This year, the celebration of the International Mother Tongue Day is 20 years old. International Mother Tongue Day was established by UNESCO in November 17, 1999. It was first celebrated on 21st February, 2000. Now it is celebrated all over the World on 21st February every year. This year the celebration is under the theme: “Language without borders”. The celebration is to promote linguistic and cultural diversity. It helps to know the importance of a language in keeping the heritage of different cultures. The celebration also promotes multilingualism.
In this piece, I seek to look at the relevance of the Mother Tongue celebration in the year 2020 that the Catholic Church has dedicated for the celebration of the Word of God. I also look at the Mother Tongue and how it impacts evangelization. I discuss Mother Tongue in Ghana, the Word of God in the Mother Tongue of Ghana, Evangelization in the Mother Tongue of Ghana, Challenges facing the promotion of Mother Tongue in Ghana, some recommendations, and the way forward on how to overcome these challenges.
Mother Tongue/ Native language.
This refers to one’s first language or one’s native language. It is the language learned at birth. We say Mother Tongue because the Mother is the first person the child listens to and obviously the child learns the language of the Mother. Today’s linguists use L1 and L2 to give the distinction between a first language or a native language. i.e. Mother Tongue and second language respectively.
If a child grows in a bilingual environment the child is likely to have two native languages or Mother Tongues. In the case where the Mother speaks Ewe and Father speaks Twi, the child will have Ewe and Twi as his or her first languages.
In Ghana which is a multilingual nation there are a lot of Mother Tongues or native languages. Scholars are divided as to the exact number of languages we have in Ghana. One difficulty in knowing the exact number according to scholars lies in the ambiguity between a language and it’s dialect. Some scholars count the dialect which is the variant form of the languages as languages.
In the College of Languages, Ajumako Campus of the University of Education Winneba, there are twelve (12) native languages taught there. These are grouped under the following department: Ga-Dangme (Ga and Dangme), Akan- Nzema( Twi, Fante and Nzema), Ewe, Gur- Gonja (Gurune, Dagaare, Kusaal, Dagbani, Gonja and Kasem). These languages like most Ghanaian languages can broadly be put under the Niger- Congo language family. They are sub divided as Gur language (e.g.Gurune, Dagaare, Kusaal etc) and Kwa language (e.g. Akan, Ewe). These Mother Tongues are the languages taught and studied at a higher institution in Ghana.
The Word of God in the Mother Tongue of Ghana
According to William Cameron Townsend “The greatest missionary is the Bible in the Mother Tongue. It needs no furlough and is never considered a foreigner.”
The Word of God created the world from the beginning (cf Jn 1:1). God’s Word “let there be” was expressed in the language of the people so that the people can relate to it. In fact, in order for God to dialogue with humanity, he gave humanity a language so that humanity can reach him.
In the story of the Tower of Babel(Gen11:1-9), God showed he is the author of languages and has the power to confer and revoke languages on human cultures. The Hebrew language was the language used among God’s chosen ones in the Law (Torah) . Later the Greek language was used to express God’s Word. 1600 years ago the great man, Jerome the one who translated God’s Word into Latin the language of the majority and the common people died. Obviously, the man who says, “ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ” would not be happy the Word of God was being used by only a few who could read and understand Greek. He therefore made the Word of God available to many.
Today most translations of the Word of God depend on the Latin translation of Jerome.
Indeed, the Word of God must take flesh in the Mother Tongues or native languages of the people. Truly, the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us all. He did not dwell among a selected few.
In the Ghanaian community, the Bible Society has done tremendous work by helping with the translation of the Word of God into the Mother Tongues in Ghana. We have the Word of God in Ewe, Ashanti Twi, Akuapim Twi, Ga, Dangme, Dagaare, Gurune, Dagbani to mention but few. This is a step in the right direction. It is important to note that the Bible Society has not done much with the translations of the Deutero canonical books (Tobit, Judith, 1Maccabees, 2Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, and Baruch and parts of Esther and Daniel). Currently, they are working on these books. These books also have the Word of God and so need translations into the language of the people. It is also important to note the contributions of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics and Literacy Bible Translation (GILLBT) work on translating the Word of God into 40 Ghanaian languages.
The Catholic Church in Ghana has not done much when it comes to the translation of the Bible into the Mother Tongue especially the translation of the Deutero canonical books. It must be noted however, that parts of these books are in the liturgical books or the lectionaries for the celebration of the Mass.
