizer as the language of instruction represents an attempt to reconstruct the ‘beings’ of the students in school. We explored such thinking from a uniquely placed theoretical framework, contestations around instructional language choice and stories from the field.

Theorising language of instruction in ex-colonies

Before turning to the research evidence, we briefly elaborate on the frameworks through which we theorise the concept of language of instruction. We take up coloniality theories of discourse, drawing on critical anti-colonial discursive frameworks where the colonial is considered not simply as “foreign” or “alien” but something “imposed” and “dominating” (Dei, 2004:15). Coloniality is addressed in terms of persisting “vocabulary of power” and fixed ideas and culturally authored definitions located within traditions of Western rationality (Rizvi et al., 2006; Dei, 2004). Proponents of coloniality theory argue that a key purpose for the creation and spread of mass systems of formal schooling to ex-colonies was the “need to control populations in those colonies” (Harber, 2004:71). They suggest that the hidden purpose of schooling is to create a mind-set of colonial practices as the standard, etc. (Macedo, 1999; Dei, 2004). Thus analysis of schooling in developing countries is not productive “unless the legacies of colonialism are examined” (Viruru, 2005:10) because the fundamental purpose of using schools as institutions of control has “proved impervious to change” (Harber, 2004:71). They justify such analysis for its potential to initiate “radical rethinking of knowledge and social identities authored and authorized by colonialism” (Prakash, 1994:1475).

From a rights-based perspective, coliniality theory challenges the exclusion of some languages as the creation of a monoculture and the perpetration of the so called ‘civilising agenda’ (Harber, 2004; Dei, 2004). Thus coloniality theory does not consider colonization as ‘finished business’ because there is rather compelling evidence that this has not in fact occurred (Dei et al, 2006; Mignolo, 2007; Adzahlie-Mensah, 2014). It views school practices, such a language of instruction choice, in terms of how it is employed to de-legitimise the knowledge and the experiences of subordinated groups as critical indexes that sustain dominance (Dei, 2004).

In privileging coloniality theories of discourse, we take a view that legislating the language of the colonizer as language of instruction is connected to colonial ideologies (London, 2002; Harber, 2004). Within that discourse, Glowacka and Boos (2002:295) described the use of English for education in ex-colonies “as colonizer: stealer of dreams, swallower of identities” which contributes to the silencing of a people; the erasure of an identity; and, the cutting of a tongue. Irvin & Gal (2000:38) suggested that legislating one language constitutes erasure: the process, in which ideology simplifies the sociolinguistic field, renders some persons and their sociolinguistic existence invisible or less important. It implies deprivileging indigeneity (Dei and Asgharzadeh, 2001).

As such, we draw on postcolonial psychology propositions that described the replacement of indigenous languages by the languages of colonizers as linguistic imperialism (Macleod & Bhatia, 2008:581). We draw important lessons from the language subordination model put forward in Lippi-Green (2012:70) which argued that creating linguistic imperialism instantiates eight different things: 1) Language is mystified - one can never hope to comprehend the difficulties and complexities of the imperial language without expert guidance. 2) Authority is claimed – native speakers of the imperial language are the experts. They have linguistic capital and those who have studied that the imperial language claim to know more than learners because they write well. 3) Misinformation is generated that the usage non-native speakers are so attached to is inaccurate while the variant preferred by natives is superior on historical, aesthetic, or logical grounds. 4) Targeted languages are trivialized as inadequate teaching media. 5) Conformers who commit to the imperial are held up as positive examples. 6) Non-conformers who speak their mother tongue in place of the imperial language are denigrated, vilified or marginalized. They are held up as unknowing, uninformed and/or deviant. 7) Explicit promises are made to those who speak the imperial language. They are told employers will take you seriously; doors will open. 8) Threats are made to speakers of the non-conformers that no one important will take them seriously; doors will close. We also take critical pedagogy propositions that legislating a particular way that reading or writing must be taught in school instantiates power asymmetries (for teachers and students) in which to be illiterate, is not only to lack the skills of reading and writing; it is to feel powerless and dependent in a much more general way as well (Freire, 1993; Collins & Blot, 2003). Within this framework we discuss contestations around language of instruction choice to provide some knowledge on the latencies and absences that lie beneath the surface of educational policy decisions.

Contestations around language of instruction choice

The politics of educational language choice, is common in ex-colonies (Toohey, 2000; Bhat, 2008). Johnson (2000:177) argued that, to impose a language is to radically remove a significant and powerful dimension of personal and social identity. Many have argued this point that educational language choice is neither neutral nor separable from issues of power and ideological constructions (Dunne and Adzahlie-Mensah, 2016). They argued that the use of English as language of instruction in other countries constitutes both erasure of local languages and the sustenance of colonial linguistic regimes (Bhat, 2008; Painter, 2010).

Writers argue that the question of linguistic capital also determines teacher student relationships in the school classroom (Olitsky, 2008). They argued that use of foreign language for instruction places limitations on students’ ‘talk’. Bhat (2008:2) presents the point clearer by arguing that in India that, the legislation of English as medium of instruction represents a “logical and structural dominance of one language over the other, the standard over the non-standard”. Thus using English as medium of instruction in Ghana represents an ideological de-legitimation of indigenous languages, cultures and the identities of students. Bhat explained that promoting a specific language is to promote particular ‘systems of thought’ or ‘systems of belief’. Bhat’s views language as a great force of socialisation, integrated component of culture, symbol of social and cultural identity, a mode of communication and representation. The standard language is drawn upon to re-shape realities, beliefs and worldviews as well as act as a tool for complete social control.

