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Ghana's Bilingual Education Policy: Prospects and Challenges for ESL Education

Ghana's Bilingual Education Policy: Prospects and Challenges for ESL Education

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Published by Nana Okyerebea
This is a brief essay on the effects of the current language policy of education for the Ghanaian ESL classroom.
This is a brief essay on the effects of the current language policy of education for the Ghanaian ESL classroom.

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Henaku Nancy

A n Essay on a Linguistic Topic

Ghana’s Bilingual Education Policy: Prospects and Challenges for ESL Acquisition Introduction
Language-related issues in most multilingual and multicultural societies are, very often, complex and contentious. According to Owu-Ewie (2006, p.1), “[t]he language of education in multilingual societies has always been a matter of great concern to educators and educational planners.” He emphasizes that the problem is even worse when the official language of the country is different from any of the indigenous languages. Ghana is a classic example of multilingual states that are still grappling with the selection of a suitable language policy for the educational system. In fact, the language policy of education in Ghana has always been affected by change in government. As a result, Ghana’s language policy of education has been quite unstable. Worst of all, policies are made without inputs from linguists and language planners. Consequently, such policies only reflect the political and ideological aspirations of the party in power rather than the collective linguistic concerns of the people. Armstrong (1968)

explains that “[i]n Africa, there is nothing new about the contact and conflict of people with different languages. What is new, in the modern world of school system and bureaucies [sic], is the political importance of public decisions on language matters.” It is, indeed, an undeniable fact that the main aim of legislation ought to be the resolution of linguistic problems by establishing and determining by law the status and use of certain languages as well as solving language or communication problems (Daoust, 1994 p. 440). Paradoxically, most people are not very much concerned with the efficacy of linguistic policies and most often, people tend to give sentimental reasons for opposing or supporting a linguistic policy.

Recently, the ruling National Democratic Congress1 made frantic efforts to change the then English-only language policy of education which was promulgated under the then New Patriotic Party2 government mainly because students were not able to write and speak “good” English even after high school

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(Ameyaw-Ekumfi, 2002). The promulgation of the English-only policy was supported by many people although it attracted a number of criticisms from linguists, language teachers and people who generally believed that such a policy would be detrimental to the development of the corpus of the indigenous languages. Owu-Ewie (2006), in his essay, condemns this policy and recommends a late-exit transitional bilingual education policy. Opoku-Amankwah (2009) points out that the use of English in the early school years leads to anxiety among students and stalls effective classroom participation. Some journalists and politicians, on the other hand, contended that the new government was, by way of promulgating the new policy, politicizing language-related issues. The new policy, unlike its predecessor, will use the native language of the geographical area of a school rather than English as the medium of instruction for the first three years of basic education. English will be a taught subject in those first three years after which English will be introduced as the medium of instruction in the subsequent years. A critical study of the policy depicts that it is an Early-Exit Bilingual Education policy which, to a larger extent, is subtractive rather than additive in nature. Furthermore, it is possible that the policy would, in an unconscious manner, imbibe the grammar-translation approach which tends to focus on the memorization of vocabulary, verb declensions, grammatical rules and dictation (Baker, 1993, p.151), given the manner in which English is taught in Ghana.

The promulgation of this policy attracted serious criticism from a cross-section of the Ghanaian populace. The major criticism against the policy was that students will become less proficient in English, the country’s official language. It is believed that a bilingual education policy spells doom for ESL acquisition because there is evidence that when the first language of a second language learner is entrenched in his mind, it tends to interfere with the rules of the language that is being learnt. Benson (2005), explaining some myths about language, asserts that most people believe that bi/multilingualism creates cognitive confusion and that first language must be ignored in order to facilitate the learning of

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Henaku Nancy

A n Essay on a Linguistic Topic

a foreign language. For most people, bilingual education has few prospects and it is unfortunate that this policy has been promulgated at a time when the nation has to deal with graduates who do not have the literacy to succeed in the corporate or academic world. Others, most of whom are linguists and second language teachers, believe that the policy will, most likely, enhance the teaching and learning of English. This essay seeks to critically examine the prospects and challenges of Ghana’s new bilingual education policy in relation to ESL acquisition.