Since it is important to study and imbibe God’s Word we must bring it close to the common people in their language. As Luke indicated in the Acts of the Apostles(cf Acts 2:1-11) the people who had gathered on the day of Pentecost heard the Apostles in their own native languages. The people of Ghana must also hear the Word of God in their own languages.
Evangelization in the Mother Tongues
“Baptized and Sent: the Church of Christ on Mission” is the theme for the entire Catholic community in Ghana. The greatest Evangelist of all times who gave the great commission is our master Jesus Christ. Jesus, used the language of the people, Aramaic, for evangelization. The predominant language at the time of Jesus’ Evangelization is Aramaic. There is no doubt that Jesus used this language in preaching faith and repentance. In the Gospels Jesus uses parables and metaphors common to the people to preach the Gospel. One can talk of the parable of the sower, the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the lost coin, the parable of wheat and weeds, and the parable of the dragnet. These were all expressed in the people’s language. As if to say the people’s language and culture is key to
evangelization, Jesus’ first disciples were fishermen whom he told they were going to be Fisher’s of men. He used their language and culture and redefined for them their new mission.
In Ghana most of the missionaries who came to evangelize were very particular about the use of the Mother Tongue or indigenous languages. The Basel Mission contributed alot to the Ga-Dangme language , the Bremen mission contributed to the Ewe language , white fathers also contributed to Dagaare language and other northern languages. This shows the native language is key to evangelization.
Jacobus Capitein for instance is credited with the translation of the ‘The Lord’s Prayer, ‘The Ten Commandments and the Apostles Creed into Mfantse using a Dutch orthography. Contemporary missionaries have alot of work to do when it comes to using the native language in evangelization.
Globalization today with it influence of Western culture is making some missionaries relegate the indigenous languages and keep to only the English language, the lingua Franca of Ghana. But this cannot actually express the true Ghanaian culture in missonary activities
Challenges facing the Promotion of Mother Tongue in Ghana
A major challenge to the promotion of Mother Tongue in Ghana is Globalization. Today many foreign languages are overshadowing the local languages and since many people are now literate in the Queens language they do not see the need to promote the native language. Some people prefer their children learn foreign languages like English, French, Chinese, German and others.
Some people see the indigenous languages inferior to the foreign languages. Clearly, some people do not want to be seen speaking their native languages. Speaking foreign languages now has become a matter of prestige.
Another challenge is that since the materials and instructional items for these Mother Tongues are limited it hinders the promotion of the reading,listening, speaking and writing of these languages. In addition to this is the lack of teachers to handle these native languages. It is also difficult to get these Ghanaian languages online to study them unlike the foreign ones which have apps and other games to learn them.
Recommendations and the Way forward
Nelson Mandela once said,” if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”
The Word of God must be spread in the Ghanaian language to express the Ghanaian culture deeply . In view of this we must revisit the style of the master who spoke the Word in the Language of the people.
Parents of Ghanaian heritage must consciously teach, speak, and nurture their children in the native language. Parents must desist from the attitude of discourging their children to learn the indigenous language. The first ministers of the Word of God to children are their parents. They must therefore express the Word of God in the Mother Tongue to their children. As parents encourage our children to learn foreign languages, they must encourage them to learn the indigenous language too.
The Catholic Church in Ghana and other denominations must be interesed in catechizing children in their Mother Tongue. If we leave the promotion of the Mother Tongue to the government of the day alone the impact will be limited . The missionaries have set the pace and we cannot fail the missionaries.
Since the seminaries are places where the churches nurse the seed of the Word of God, the Mother Tongue must be promoted there. Theological discourses in the seminary must also be done in the Mother Tongue of Ghana. Most Ghanaian seminaries do not use the Mother Tongue in the seminary. Theological discourses in our Ghanaian languages should be encouraged in all the Ghanaian theological institutions.
Currently, in College of Languages Education, Ajumako UEW, 12 native languages of Ghana are studied and taught; it will do the nation a lot of good if attention is given to this. Ajumako Campus should be seen now as the hub of Ghana’s Language and Culture. The Church and the government must encourage the study and learning of the Ghanaian languages in our universities. The young people must be encouraged to venture into the study of the Ghanaian language and culture and pursue various degrees in it.
Promoting the Mother tongue is promoting the Word of God. Promoting God’s Word is promoting evangelization. The Catholic Church in Ghana must therefore promote her native language in order to promote
Source: Alphonse Bulloro