Losing my Language

In Personalhistory, Season 2 by Vanessa Hayford

I was five years old when I visited Ghana for the first time. I don’t remember much, but the few memories I have are strong. The smell was the first thing I remember noticing when we came off the plane. It’s a warm, tropical, almost smoky smell that’s hard to describe, but it smells like home. I remember seeing myself reflected in society for the first time, and my mum says one of the first things I said in the airport was, “Mummy, everybody here is brown!” Most of all I remember being surrounded by love and laughter, and the sound of all my family members speaking several different languages at once.

Like all children, my brain was like a sponge and I was incredibly adaptable. I was fully immersed in the culture and languages around me, so I took to my new environment and settled in very quickly during our visit. I played traditional school yard games like ampe with my cousins, chatted and cracked jokes with new friends, and helped my grandma in the kitchen by fanning the fire under the cooking pot. By the end of our visit, I was just like any other Ghanaian child. I had a thick Ghanaian accent, I picked up several common terms in various languages and I spoke Twi and Fante fluently. In fact, most of the time these were the only languages I cared to speak. 

Six weeks and one sad farewell later we returned to Canada. My parents had me go back to school as soon as I came back, and it was such a shock to the system. I started learning to interact with my friends all over again, not only because they didn’t play the same games or talk about the same things I had grown to enjoy but because they just couldn’t understand what I was saying anymore. I’ll never forget the confused look on the other kids’ faces when an insect darted across our play area and I screamed, “Eii! Kakai!

But within a week of our return my mom got a call from my kindergarten teacher, who had some concerns.

“You need to teach your daughter English,” she said. “We don’t understand a word she says.”

My parents panicked. As immigrants to Canada, the last thing they wanted was for their child to be seen as incapable. The mere suggestion that I might forget English and fall behind in school was terrifying. 

Soon after that call, they stopped speaking to me in Twi and Fante. Within the year, my ability to speak the language was gone. 

***

I come from a family of polyglots. Most of my immediate and extended family members speak at least 3 languages apart from English, each with an unwritten code of who to speak which language to and when. My mum alone speaks five languages fluently. Her mother is Ewe and her father was Ga, so these were her first languages. She learned English in school when she was little, and she picked up Twi and Fante in order to easily communicate with other kids in her neighbourhood. Today she uses these languages effortlessly, with each designated for specific people in her life. 

We may not notice in predominantly English-speaking spaces because acquiring additional languages is considered a challenge and an accomplishment, but in societies where multilingualism is the standard it is an unconscious choice that is as normal as it is essential. 

For my mum, language is all about connection and understanding. Her experience makes it clear that language is more than just words. It is inextricably linked to our understanding of the world. She says that when you speak with others in their language you step into their space. You get to know them and can pick up on their idiosyncrasies. 

English is infinitely complex and difficult to learn for non-native speakers, but at its essence it is a plain and basic language. In some cases it demands literal and direct references instead of descriptive phrases, and as a result it lacks the poetry and nuance of most other languages around the world. 

The best example my mum gives of this is in the translation of the word “please” in Fante, Twi, Ewe and Ga. In all four of these languages, the literal translation of the phrase used to convey this word is “I tip my hat”. It is likely a call back to what people in these cultures used to do when requesting or begging for something. 

Culture and history are deeply woven into language, and speakers can better relate with their peers through the construction of the words, idioms and phases. In his many works, renowned Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has advocated for the preservation of African languages and has emphasized the importance of telling stories in native tongues. He asserts that writing African stories in colonial languages like English or French eliminates the cultural soul and context of the story, thereby “starving the imagination of a majority of people.”

To Ngũgĩ, language is power. It is as much a tool for communication as it is a vessel for culture, and it is, as he plainly describes it, a “war zone”. Human history has shown us that forbidding a group of people from speaking their native tongues is a key to conquest. We need only look at our own history in Canada – part of the ugly legacy of residential schools was the imposition of English and the erasure of mother tongues to kill indigenous cultures and maintain oppression.  

When you take someone’s language you humiliate them. You take away their perspective, their cultural context, and their view of life. 

It’s for this reason that even after nearly 25 years I still mourn the loss of my language. At that time, I was learning to move through the world as a dual culture kid. I was blessed with two perspectives; two windows of the world through which I could see life in different ways. I’ve since learned to speak French fluently, but I have no deep connection to this language – it is not mine, it never will be, and since I lack this cultural connection the perspective I gain from it is limited. I can’t help but feel like when my teacher made that call, she effectively slammed one window shut, robbing me of my gift and the ability to intimately connect with my heritage. 

Looking back, the loss of Twi – and the fact that I never learned any of my other tribal languages – served as a huge barrier in my interactions with family and friends throughout my life. I remember countless family gatherings where the adults chatted away in their language of choice while us kids quietly sat on the sideline. 

I constantly miss out on cultural references, inside jokes and proverbs in Ghanaian music and media, which can be very frustrating and embarrassing. In my interactions with my grandmother, I always feel like something is missing in our conversations. She speaks fluent English, but it’s clear that she can better express herself in her native Ewe. I can imagine her stories would be infinitely more beautiful this way.  

But it’s not too late for me. I have the benefit of knowing what I’ve lost. Had I never learned Twi I may not appreciate the value of multilingualism, nor would I have the same resolve to master my tribal languages as l do today. I remember clearly what it felt like to speak effortlessly with my family and friends, and I long to get that feeling back.

The most remarkable thing about language is that while you may lose fluency, it never truly leaves you forever. Though I lost the ability to speak, I have always been able to understand. I’m now taking Twi classes to try and regain what I lost, and it’s been such an incredible journey. With every word and phrase I get back, I gain a new glimpse into my culture and a new level of understanding. It’s going to be a long road, but I can’t wait to open that window again.