Bilingual Education in Ghana
Unlike many African states, Ghana has a very strong history of bilingual education. Before the introduction of bilingual education in Ghana, indigenous education was conducted in the languages of the various ethnic groups. Bilingual education began when formal education was introduced in Ghana through the castle schools and the activities of the various Christian missionaries (Owu-Ewie, 2006). Around this period, two policies were in concurrent use. The castle schools used the metropolitan languages as media of instruction, but the mission schools used the native languages for the first three years. In line with this policy, the missionaries sought to develop the local languages for both pedagogical and ecclesiastical purposes. The Basel and the Bremen missionaries, compared to the Wesleyan missionaries, were very effective in this area (Graham, 1971). McWilliams and Kwamena-Poh (1975, 33) explain that the “attitude of the Basel and Bremen missionaries … particularly to the language question was very different from that of the Wesleyans.” During the pre-colonial period, the castle schools used the various European languages as media of instruction while the missionaries used the indigenous languages for the first three years in school. The colonial government, on assumption of power, maintained the bilingual education policy of the missionaries (Bamgbose, 2000).

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Henaku Nancy

A n Essay on a Linguistic Topic

When Ghana attained independence, the policy was changed to an English-only policy and in 1967, this was reversed. The 1967 policy used English after the first year of schooling. Between 1970 and 2002, a late-exit bilingual education policy was used. Within this period, two separate bilingual education policies were promulgated. The first policy, which was effective between 1970 and 1973, used the native languages for the first four years while the second policy used it for the first three years. It was not until 2009 that a bilingual education policy was promulgated under the present government. Bilingual education in Ghana, like most developing countries, is still in the course of growing out of its historical roots into better informed and more efficient programmes. (Benson, 2000b)

Prospects and Challenges of the Policy
An assessment of the new policy shows that although the policy has a number of prospects for the learning of English in Ghana, it is bedevilled with challenges that may generate serious linguistic problems.

It must be emphasized that the prospects of bilingual education, as far as ESL teaching and learning is concerned, cannot be underestimated. It is plausible that the policy may, in a number of ways, enhance ESL teaching and learning in the Ghanaian classroom. Bilingual education has prospects especially for the teaching of English in the rural areas where pupils hardly have contact with the English language until they receive formal education. When a child who has little or no knowledge of a second language is introduced to it on the first day of school, he/she is likely to experience language shock and depending on the child’s temperament, this can be one of the affective factors that may hinder progress in the learning of the second language. Submersion into a foreign language has either of two possible effects on pupils; the pupils may either swim or drown in the new language (Benson, 2005a). In such situations, most pupils are likely to drown rather than swim. Also, it is believed that transfer from first language to 4

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second language is much easier. Moreover, the first language may provide background upon which predictions and inferences can be made (Saville-Troike, 1988). This is because when a child understands his language, he is able to understand and describe the world in a language that he is acquainted with. This facility can be helpful in developing the language arts (which include reading, writing, speaking and listening) in the Ghanaian child which can then be transferred to the second language. Indeed, literacy in the first language enables children to appreciate better the English they read and hear (Smith, 1994). Research has shown that reading ability transfers from first language to second language [(Hoover, 1982), (Cummins et al, 1984)]. Benson (2005) suggests that “… initial literacy in the L1 means that children can make the connection between spoken and written communication, developing skills upon which they can build once they learn L2 which is taught explicitly.” It is, therefore, highly plausible that literacy in Akan3, Nzema4, Ga5 or Dagbani6 can help pupils to develop excellent reading and writing skills in the English language, all other things being equal.

Furthermore, a child who knows his native language well can easily transfer grammatical rules and expressions from the first language to the English language. For instance, it will be easy for children to acquire English deictic expressions such as “here”, “there”, “tomorrow” and “today” by merely translating from the indigenous Ghanaian languages. In the same manner also, nouns, adjectives and verbs can also be learnt easily. Based on the notion of language universals, one could also conclude that a child who knows his mother tongue or first language well will be able to compare and contrast the systems within his language and English. Moreover, instead of learning English by rote, pupils may be taught by drawing analogies between the second and first language. Such a method of teaching and learning a second language is more effective than the traditional method of teaching English in Ghana.

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A n Essay on a Linguistic Topic

As an aside, it is worthy of note that although most Ghanaians are now speaking English with their children right from the womb, the children are no better speakers of English. It has rather created a situation in which students are less competent in the use of English. This explicates the fact that, unlike what most people believe, an English-only policy does not by itself make people proficient speakers of English. Moreover, it elucidates the point that although an English-only policy may be successful in certain situations, it cannot solve the root problems underlying the falling standards of English in Ghana.

