Inefficient language policies killing language proficiency in West Africa

The reflection and debate on language proficiency in schools in Africa is cause for great concern, resulting in the organization of numerous academic conferences and the writing of copious research papers on that topic. The decline of students’ language proficiency level negatively affects all sectors in society.

Lack of genuine language policies

It might surprise many to know that several African countries do not have a language policy that controls and regulates language-related issues like decisions, partnerships, collaborations, research and investment, among others. The honest ones will tell you that they do not have a language policy and that they live on ‘ad hoc measures and decisions’ taken on the spur of the moment, after an event has attracted the attention of the whole nation. I have often asked about the existence of a national language policy in Ghana; I never received a coherent and convincing answer. What I have realized is that children are taught basic English and their native languages, based on the region where the school is situated.

With the increase in the movement of people, Ghanaians have come to realize that their geographical location requires them to take the French language seriously since Ghana is surrounded by Togo, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso that are all French-speaking countries. It is, therefore, in the interest of Ghanaians to learn French. That need is all the more burning because the Francophone neighbours have a basic or sometimes a working knowledge of English. The Francophone travelers who find themselves in Ghana communicate in basic English while Ghanaians find it difficult to converse in French.  That situation motivated Ghanaians to teach and learn French. That decision, however, revealed the absence a national language policy. Every person who could speak a few French words and who hailed from a French-speaking country was recruited as a French instructor and entrusted with classes of students. That resulted in the dislike that many youngsters developed for French. Those instructors were not trained teachers and had no pedagogy. This is one example of a shaky language policy. The core of the existing document, that supposedly contains the language policy, was formulated several decades ago. The yearly performance of students has not driven educators to make any significant change in language policy. Such an attitude confirms the assertion that political authorities and key decision makers have caused the decline of students’ language proficiency level.

Inadequate curriculum

The changes in the teaching of English and French have also undermined the proficiency levels of students’ English and French in West Africa, in general. Many such changes in methodology have not caused any progress, and parental irresponsibly is to be blamed since no finger is lifted against such measures by parents. The voice from the home environment has not questioned any change in the school curriculum, in general, and the language course(s) in particular.

A moribund reading culture

The reading habit is disappearing among students. One can graduate with a bachelor’s degree without having read two novels in French or in English in most French-speaking countries and their Anglophone counterparts. The essence of education has been reduced to the minimum of instruction needed for one to get a degree and a job. The way to those two goals is to plunge into a desperate instructor-centred pedagogy that requires the learner to regurgitate what the instructor provided as lesson notes. Critical thinking is therefore missing. The civic and political education or awareness of students is trampled down.

The case of Togo is mentioned by many who strongly condemn the replacement of the text book, Mamdou et Bineta by a new one, Le Framboyant.  The previous text was used in French classes not only in Togo but in most of French-speaking West Africa. The suitability of that text lies in the extraordinary result it produced. Primary school students spoke and wrote better French than high school students who were trained with the new book, Le Flamboyant. The same texts are maintained in Togo, educators and decision-makers do not show any opposition and parents do not request a change of text or the restoration of the previous text in the classroom. Failure is watched, gaining more ground, language proficiency is sacrificed on the altar of political silence, or lack of concern. Interestingly, some students are enraged by this failure to seek improvement or at least the preservation or continuity of the “good model”. Those youth seize every opportunity to decry this damage that is inflicted on students who are deprived of, or denied, appropriate communication skills, the foundation of all other media of instruction and exchange between human beings.  

The scenario is no different in Ghana, except that the “curriculum mortis” is noticed in a more glaring manner. A productive, well planned and beautiful habit was dropped, and nothing replaced it. In the 1980s and 1990s, book clubs were a fundamental component of the interests, habits and concerns of high school students. The Pacesetters (story books printed and sold for use among school going teenagers) were of tremendous help in language learning. The basic rule governing the practice was that the books were to be exchanged among students-readers. This literacy culture was so efficient and pleasantly intense that many copies of the Pacesetters were “devoured” each month by students who had gradually developed  a voracious reading appetite and adults who  grew up in that era  and benefitted from that practice have deep nostalgia for those days, and wish that solid literacy culture and habit could be brought back. Many university lecturers in Ghana, today, will tell you that the foundation of their vocabulary was laid during those days. But what hurts such academics and others is that the lure of social media has erased productive measures like the reding of the Pacesetters.

Attempts to make up for the loss of the reading culture

There is no doubt that a strong link exists between reading and standards in all subjects and courses. Most young language instructors are the product of the “post-Pacesetters generation” and, as a mitigating measure, the departments of English have introduced compulsory literature courses for every university student. At Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ghana, that effort involves reading a novel, a play, a selected number of poems and short stories, for a year and passing that course. At the University of Cape Coast in the same country, Communication Skills (Com Skills) or Freshman Composition aims also at improving the proficiency level of all students. The importance of the reading culture cannot be overemphasized and losing that practice has caused a disaster that will run through several generations.


Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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