Smith (2005:2) suggested that language (both written and spoken) is “key to the … discovery of how institutions are coordinated”. Painter (2010) argued that much of the colonial linguistic regimes have been kept in place by postcolonial governments on the logic of nationalism. However, Painter argued that (post)colonial subject is often caught in a (politically mediated) existential contradiction. Painter explained that the postcolonial cultural elite who retain colonial language regimes have reproduced privilege through patterns of class closure, often cashing in on the accumulated linguistic capital. The colonial languages continue to be used as instruments of racialisation and marginalisation (Painter, 2010). The critiques of Derrida (1998) explained this idea by arguing that colonialism invested indigenous people with its contradictory desires of differentiation and inclusion in territorial dramas in which the role and status of native populations (and the native subject) were always contested. The colonial subject came to stand in a different relation to language than the cultural citizen of the colonizing state. For example, in this research my (English) language expressions would be measured on the standards of the ‘native’ English speaker.

Ghana is one country where the language (English) of the colonizer has been retained as language of instruction despite several debates (see Graham, 1971; GES, 2001; Mfum-Mensah, 2005; Quartey, 2007; Seidu et al., 2008). It is contested that teaching in foreign language – as is the case of English in Ghana – is capable of radically uprooting students from their ancestry because language also embodies the cultural and historical heritage of a people (Esteva, 2004). The argument is that the language of instruction has important consequences for student identity in school. However, students direct experiences with English as the Medium of instruction in Ghana is less visible in the literature on schooling in Ghana today. This paper explored the use of English language of medium of instruction in order to add to what we know about school language and the formation of identities in school.

Some evidence from the field

One of the gaps in knowledge relating to the politics of educational language choice is the views of students. This section briefly presents evidence from the field to address the gaps. The evidence is provided from an ethnographic case study research conducted with Basic (Primary) School students in the Central region of Ghana. For ethical reasons, w anonymise the identity of the students, teachers and the school and used codes in ways that did attribute voice to the school and the students involved. We did not anonymise Fante as the indigenous language of the school community as there are many Ghanaian communities where the language is spoken. We begin with a simple analysis of time allotted to various subjects on the timetable of the lower primary classes (Primary One to Three) is presented below.

Table 6.1: Number of periods allocated to subjects taught in Lower primary

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Source: Field data from School Timetable, November 2011

The table shows that in each week, 25.4% of all teaching time is allotted to English Language. Ghanaian language was allotted three (3) periods representing 6.9% of the teaching time. From that framework English establishes pre-eminence over Fante (the indigenous language of the community). The essence is a de-privileging of the community’s linguistic capital within the formal school and learning structure. The following table shows the time allotted to subjects in the upper primary.

Table 6.2: Number of periods allocated to subjects taught in Upper primary

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Source: Field data from School Timetable, November 2011

The table shows that in each week, 25.5% of all teaching time is allotted to English Language. Ghanaian Language was allotted 9.3% of all teaching time representing four (4) periods. Thus if content coverage is understood as concerned with “the influence of the curriculum on learners’ opportunities to learn” (Mereku et al., 2005:10) then the official school curriculum provides about five times more opportunities (25.5%) for the students to learn about English language, culture and identities than their local linguistic and cultural identities (9.3%). At the same time, English language is also used as the official language and language of instruction. This suggests, for example that, if language is a carrier of culture and an important component of cultural identity (Fordham, 1998; Bhat, 2008) then the students learn more explicitly about English culture and identities than their native culture in school.

The students we spoke to complained about the use of English as medium of instruction. The following is an important comment passed by a student:

Why should we learn in English? Why is it that only Fante teacher teach in Fante? (Student 14, Female)

They [teachers] teach in English. Sir, sometimes we don’t understand but you cannot ask. … Only the Fante teacher teach in Fante (Student 6, Female)

The fundamental question of the comment is the relevance of the subjects being taught in school. It highlights a fundamental concern that particular knowledges are prescribed while local knowledge is marginalised. This assumes a particular purpose for schooling and therefore a specific notion of relevance – curriculum that addresses local needs such as using indigenous language for instruction. Also, the comments are identical with Adjei’s (2007) assessment of colonial education curriculum practice in Ghana, in which he explained that students became disenfranchised and disengaged from the knowledge that is being produced, validated, and disseminated in schools.

There were similar concerns expressed by other students as indicated in the comments below, Everything is in English. The books are in English ...The teachers teach us in English. They tell you everything in English. Everything is English, English, English... Sir, we only speak Fante when Fante teacher comes to teach (excerpts from interviews with Students)

Sir, English is good but if you don’t speak good English they will beat you. They will say you don’t know anything. Everything is English, everything! We do worship in English, assembly everything… (excerpts from interviews with Students)

The comments indicate that every lesson is taught in English; class exercises, assignments and end of term examinations were conducted in English; and teacher student interactions occurred in English. As such, access to linguistic capital (knowledge of the English language) embedded teacher hegemony over students within official classroom discourse. Fante (the indigenous language) is subordinated to the advantage of English (the foreign language) as a medium of instruction. The works of postcolonial psycholisgists such as Derrida (1998), Bhabha (1990) and, Macleod and Bhatia (2008) suggest that doing everything in English reduces indigenous language(s) to literary ‘vernacular’. As Fanon and other writers have argued, all these emerges from a fallacy in which the use of English (the language of the historical coloniser) is claimed to be associated with the study of science the acquisition of goods and wealth a whole interconnected system of international benefits that needs to be acknowledged (see Bhabha, 1990; Macleod & Bhatia, 2008). It is this fallacy of associating English language use with scientific knowing and wealth creation that has to be critiqued and undone if the privileges and attributes that set up social hierarchies can be addressed.


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English language as medium of instruction in the former colony Ghana
The loss of indigenous languages
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english, ghana, language of instruction, colonial, education
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Vincent Adzahlie-Mensah (Autor), 2020, English language as medium of instruction in the former colony Ghana, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/918503


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