In spite of the prospects of bilingual education, some Ghanaians argue that bilingual education may lead to compound bilingualism which may lead to the confusion of the phonological and structural features of the L1 and L2. This is possible because, it must be stressed, that the nature of the policy itself may obstruct success in the acquisition of English. There are a number of challenges that emerge from the policy itself, teacher attitude toward the policy and material constraints among others.

One of the major challenges of the policy stems from the fact that the policy is an early-exit bilingual education policy. Research has proven that the late-exit transitional bilingual education programme is more effective as far as the teaching and learning of a foreign language is concerned. It must be emphasised that a similar policy was in use before the promulgation of the English-only policy under the previous political administration. What is significant here is that although the first languages were used as media of instruction for the first three years of schooling, there was much complaint about underachievement. The policy failed probably because of the form of bilingual education being used (Owu-Ewie, 2006). The early-exit model can succinctly be described as a shortcut model. Benson (2000, 2005) explains that “the problem with the short-cut model (emphasis mine) is that they do not work optimally which can lead to accusation that mother tongue instruction wastes time or that the transition to the L2 isn’t working.” The early-exit model results in compound rather than coordinate bilingualism.

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A n Essay on a Linguistic Topic

The effect of compound bilingualism is that skills and habits acquired in the first language are implanted on to the foreign language in a rather confusing manner. It is therefore not surprising that older Ghanaians keep complaining that most young Ghanaians are semi-linguals, who can neither function effectively with English nor the local languages. According to the Threshold Theory (Cummins; 1976, Skuttnab Kangas and Toukomanga, 1977), a child needs to attain a certain level of L1 proficiency in order to avoid the negative effects of using two languages. Research shows that L1 development can lead to a more successful L2 learning. It is noteworthy that the early-exit model may record some progress in the acquisition of English language but unlike the late-exit model, it would fail to sustain progress in the language.

Furthermore, there is a tendency for the policy to focus on a more grammatical component of ESL learning to the neglect of the development of the language arts. Ghana, like other African countries that operate an unbalanced bilingual education system, has always neglected the development of language skills such as writing, reading, listening and speaking (Unoh, 1985, p.124). There seem to be no systematic way of teaching these skills; the process of teaching some of these skills is rather incidental. Teachers focus on the grammatical component because they believe that when pupils acquire the rules of the language by rote, the pupils become automatically competent in the use of the language. However, knowledge of grammatical rules alone does not ensure proficiency in a language. Such an approach to language learning may stifle creativity in the use of the second language. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is hardly any teaching material that puts equal emphasis on the various English language components. Consequently, children may know all the grammatical rules of English but may not have the proficiency necessary for academic work.

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A n Essay on a Linguistic Topic

Furthermore, the lack of trained ESL teachers in the Ghanaian educational system is likely to pose challenges to the effective implementation of the policy. Over the years, there has been acute shortage of English teachers at the basic and secondary levels and this has generally impacted negatively on English language teaching and learning in the country. In order to ensure the success of this policy, Ghana needs trained English teachers who are” familiar with models of bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition and current research evidence on how they relate theory to practice in the classroom” (Bourne and Flewitt; 2002). The worst of the situation is that not only is there short supply of teachers but some teachers are themselves ambivalent to the policy mainly because of their ignorance of the prospects of bilingual education. This attitude of teachers may defer the prospects of this policy because teachers are likely to practice a policy that is far different from the real policy. An INEQ/Ghana report explains that the head teacher of Apala Basic School7 knew and could quote correctly the language policy of education but explained that “We do not as a policy use the Ghanaian language as medium of instruction. This statement suggests that much of what is happening in the Ghanaian classroom differs from the real policy. The situation in Ghana now is that the country has adopted a bilingual education policy but in reality, it is the English-only policy that is being used.

Recommendation and Conclusion
In conclusion, it needs to be reinforced that bilingual education may have answers to some of the linguistic-related problems facing Ghana today. However, promulgating a language policy alone is not enough to achieve the needed outcome. There is a big difference between a policy and its practice and it is in the interest of the Ghanaian government to take a second look at the early-exit bilingual education and to embark on substantial educational reforms to ensure the success of the policy. It takes a concerted effort from all stakeholders to make a policy work. Since the promulgation of a language 8

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policy implies “a vision of a future sociolinguistic situation,” it is important to ensure an overall implementation plan to avoid haphazard results (Daoust; 440). Otherwise, the country risks producing graduates who cannot communicate in English, which is, at the moment, the only world language and the language in which scientific and technological findings are published. Much ink has been spilled on the debate concerning the efficacy of bilingual education. It is time for the government of Ghana to encourage research into the efficacy of the new language policy of education.

