When I was about 11, I read the first two books of Lord of the Rings. Like Sam & Frodo, I got lost in the dour lands of Mordor; unlike them, I didn’t make it to the end – at least not that time. LOTR made a lasting impression on me in many ways, but in particular, it left me, as it did many others, with a strong desire to create my own fantasy world, complete with maps, languages, and mysterious dark strangers. And that’s how I spent much of my early teens. (This was pre-internet – there are now whole websites devoted to Tolkien’s Elvish).
What I didn’t realise at the time was that Tolkien was a language expert. He was professor of both English and Anglo Saxon at Oxford University, and the languages he created were far more than just collections of nice-sounding syllables. I guess that’s why he managed to create a satisfactory language, whereas I got seriously distracted by the mysterious dark strangers 🙂
It’s really only since getting to know Ghanaians that I’ve come to appreciate the uniqueness and complexity of languages, how profoundly they differ, and how they enable you to gain a deeper understanding of culture.
Learning a language opens windows in your mind, especially when it’s a language that’s very different from your own. When I first heard DadaK and his friends talking together, I was astonished. It was an incomprehensible flow of sounds like no other I had ever heard. With time, I began to recognise some specific words, and learned some basic things like hello, how are you, and thank you.
ActionMan, in his early childhood, also understood and could say a few simple phrases, although it was a bit of a joke between ourselves and another mixed couple we knew, that their son was good with the language but not the food, and ActionMan was the opposite: not crash hot with the lingo, but enthusiastic papapaaa (very) about his Dad’s cooking.
It was on my second visit to Ghana, when ActionMan was three, that I really started to make progress. I was there for about 7 weeks, and on many nights in the village I woud sit ouside after dinner, with a bunch of kids teaching me vocabulary.
“Banana – kwadu, onion – djenne, yam – byere“, they would chant, and I would recite them back. (Please excuse the spelling, I know it’s not right, but I don’t yet have a Twi keyboard).
By day I would ask people to help me with common phrases, and by the end of the trip I could say things like “where is DadaK?” DadaK wa hin? “I’m going for a walk” me ko nante, and even “circumcision is not good” kotiboto nye! (This last one shows how I was venturing into more sophisticated territory – the world of ideas – & caused much hilarity because no-one had realised I knew what they were talking gossiping about.)
ActionMan didn’t do so well. Had we stayed longer I’m sure he would have picked up the language but as it was, he found it very hard it be around people who didn’t understand him – or he them. He had a great time, but also had night terrors, which he never had back home.
After this visit our education stalled because DadaK and I separated and we no longer had the frequent exposure. And as I mentioned in the lingo limbo part 1, it’s easy for DadaK to communicate in English with us, so he does.
Over the years since our 98 visit , I have asked DadaK to teach ActionMan, and he has tried, when AM’s with him, to speak the language, but it hasn’t helped much. I think you do need formal classes, unless you’re living with someone full time, and there were none.
However with the arrival of Obapaa and subsequently of more children, our vocabulary has expanded again, little by little. We’ve now learned those phrases common to large families such as “He hit me”, “stop that or you’ll get a smack”,”be quiet”, “he’s sick”. (o yare) etc. Sorry, no translation for unfriendly phrases. ActionMan particularly relishes the fact that he knows how to tell someone they are stupid in Twi.
So the time has really come for us to be able to say more than kotiboto kwadu (have you been paying attention? see above), and over the last few months I’ve sought out someone to teach us Twi. I have to rush off to the BMX track now (it’s school holidays), but at some point after I get back I’ll continue the lingo limbo saga.