The art and science of communication

Language is said to be the thing that separates man from animal. Oliver Wendell Holmes said it is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow. It is also the way in which we can most easily communicate our deepest thoughts and desires with another. It is a tool that we use to bridge us together.

Yet since I have arrived in Ghana, I have begun to define language in an entirely new way. It is a constant ebb and flow of words and understanding. It is a roller-coaster ride of gerunds and participial phrases that mean all the world to some people and don’t make any sense to others.

Ghana is a tribal-based country with about 80 languages. In any given region of the country, a different language is spoken based on the tribe or tribes that reside there. In addition, Ghana is a former British colony so English is the official language—which means that people who receive an education study the language of their region and English during their schooling, and the language is used in government and business practices. This leads to an interesting work environment in that none of my co-workers other than myself speak English as their first language. On top of that, while much of the work does involve speaking native languages, not all of the employees speak the same native languages. At least three different languages from three different regions are spoken in the office on any given day, and not everyone understands each others’ tribal languages, so the use of English becomes a middle ground where employees can meet to talk to each other.

Even the English that is used here in Ghana is different from the English that I am used to. People in Ghana learn British English, which is not all that different from American English, but they have taken it and changed it in their culture to make it their own—in part, I believe, due to a lack of exposure to the way the English language is used in the Western world.

Take the word fuel, for example. I kept hearing the CRAN drivers saying they needed foo-elle. Foo-elle, I thought. What in the heck is foo-elle? Oh, fuel, of course. Then there was the time I walked around the entire University of Ghana-Legon looking for the math department and asking everyone I met for directions while being pointed in every direction. Apparently they didn’t know what math was. I found out later that the word math is pronounced mass here. If only I had asked for the mass department, they would have known exactly what I was talking about. There are many words that are now pronounced differently, for lack of knowing how to pronounce it perhaps. Either way, it is culturally right to pronounce such words that way; otherwise, no one will understand what you are saying.

At first I thought that the people in Ghana have a whole different and less-than-American grasp of the English language. As a vivid reader and copy editor, my understanding of the science and art that is the English language is strong, and I saw a lot of rules that weren’t known and that were broken. I realized that the people I work with and interview only use it as a second language and don’t have the poetic vibe that being fluent in a language brings—that ability to truly and clearly articulate the specific words desired. Granted, there are varying levels of English and some are quite high, but each is different than that of a native English speaker and each is developed in accumulation with the culture.

Interestingly enough, despite the fact that many of the people I interview for Kiva profiles didn’t have much schooling and don’t speak English much or at all, they all know and use some English words on a daily basis. English has somehow fused with the native languages to become, in a sense, their own native words. Rather than saying Good Morning or Good Afternoon to someone in a tribal language, you actually speak these words in a sentence. For example, “Paucho, Good Morning. Ete Sen?” Translation: Please, good morning. How are you? In response, you might say, “Boco,” with a long o at the end. This means “I am cool.” What is funny is that even when speaking in English and I ask them how they are doing, people still respond by saying, “I am cool.” In that same way, the word please (paucho), a commonly used term of respect, is often used in the English language. Thus a waiter at a Chinese restaurant I went to once—that’s right, Chinese in Ghana—responded to our orders by saying, “Please, one order of rice.” And “Please, here is your coke.” The fun of this is that I can and do say “please, thank you” on a daily basis.

Many of my interviewees don’t speak the English language, yet they use a few English words—words that have become a part of their daily speech. So someone who lives in a rural area and who never went to school—someone who claims to speak no English—still says sorry when he or she bumps into someone.

Ghanaians have taken the English they learn and created an entire new way of speaking with it. I have been told a few times not to speak in slang—something that can actually unnerve me considering I am speaking proper American English and not slang at all. Until I learn Ghanaian English and start using words like foo-elle and mass in the proper settings, I will always be speaking slang to some Ghanaians.

I still love the English language with all its rules and regulations, and I love my understanding of it. But living in Ghana has taught me that the true role of language is to communicate, and sometimes that means throwing all of the rules out the window and telling people that mass was my least favorite subject in school and asking how much foo-elle prices are right now. The true purpose of language is to bridge a gap between the ideas and thoughts of two different individuals, and while I still love the rules, sometimes they don’t help me do that here. I will adjust over time, just as Ghanaians have included the English language into their own speech. And despite all the rules, isn’t it true that language is a melting pot of culture and a constantly changing means of expression anyway?

My university grammar teacher would be horrified.

*Note to reader: The language examples are Fanti, a language spoken in the Central Region where Christian Rural Aid Network is located.


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