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Reference Lists
Ameyaw-Ekumfi, C. (2OO2, May 17). “English Only, No More Vernacular.” People’s Daily Graphic. Accra. From Ghanaweb.com Armstrong, R. G. (1968). “Language Policies and Language Practices in West Africa” in Joshua Fishman, Charles A. Ferdguson and Jyotirindra Das Guptra (Ed). Language Problems in Developing Nations. (pp.227-231). New York: John Willy and Sons Inc. Baker, C. (1993). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. England: Multilingual Matters Ltd. Clevedon. Bamgbose, A. (2002). Language and Exclusion. Piscataway, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. Benson, C. (2000). “The Primary Bilingual Education Experiment in Mozambique, 1993 – 1997.” International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 3 (3), 149 – 166. Benson, C. (2000b). “Real and Potential Benefits of Bilingual Programs in Developing Countries.” International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 5(6), 303 – 317. Benson, C. “Bilingual Schooling as Educational Development: From Experimentation to Implementation.” Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism (2005) Cascadilla Press, Somerville, M.A. (ed) James Cohen, Kara T. McAlister, Kellie Rolstad, and Jeff MacSwan. Bourne J. and Flewitt, R. (2002) Teaching Pupils from Diverse Backgrounds: What Do Trainee Teachers Need to Know? London: TTA. Cummins, J. (1976) “The Influence of Bilingualism on Cognitive Growth: A Synthesis of Research Findings And Explanatory Hypothesis.” Working Papers on Bilingualism 9, 1 – 43. Cummins, J et al (1984). Linguistic Interdependence among Japanese and Vietnamese Immigrant Students. In C. Rivera (Ed), Communicative Competence Approaches to Language Proficiency Assessment: Research and Application (pp. 60 – 81). Clevedon, England: Bilingual Matters 10

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A n Essay on a Linguistic Topic

Daoust, D. (1997). Language Planning and Language Reform in Florian Caulmas (Ed.) The Handbook of Sociolinguistics (pp 440 – 448). Oxford, U.K: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Graham C. K. (1997). The History of Education in Ghana. London: Frank Cass and Co Ltd. Hoover W. (1982). “Language and Literacy Learning in Bilingual Education: Preliminary Report.” Cantonese Site Analytic Study . Austin, TX : Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. (ED 245572) INEQ Ghana – Qualitative Research from University/Ministry Partnership: Informing School Language Policy Decisions (1999). A paper presented to the Annual Conference of Comparative International Education Society. San Antonio, Texas. Kwamena-Poh M. A. and McWilliam H. O. A.(1975). The Development of Education in Ghana. London: Longman. Opoku-Amankwah K. (2009). “English-Only Language-in-Education Policy in Multilingual Classrooms in Ghana.” Language, Culture and Curriculum. 22 (2), 191-135. Owu-Ewie C. (2006). The Language Policy of Education in Ghana: A Critical look at the English-Only Language Policy of Education. In Selected Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference on African Linguistics. Ed. John Mugane et al 76-85. Somerville, M.A: Cascadilla Proceedings Project. Saville-Troike (1988). Teaching and Testing for Academic Achievement: Perspectives on an Ill-Structured Domain. Unpublished Manuscript. Smith F. (1994) Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistics Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read (5th Ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum. Toukomaa, P. and Skuttnab-Kangas, T. (1977). The Intensive Teaching of the Mother Tongue to Migrant Children at Pre-School Age (Research Report, No. 20). Department of Sociology, University of

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Unoh, S. (1985). Bilingual Education in a Multilingual School System – Nigeria. Journal of Reading, Vol. 29, No. 2. pp 124 – 130.

Notes
1. The National Democratic Congress is a political party in Ghana. Its ideas are based on Social Democratic Ideology. 2 .The New Patriotic Party is a political party in Ghana. It subscribes to capitalism. 3. 4. 5. 6. Akan, Nzema, Ga and Dagbani are four of Ghana’s nine de facto national languages. 7. Apala Basic School is a school located at the Afram Plains, a town in Ghana.

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